DH Reads

DH Read: “For Google, Everything Is a Popularity Contest”

Ian Bogost has an article at The Atlantic about Google’s new “Classic Papers” section of Google Scholar, where articles from 2006 are selected on the basis of the number of citations since then. Bogost explains the difference between value and popularity and reveals how Google’s monopoly over information discovery has changed how we think about knowledge and information:

PageRank and Classic Papers reveal Google’s theory of knowledge: What is worth knowing is what best relates to what is already known to be worth knowing. Given a system that construes value by something’s visibility, be it academic paper or web page, the valuable resources are always the ones closest to those that already proved their value…

…It’s as if Google, the company that promised to organize and make accessible the world’s information, has done the opposite. Almost anything can be posted, published, or sold online today, but most of it cannot be seen. Instead, information remains hidden, penalized for having failed to be sufficiently connected to other, more popular information. But to think differently is so uncommon, the idea of doing so might not even arise—for shoppers and citizens as much as for scholars. All information is universally accessible, but some information is more universally accessible than others.

The article brings to mind some of the conversations we had in Clio 1 and during the DH Fellows’ seminar about how much of what the historian does has been changed by digital technologies. As I have argued in previous blog posts (here and here), historians (and other scholars) should be trained in online searching the same as they are trained to critically engage with scholarship, to conduct archival research, etc. Bogost’s article shows that Google is not a neutral tool, despite how many people are lulled into treating it like one. Scholars, not to mention every other internet user, would benefit from a deeper and more critical understanding of online searching (and not just so they can measure the impact of their scholarship). More transparency from Google would help, but it’s not a precondition for starting to change how we think about finding information.

Read the full article here.