Demographics and an Another Daunting Challenge for Search

May 22, 2013

I read “Pew: 94% Of Teenagers Use Facebook, Have 425 Facebook Friends, But Twitter & Instagram Adoption Way Up.” The main point is that Facebook has what I would call a monopolistic position when it comes to teens and their friends. I am not sure Facebook is the home run play in places like rural Chile, but where there is money, infrastructure, and gizmos, Facebook is on top.

The point which struck me is, “What happens when an outfit is on top?” Revenue accrues and so does attention.

The research which the write up summarizes contains an interesting factoid or two. For example, teens are, if the data are correct, are shifting from online services which use words to online services which use pictures. (Will video be far behind?) Here’s the passage I noted:

Twitter and Instagram are far behind Facebook, but both have made impressive gains. Twitter was used by only 12% of teens in 2011 but more than doubled that to 26% in 2012. with usage of 26% and 11%. Instagram doesn’t appear to have been measured in 2011, so surveyed growth can’t be determined. But it comes in with an impressive third place at 11%.

Several observations are warranted.

First, search is somewhat of a disappointment when one tries to locate specific information in text form. Last night at dinner, a prominent New York attorney said, “It may just be me but I am having more difficulty finding exactly what I am looking for.” The comment bedevils quite a few people. I suggested that the prominent attorney hire a legal researcher. The prominent attorney replied, “I suppose I will have to.” Lesson: Finding information is getting more difficult, not easier. Keep in mind that the problem exists for words. Search is a challenge for some folks, and vendors have been trying to crack the code for 40, maybe 50 years.

Second, what information is embedded in digital images? What “metamessages” are teens sending when a snapshot is launched into the Twitter or Instagram world? More important, what search system is needed to locate and figure out the information in an image? My view is that geocoding and personal information may offer some important clues. But do we have a search system for these content repositories which works for the hapless attorney, a marketer, or a person looking for information about a runaway teen? In my view, not yet, and not by a long shot.

Third, is the shift from text to images by the teen demographic in the study sample a signal that text is losing its usefulness or relevance? The notion that those entering the workforce in a few years wedded to Tweets and snapshots may be an important cultural shift in some parts of the developed world.

The big question remains, “How will one find information to answer a question?” Text search is a problem. The brave new world hinted at in the Pew study poses more findability challenges. I am not sure the current crop of search and content processing challenges can resolve the problem to my satisfaction. The marketers will assert the opposite. The reality is that findability will remain a central problem for the foreseeable future.

Search is most easily resolved by ignoring its problems or reducing the problem to predictive algorithms in a “mother knows best” approach to information. That may work for some, but not everyone.

Stephen E Arnold, May 21, 2013

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