July 26, 2005
"These days, folks are building companies to sell them to Yahoo, Google, and MSFT. It's good to have three options ... more like five, really, with AOL and IAC. Picasa, Keyhole, Konfabulator, Bloglines...." -John Battelle
Been stressing this sort of movement for a while, and now its seems its accelerating. What's at stake is information itself, and increasingly its getting concentrated into the hands of a few companies. I'd add Amazon, Apple and Ebay to Battelle's list, and there are a few others as well. Most of the old media companies are players in this, AP, New York Times, etc, and there are a few young upstarts as well, SixApart, Technorati, Skype, Weblogsinc... All the leverage is in Battelle's first three though, as he well knows, content generation and ownership is not where the real control over information lies. The real power lies in extracting meaning from the information itself, in search.
Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have the algorithms and databases necessary to turn strings of words into meaningful results. And they control what those results might be. This gives them power over words themselves. A subtle twist of algorithm can change results radically. Searches for Iraq can be tweaked to show only positive reports, or only negative. A search for Chardonnay might rank California producers over French. A search for John Roberts could weigh right wing blogs over left.
The examples so far are somewhat innocuous, an anti Scientologist site blocked in Google via lawsuit, Nazi memorabilia blocked in France. Right now the companies are trying to win trust, refine their algorithms and build databases. Watch their purchases and new products and you can see them suck in any information they can grab. Blogs, email, satellite maps. Yahoo's latest, Konfabulator makes desktop widgets that connect to the web. Like Google's desktop search tool it gives Yahoo a hook into the information on a users personal computer. These are companies devouring information, sucking it into their databases and digesting it for meaning.
The approach is radically different then the old line media companies, newspapers, tv and the like. The old line wanted quality, and sometimes even got it. Focused information, written, directed and edited by professionals. The new line wants quantity, as much as they can get, filtering is a job for the microchips. They lose some of the style an class of say the New York Times or Economist, but they gain it back in speed, mass and flexibility. The amount of discrete information they control dwarfs any old media, and the audience rivals the largest masses gathered by TV networks and blockbuster movies.
Battelle was one of the first people to fully realize that returning high in a Google search was far more important then a url. Every person online has their own little neighborhood. Websites whose url they can remember, rss feeds they subscribe to, sites they have bookmarked. This is a finite space, there is only so much information people can manage in this manner. Wander through your own online neighborhood and you can find roads to other places, paths towards more information. But its a slow process and in the scope of human daily existence and functionally finite space.
The search engines are the real information superhighways, or perhaps jet engines. In order to get to information outside of your information neighborhood you need to use a search engine. Which means the search engines have a degree of control over where you can go online. Essentially they can function as border guards, screening and watching where people go. They control the flow of information outside of peoples personal information hoods. Right now they mainly let things flow freely although they are collecting an awful lot of more information in the process. In the future they have the power to be customs agents, border guards, and executioners of information. We have given them the power and now must trust they do the right thing...Posted by Abe at July 26, 2005 12:14 PM