Culture vs. The Googlebots

The below was originally published on Technology Spectator.

Sometime in the past few days, Google+ passed 20 million users. That’s not remarkable just because it’s the fastest piece of technology ever adopted. It’s remarkable because there are 20 million people who are putting a lot of trust in Google. A trust that this time is not simply about privacy, but something much bigger, and arguably much more important - the trust of creating and curating what defines us as a global, national, and a local community. The ideas that create culture.

We’ve heard ad-nauseam the ‘terrible’ affects of the digital revolution – it’s making our kids fatter; it’s debasing the English language; it’s raising a generation of slackers. But the idea that the digital network we have created is now in control of our culture is one which I think is actually worth paying attention to.

Google’s mission, the one responsible for it’s ascent to the position of ‘sovereign of the internet’, was to organise the world’s information. Where human-powered indexing such as Yahoo! or basic keyword ranking such as AltaVista had failed, Google succeeded. And it succeeded with algorithms – complex and constantly evolving equations that looked not just at the content of a page, but the way it lived in the digital world – how often it was updated, how many people linked to it, and what influence those people had. It was, and still is, an ingenious system for finding relevant information.

We are now seeing, for the first time, a divergence from this goal. Google is no longer organising the world’s information – it is now organising the world.

With Google+, the search giant can now take the very same approach to handling search queries through algorithms, and reverse engineer our social connections and interactions. Google is attempting not simply to understand how we interact with information, but how we interact with each other.

This claim is not preposterous. Google does not release a product on this scale without an idea of an eventual revenue stream. The fact it almost simultaneously introduced social data into its Google Analytics product is what separates this product launch from more blue-sky (and ultimately doomed) ideas such as Wave and Buzz.

The first port of call when it comes to revenue will obviously be advertising. Facebook is now the single largest online display advertising vendor in the US, and from Google’s point of view this is revenue that should and could be theirs. And the way it will take it is through relevance. By understanding the underlying algorithms of how we interact with our friends, family, and colleagues – and combining this understanding with our search behaviour, Google is in an unprecedented position to create a product that advertisers will be hard pressed to find fault with.

To achieve this, Google must master what has been the greatest challenge for every social networking platform so far – filtering. Amongst the flood of updates, links, videos, lolcats, and messages from not just real people but also brands, what exactly is relevant? And how does relevance differ person to person? The killer answer Google is now searching for, is what’s worth paying attention to when you’ve got six hundred people in your Google+ circles, not to mention a few dozen brands.

And this filtering is what we should be worried about. Because little by little, we will put more and more faith in it. The algorithms will be telling us what to watch, read, laugh about, cry at, discuss, and think. For the first time in human history, humans will not be creating culture – an equation will.

- July 2011