In the following, I understand the Internet as a massive text connected by many participants conversing with one another. Parts of the text are in close connection, and the discussion can be viewed as heated insofar as the sub-texts reference each other in some way (links are merely one example of such cross-references). Other parts of the text are fairly isolated, hardly discussed, rarely (if ever) referenced. I want to argue that the former parts are “well formed” in the sense that they follow Grice (1975)’s cooperative principle, and that the latter seem to evidence a sort of prejudice (performed by the disengaged participants) — which I hope to be able to elucidate more clearly.
Before I embark on this little adventure, let me ask you to consider two somewhat complementary attitudes people commonly choose between when they are confronted with conversational situations. These are usually referred to as “feelings” — and in order to simplify, I will portray them as if they were simply logically diametrically opposed … whereas I guess most situations involve a wide variety of factors each varying in shades of gray rather than simple binary black versus white, one versus zero. Let’s just call them trust and distrust, and perhaps we can ascribe to elements of any situation as trustworthy versus distrustworthy.
Next, let me introduce another scale — ranging from uncertainty (self-doubt) to certainty (self-confidence).
Together, these two factors of prejudice (in other words: preliminary evaluations of other-trustworthiness and self-confidence) crucially impact our judgment of whether or not to engage in conversations, discussions, to voice our own opinions, whether online or offline.
As we probably all know, the world is not as simple as a reduction to two factors governing the course of all conversations. For example: How does it happen that a person comes to fall on this end or that end of either scale? No doubt a person’s identity is influenced by a wide variety of group affiliations and/or social mores, norms and similar contextual cues which push and pull them into some sort of category, whether left or right, wrong or fixed, up or down, in or out with mainstream groupings. One of the most detailed investigations of the vast complexity and multiplicity woven into the social fabric is the seminal work by Berger and Luckmann titled “The Social Construction of Reality”.
While I would probably be the first to admit the above approach is a huge oversimplification of something as complex as all of human interactions on a global scale, I do feel the time is ripe for us to admit that the way we have approached the issue thus far has been so plagued with falsehoods and downright failures, that we cannot afford ourselves to continue down this path. In an extreme “doomsday” scenario, we might face nuclear war, runaway global warming, etc. all hidden behind “fake news” propaganda spread by robots gone amok. In other words, continuing this way could be tantamount to mass suicide, annihilation of the human race, and perhaps even all life on the planet. Following Pascal, rather than asking ourselves whether there is a meaning to life, I also venture to ask whether we can afford to deny life has any meaning whatsoever — lest we be wrong.
If I am so sure that failing to act could very well lead to total annihilation, then what do I propose is required to save ourselves from our own demise?
First and foremost, I propose we give up the fantasy of a simplistic true-or-false type binary logic that usually leads to the development of “Weapons of Math Destruction”. That, in my humble opinion, would be a good first step.
What ought to follow next might be a realization that there are infinite directions any discussion might lead (rather than a simplistic “pro” vs. “contra”). I could echo Wittgenstein’s insight that the limits of directions are the limits of our language — and in this age of devotion to ones and zeros, we can perhaps find some solace in the notion of a vocabulary of more than just two cases.
Once we have tested the waters and begun to move forewards toward the vast horizons available to us, we may begin to understand the vast multi-dimensionality of reality — for example including happy events, sad events, dull events, exciting events and many many more possibilities. Some phenomena may be closely linked, other factors may be mutually orthogonal in a wide variety of different ways. Most will probably be neither diametrically opposed nor completely aligned — the interconnections will usually be interwoven in varying degrees, and the resulting complexity will be difficult to grasp simply. Slowly but surely we will again become familiar with the notion of “subject expertise”, which in our current era of brute force machinistic algorithms has become so direly neglected.
If all goes well, we might be able to start wondering again, to experience amazement, to become dazzled with the precious secrets of life and living, to cherish the mysterious and puzzling evidences of fleeting existence, and so on.
propaganda, rational media,
language, natural language,
algorithm, algorithms, algorithmic,
big data, data, research, science,
AI, artificial intelligence,
I asked MA.TT a question – of course it’s complicated, but it definitely has something to do with the three-letter-acronym (TLA) called SEO:
As I indicated in my question, this has nothing to do with Google and/or similar proprietary (“secret”) algorithms. I was talking about WordPress as a search engine.
IMO Matt’s response / answer was excellent. It underscores how challenging such a project might be. Yet Matt also emphasized (during the interview with Om) that text will continue to be of central importance to the way the World-Wide Web works (and will continue to work). As an addendum to Matt’s insight, let me note that any kind of artificial intelligence initiatives will always be a matter of pattern recognition, and the patterns that they attempt to recognize will always be text, a written representation of something (e.g. spoken language), etc.
Since my time for asking such a question was limited, I couldn’t go into many details. Even here, I do not want to bore you with the pros and cons of hitchhiking along on other people’s websites. As I have written in previous posts, the foundations for quite satisfactory information retrieval (aka “search”) are already present on the so-called (WP) PLATFORM.
At this point, I would like to try to elucidate at least one part of what I was talking about when I mentioned that an information-retrieval system need not necessarily be a one-size fits-all solution. People who have been following my writing for a long time know that this is a “pet peave” of mine, which I mention time and again. Note also that during Om Malik’s interview with Matt Mullenweg, the two also discussed McDonalds (TM). I find the use of brand names such as McDonalds or Google or Tupperware or whatever intriguing – is this a good or a bad thing? IDK… – but I digress.
The point I want to underscore especially emphatically here is that WordPress isn’t simply a “software” or an “app”. It is also a community which also involves a lot of people who have a great deal of natural intelligence. There are many points of view. There are many approaches. And just as there are many roads to Rome, so too there are many possible solutions to information retrieval (“search”) technology which are possible, viable, etc.
Let me give a couple examples beyond the ones I mentioned when I asked Matt the question in Paris (at the 2017 WordCamp Europe conference). The examples I mentioned of how “every website is a search engine” both came from the wordpress.com website. There are certainly many more examples possible from this website, but I chose to highlight discover.wordpress.com and wordpress.com/tags as premier examples. In my opinion, these two search options show two different kinds / levels of community engagement.
Likewise, there are also many search capabilities available to self-hosted wordpress sites. The most straightforward of these is undoubtedly the search widget (a “search box” in which the search text is entered and then searched). This is a very simple algorithm, and it is primarily useful for “known item” searches – for example, if you already know the title of a post or a string of words inside the post content. Normally, this search box does not search many other fields, such as the the tag field or comments. However, a site’s registered users can search these fields via the “backend” portion of the WordPress software. In this sense, each site has more search functions (and functionality) available to registered members… and therefore also offers higher levels of capabilities to more engaged users.
Note also that such different levels of capabilities are also part and parcel of the distinction between tags and categories (with respect to the primary function of information storage – which is the basis for later information retrieval capabilities): while in a standard WordPress implementation many users are able to create tags for posts, only a rather limited set of users are capable of creating categories for posts. Of course expert site administrators can configure such settings (which may be good, but having reliable standards also makes learning how to use WordPress easier for new users).
In my opinion, community engagement is also probably also the crux of WordPress search engine optimization across sites. For example, it might be important to distinguish between different meanings for the same string – e.g. “development” might mean very different things in different settings / contexts (such as with respect to software, economics and psychology). I think it might make a lot of sense for WordPress to provide support for the development (no pun intended 😉 ) of sub-communities within the greater WordPress community – and thereby to enable people to share, exchange and review each other’s ideas, to set these ideas into their appropriate contexts, etc. Indeed, there is a long tradition of abstracting and indexing in scientific literature – and learning from decades (if not even centuries) of experience and insights might be a very good thing to do.
One recurring theme I heard repeated throughout the WordCamp Europe conference in Paris time and again was the notion of how WordPress functions as a community of engaged people. This aspect of community engagement is definitely a very strong advantage of WordPress with respect to search engine optimization. Another is the very strong foundation of “open source” ethics – which I also described in my previous post.
Several years ago, there was a push towards “mobile first” publishing – the idea being that more and more people were using their mobile phones as their primary reading device. The optimization of web content for constraints inherent in mobile technology (be that bandwidth or limited computational resources) is something I had already noted as a usability imperative at least a decade earlier (mainly while writing on the long-since defunct omidyar.net) – I summed it up as “I hate to wait”. At the time the writing was in plain sight on the wall separating the First World from the Third World (but was by and large ignored besides do-gooders lamenting a “digital divide”).
The metaphor of the “Bright Lights, Big City” is a useful one. We must recognize that the so-called digital divide is in large part a tale of two cultures: One that has been steeped in mass consumption of big media content for several centuries, and another that is more attuned to many millennia of “primitive” and “face to face” styles of very traditional and highly evolved forms communication. Put simply: Whereas advanced technology and machines dominate “Developed” countries; Natural languages reign supreme in “Non-Developed” countries.
There is indeed some irony in the widespread consumer-orientation in highly industrialized countries. We will probably revisit this theme sometime in the near future.
Here and now, however, I want to focus on the “matter of fact” situation that online engagement is still in the vast majority of cases a phenomenon of highly developed economies and technologically advanced societies – and that in these societies the primary avenue to engagement is paved on the path of reading and consuming content. The road to participatory communication is a limited access highway, and all on ramps require reading (or “consumer”) literacy.
The production of literature will also need to be reviewed, but for the present moment it is simplest to treat it as being of secondary significance.
Participation and engagement in community communications is not a matter of prodding and motivating people to publish, but rather it is a matter of making it quick and easy for people to read.
This primary rule has been – by and large – neglected by most “publishing platforms” (such as WordPress). There are some notable exceptions – for example: Chris Lema’s talk at WordCamp Portland 2015 in which he argued that “our goal should always be to delight our client’s clients” (see ca. 17 mins.). Another good (and more recently published) resource to consult for this approach is Tammie Lister’s presentation about “how to know your users” in which she emphasizes that she does not want to get stuck in some kind of semantic debate (about “usability” vs “user testing”, etc.): “Whatever word gets you to doing the thing, then that’s totally OK to use.” (ca. 4 mins.)
If publishing platforms were more oriented towards users – if publishing software were more concerned with delighting the client’s clients, or delighting the end users – then we ought to be making it as quick and easy as possible to read content. Webpages should load in a split second. There should be no strings attached. No big data, no signups, no small print.
Yet this isn’t presently the case. Clearly, we need to pay more attention to putting reading first on the list of things we need to do. Personally, I advocate for reading first, joining second and writing last.
Scripts, Stories, Narratives, Filling in the Gaps without Resorting to Fake News and other Propaganda Techniques
I have recently been minding my gaping gap and just the other day I was talking with someone about filling in the gaps, so I’ve decided to give you all a what’s update (I’m thinking that could maybe catch on sometime as a new term, sort of like all gangsta ‘n’ neato).