The Future of Computing: Forget Search?

December 6, 2011

I opened my dead tree version of the New York Times a few minutes ago. I noticed an insert called “Science Times: The Future of Computing.” You may be able to find the December 6, 2011, story at this link. No promises, however.

I found the collection of articles and essays interesting. I suppose “interesting” is a poor word choice. The collection covers start ups, the Africa meme, quantum computing, artificial intelligence (an oxymoron I have heard), online instruction (bad news for some traditional educational materials’ business models I believe), a “programmable universe” (another notion which would be fun to discuss in Philosophy 101), biocomputing, security, open source, and a look at how computing is so important.

I have zero inputs to these polished, shaped, and New York mid-town write ups. The point of the exercise, I believe, was finding the buttons to push at General Electric to get the two page spread which told me:

We power. We are making energy independence a reality. From cutting edge, think film solar panels to advanced gas turbines, we created the high-tech machines that create over a quarter of the world’s energy…

My reaction to the collection of essays in the “special” section was three fold.

First, search, findability, and information access are not concepts which made the starting team in the articles and essays. In fact, I had a tough time locating the link to the special section itself, but that type of intellectual exercise is not one that concerns most of the traditional publishing companies covering technology. The collection and its inserted advertisement seem to lack an integrating hook. In my world, the notion of integration is a pretty big idea.

Second, the special section lacked a message. After working through the “real” outputs from “real” writers, I wondered what might have been done to string these gems on a necklace. The reader would then have been able to enjoy each gem and marvel at the beauty of the necklace. Someone in that Philosophy 101 class would have offered up gestalt, but not the addled goose. I just know when a collection lacks unity.

Third, is GE the “right” advertiser. I read the ad and asked myself two questions:

  1. Isn’t the solar industry in a bit of a tail spin? Forget Solyndra. There are other economic forces which prevent my neighbors from kicking the gas and traditional electric company approach for solar technology.
  2. The energy point baffled me. I kept wondering who supplied the Fukushima reactors? I mean there were fuel pools to the left and fuel pools to the right. Then there were some fuel rods on the roof, almost out of sight.

Interesting special section. Too bad search did not make the cut. It would have been interesting to read what the public relations firms for Google, Microsoft, and Yandex (Blekko) would have said about the future. I would also have enjoyed a write up by Jon Kleinberg, whose team has found some interesting information in posted Flickr pictures. But with search on the outs in the New York knowledge value world, I will just put my fins in the water and take a paddle around the pond filled with mine run off water. None of that coal has anything to do with certain large firms which produce “over a quarter of the world’s energy.” I will consult a mobile device and run a query. The system will “know” what I want better than I do. Artificial intelligence. Just great. Just not search and retrieval or research. Who needs research?

Stephen E Arnold, December 6, 2011

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Search Acquisitions

November 18, 2011

One of my two or three readers sent me a link to “Acquisition: The Elephant in the Meeting Room.” I don’t have strong feelings one way or the other about Mongoose, the write up, or the enterprise search sector. I have identified some of the buzzwords used to dance around the little-discussed problem of lousy enterprise search systems. If you want to catch up on the obfuscation in which marketers and “real” consultants are entangled, you may find “Search Silver Bullets, Elixirs, and Magic Potions: Thinking about Findability in 2012” a thought starter.

The main point of the Elephant article, it seems to me, is summarized in this passage:

Should you be wary of acquisitions? Not as much as you might read in the blogs and professional communities.

The write up mentions a number of high profile acquisitions and provides some color for the reasons behind the deals. My view of some of the recent deals is different from the Mongoose write up. I suppose that at age 67, I have been watching and participating in the sale of large and small companies. I learned in my work at Booz, Allen & Hamilton before it became an azure chip firm, that the reasons for a corporate action are often difficult to discern from the outside looking in.

The table below provides a run down of my personal take on why certain deals took place.

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Business Process Management: Bit Player or Buzz Word?

November 7, 2011

I spoke with one of the goslings who produces content for our different information services. We were reviewing a draft of a write up, and I reacted negatively to the source document and to the wild and crazy notions that find their way into the discussions about “problems” and “challenges” in information technology.

In enterprise search and content management, flag waving is more important than solving customers’ problems. Economic pressure seems to exponentiate the marketing clutter. Are companies with resources “too big to flail””? Nope.

Here’s the draft, and I have put in bold face the parts that caught my attention and push back:

As the amount of data within a business or industry grows the question of what to do with it arises.  The article, “Business Process Management and Mastering Data in the Enterprise“, on Capgemini’s Web site explains how Business Process Management (BPM) is not the ideal means for managing data.

According the article as more and more operations are used to store data the process of synchronizing the data becomes increasingly difficult.

As for using BPM to do the job, the article explains,

While BPM tools have the infrastructure to do hold a data model and integrate to multiple core systems, the process of mastering the data can become complex and, as the program expands across ever more systems, the challenges can become unmanageable. In my view, BPMS solutions with a few exceptions are not the right place to be managing core data[i]. At the enterprise level MDM solutions are for more elegant solutions designed specifically for this purpose.

The answer to this ever-growing problem was happened upon by combining knowledge from both a data perspective and a process perspective.  The article suggests that a Target Operating Model (TOM) would act as a rudder for the projects aimed at synchronizing data.  After that was in place a common information model be created with enterprise definitions of the data entities which then would be populated by general attributes fed by a single process project.

While this is just one man’s answer to the problem of data, it is a start. Regardless of how businesses approach the problem it remains constant–process management alone is not efficient enough to meet the demands of data management.

Here’s my concern. First, I think there are a number of concepts, shibboleths, and smoke screens flying, floating, and flapping. The conceptual clutter is crazy. The “real” journalists dutifully cover these “signals”. My hunch is that most of the folks who like videos gobble these pronouncements like Centrum multivitamins. The idea is that one doze with lots of “stuff” will prevent information technology problems from wrecking havoc on an organization.

Three observations:

First, I think that in the noise, quite interesting and very useful approaches to enterprise information management can get lost. Two good examples. Polyspot in France and Digital Reasoning in the U.S. Both companies have approaches which solve some tough problems. Polyspot offers and infrastructure, search, and apps approach. Digital Reasoning delivers next-generation numerical recipes, what the company calls entity based analytics. Baloney like Target Operating Models do not embrace these quite useful technologies.

Second, the sensitivity of indexes and blogs to public relations spam is increasing. The perception that indexing systems are “objective” is fascinating, just incorrect. What happens then is that a well heeled firm can output a sequence of spam news releases and then sit back and watch the “real” journalists pick up the arguments and ideas. I wrote about one example of this in “A Coming Dust Up between Oracle and MarkLogic?

Third, I am considering a longer essai about the problem of confusing Barbara, Desdemona’s mother’s maid, with Othello. Examples include confusing technical methods or standards with magic potions; for instance, taxonomies as a “fix” for lousy findability and search, semantics as a work around for poorly written information, metatagging as a solution to context free messages, etc. What’s happening is that a supporting character, probably added by the compilers of Shakespeare’s First Folio edition is made into the protagonist. Since many recent college graduates don’t know much about Othello, talking about Barbara as the possible name of the man who played the role in the 17th century is a waste of time. The response I get when I mention “Barbara” when discussing the play is, “Who?” This problem is surfacing in discussions of technology. XML, for example, is not a rabbit from a hat. XML is a way to describe the rabbit-hat-magician content and slice and dice the rabbit-hat-magician without too many sliding panels and dim lights.

What is the relation of this management and method malarkey? Sales, gentle reader, sales. Hyperbole, spam, and jargon are Teflon to get a deal.

Stephen E Arnold, November 7, 2011

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The Future of Search Not

October 27, 2011

We received an email from one of my one or two readers pointing me to “The Future of Search” by Martin Belam at Enterprise Search Europe. Good points but in my opinion, the functions describe some world which is hostile to search dinosaurs. Maybe the hip crowd is into this particular “expert’s” vision of search. I am not.

In the hyperlinked  write up, the author pointed out three “items” which appear to make clear a topic I find quite unclear. My reaction was that these items do not capture search either of the moment or some “to be” world where content management experts, governance specialists, and “real” journalists look for information. The items described a future that underscores a conceptual problems in thinking about information retrieval.

There was the obligatory reference to UX, Microsoft’s horrible compression of the phrase “user experience.” In my parlance, this is the kindergarten, razzle dazzle interface of video games. Angry Birds is great for someone who needs distraction. For search, UX is an issue. The flashy interface may disguise flawed, incomplete, or manipulated result sets. Eye candy is not information by default. Confusing paint with the mechanical soundness of the vehicle may be a problem for some people.

There was acknowledgment that search is going mobile. What is important about mobile is that the user is pulled into what I call “shortcut land.” Forget the codes that whisk one to a Web page. The notion of predictive search involves algorithms and engineers who determine thresholds for smart software. When systems do the thinking, will the Gen X and Gen Y folks make better decisions? Hard to say, but they will be in a more controlled and monitored decision environment. Happy there?

Finally, the future of search will involve touch. Frankly, I don’t want to search using “touch”. Google has already used its usage data to kill off Boolean logic. Without Boolean there are more opportunities to put ads in front of users who get a bigger, fuzzier result set. I want to craft a query and launch it against a corpus of content that has an editorial policy. I do not want to point at a facet. I want to obtain on point information in a “hands on” manner. I want to paw, not touch.

To sum up, if I read the article correctly, search is not just dead. Search has been forgotten. Even more interesting is that the discussion of search has little to do with the need for a person to locate unbiased information with precision and recall.

If this is the future of search, I want none of it. As one colleague quipped,  “Don’t fail to miss it.”


Ken Toth, October 27, 2011

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Google Amazon Dust Bunnies

October 13, 2011

The addled goose has a bum eye, more air miles than a 30 something IBM sales engineer, and lousy Internet connectivity. T Mobile’s mobile WiFi sharing gizmo is a door stop. Imagine my surprise when I read “Google Engineer: “Google+ Example of Our Complete Failure to Understand Platforms.” In one webby write up, the dust bunnies at Google and Amazon were moved from beneath the bed to the white nylon carpet of a private bed chamber.

I am not sure the information in the article is spot on. Who can certain about the validity of any information any longer. The goose cannot. But the write up reveals that Amazon is an organization with political “infighting”. What’s new? Nothing. Google, on the other hand, evidences a bit of reflexivity. I will not drag the Motorola Mobility event into this brief write up, but students of business may find that acquisition worth researching.

Here is the snippet which caught my attention:

[A]  high-profile Google engineer … mistakenly posted a long rant about working at Amazon and Google’s own issues with creating platforms on Google+. Apparently, he only wanted to share it internally with everybody at Google, but mistaken shared it publicly. For the most part, [the] post focuses on the horrors of working at Amazon, a company that is notorious for its political infighting. The most interesting part to me, though, is … [the] blunt assessment of what he perceives to be Google’s inability to understand platforms and how this could endanger the company in the long run.

I want to step back. In fact, I want to go into MBA Mbit mode.

First, this apparent management behavior is the norm in many organizations, not the companies referenced in the post.I worked for many years in the old world of big time consulting. Keep in mind that my experiences date from 1973, but management idiosyncrasies were the rule. The majority of these management gaffes took place in a slower, not digital world. Sure, speed was important. In the physics of information speed is relative. Today the perceived velocity is great and the diffusion of information adds a supercharger to routine missteps. Before getting too excited about the insights into one or two companies, most organizations today are  perilously close to dysfunction. Nothing special here, but today’s environment gives what is normal some added impact. Consolidation and an absence of competition makes the stakes high. Bad decisions add a thrill to the mundane. Big decisions weigh more and can have momentum that does more quickly than a bad decision in International Harvester or NBC in the 1970s.

Second, technology invites bad decisions. Today most technologies are “hidden”, not exposed like the guts of  a Model T or my mom’s hot wire toaster which produced one type of bagel—burned. Not surprisingly, even technically sophisticated managers struggle to understand the implications of  a particular technical decision. To make matters worse, senior mangers have to deal with “soft” issues and technical training, even if limited, provide few beacons for the course to chart. Need some evidence. Check out the Hewlett Packard activities over the last 18 months. I routinely hear such statements as “we cannot locate the invoice” and “tell us what to do.” Right. When small things go wrong, how can the big things go right? My view is that chance is a big factor today.

Third, the rush to make the world social, collaborative, and open means that leaks, flubs, sunshine, and every other type of exposure is part of the territory.. I find it distressing that sophisticated organizations fall into big pot holes. As I write this, I am at an intelligence conference, and the rush to openness has an unexpected upside for some information professionals. With info flowing around without controls, the activities of authorities are influenced by the info bonanza. Good and bad guys have unwittingly created a situation that makes it less difficult to find the footprints of an activity. The post referenced in the source article is just one more example of what happens when information policies just don’t work. Forget trust. Even the technically adept cannot manage individual communications. Quite a lesson I surmise.

In search and content processing,the management situation is  dire. Many companies are uncertain about pricing,features, services, and innovation. Some search vendors describe themselves with nonsense and Latinate constructions. Other flip flop for search to customer support to business intelligence without asking themselves, “Does this stuff actually work?” Many firms throw adjectives in front of jargon and rely on snake charming sales people to close deals. Good management or bad management? Neither. We are in status quo management with dollops of guessing and wild bets.

My take on this dust bunny matter is that we have what may be an unmanageable and ungovernable situation. No SharePoint governance conference is going to put the cat back in the bag. No single email, blog post, or news article will make a difference. Barn burned. Horse gone. Wal-Mart is building on the site. The landscape has changed. Now let the “real” consultants explain the fix. Back to the goose pond for me. Collaborate on that.

Stephen E Arnold, October 13, 2011

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Confusion Aids Learning: Good News for Biased Search Results

October 3, 2011

As Google and other search engines toy with new models to increase user-friendliness, ease-of-use, and predictability of search results, a new study shows that perhaps all those qualities held so highly by search engine designers are not so hot. The article, Eric Mazur’s Keynote at ICER 2011: Observing demos hurts learning, and confusion is a sign of understanding, on Computing Education Blog, explains how just the opposite may be needed for search users to grasp new search archetypes.


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According to computer education guru, Eric Mazur, how students learn is by being taught straight facts, with no regard for their confusion. In fact, a little confusion is a good thing – it forces the individual to search for clarification, i.e. learn. This wisdom came from a study he conducted measuring the success rate of various models of teaching: demo given before direct instruction, no demo given before direct instruction, student predictions before direct instruction and discussion before direct instruction.

Contradictory to what most would assume, the direct instruction method (with nothing else) scored highest along with the discussion model. The article explains why the results were what they were:

…observing a demo is worse than having no demo at all!  The problem is that you see a demo, and remember it in terms of your misconceptions.  A week later, you think the demo showed you what you already believed…People remember models, not facts, said Mazur.

The fact that prediction and demo models failed to increase learning should be a wake-up call for search engine designers – stop coddling! I wonder if the shift to applications, not old fashioned research is accelerating certain casual and shallow learning.

Another aspect Mazur studies was the effect of confusion on the student’s part. The results showed that students who admitted confusion actually answered more correct answers than those who reported not being confused after direct instruction. Mazur surmised that the results reflect that confusion leads to one’s trying to make sense of the information.

While Bing, Blekko, and Google are tinkering with its search engine effectiveness, these firms may want to look at what the research is saying about how the general masses learn. By creating Web search engines that put training wheels on intellectual exercise, an opportunity to manipulate ideas and conceptual frameworks seems to be available.

Catherine Lamsfuss, October 3, 2011

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Natural Language, a Solution Who’s Time Has Come

September 29, 2011

Editor’s Note: The Beyond Search team invited Craig Bassin, president of EasyAsk, a natural language processing specialist and search solution provider to provide his view of the market for next generation search systems. For more information about EasyAsk, navigate to

This past February I watched, along with millions of others, IBM’s spectacular launch of Watson on Jeopardy!  Watson was IBM’s crowning achievement in developing a Natural Language based solution finely tuned to compete, and win, on Jeopardy.

By IBM’s own estimates they invested between $1 and $2 billion to develop Watson.  IBM ranks Watson as one of the 3 most difficult challenges in their long and successful history, along with spectacular accomplishments such as the Deep Blue chess program and the Blue Gene, Human Genome mapping program.  Rarified air, indeed.

While many were watching to see if a computer could defeat human players my interests were different.  Watson was about to introduce natural language solutions to the broader public and show the world that such solutions are truly the wave of the future.

The results were historic.  Watson soundly defeated the human competitors.  On the marketing side, IBM continues to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to tell the world that the time for natural language is now.

IBM is not the only firm to bring natural language processing (NLP) into the application mainstream:

  • Microsoft acquired Powerset, a small company with strong NLP technology, to create Bing and compete head-on with Google,
  • Yahoo, one of the original Internet search companies, found Bing compelling enough to strike an OEM agreement with Microsoft and make Bing Yahoo’s search solution,
  • Apple acquired a linguistic natural language interface tool called Siri, which is now being incorporated into the Mac and iPhone operating systems,
  • Oracle Corporation bought Inquira for its NLP-based customer support solution,
  • RightNow Technologies similarly acquired Q-Go, a Dutch company also providing NLP-based customer support solutions.

Many companies are now positioning themselves as natural language tools and have expanded the once tight definition of NLP to include things such as analyzing text to understand intent or sentiment.  This is the impact of Watson – it has put natural language into the mainstream and many organizations want to ride the marketing current driven by Watson regardless of closely aligned their technology is with Watson.

But let’s also look at Watson for what it really is – one of the most expensive custom solutions every built.  Watson required an extremely large (and expensive) cluster of computers to run – 90 Power Server 750 systems, totaling 2,880 processor cores.  It also required substantial R&D staff to build the analytics, content and natural language processing software stack.  In fact, IBM didn’t come to Jeopardy, Jeopardy came to IBM.  They replicated the Jeopardy set at IBM labs, placing a a great deal of horsepower underneath that stage.

The first foray of Watson into the real world will be in healthcare  and the possibilities are exciting.  Clearly IBM intends to focus Watson on some of the largest, most difficult challenges.  But how does that help you run your business?  You’re not going to see Watson running in your IT environment or on your preferred SaaS cloud anytime soon.

If Watson is focused on big problems, how can I  use natural language solutions to better my business today?  Perhaps you want to increase website customer conversion and user experience, better manage sales processes, deliver superior customer support, or in general, make it easier for your workers to find the right information to do their job. So where do you go?

That’s where EasyAsk comes in.

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CNN Opines about Alleged Gates-Page Parallels

September 4, 2011

Quote to note: I am not doing too many of the trade show carnivals these days. I am a bit tired and 20 somethings give me a headache. However, I do keep a quotes file, and every once in a while I find a quote that looks like a keeper. Here’s a candidate from the CNN story “The New Bill Gates: Google’s Larry Page.” The passage:

Like Gates, Page is often described in otherworldly terms, a near-genius with autistic tendencies like counting the seconds out loud while you’re explaining something too slowly to him. Like Gates, he has run his own company for his entire adult life and has had uninterrupted success. Like Gates, he has an engineer’s soul and is obsessive about cutting waste — one of his first acts after taking over as CEO in April was to send an all-hands e-mail describing how to run meetings more efficiently. Like Gates, he is hugely ambitious — he once suggested that Google hire a million engineers and told early investors that he saw Google as a $100 billion company. That’s $100 billion in annual revenue, not just stock value. (It’s about one-third of the way there.) And like Gates, Page may have a blind spot about the intersection of business and the Beltway.

Whether one agrees or not, I find the public position regarding a powerful, feisty company like Google interesting. The use of the word “autistic” is fascinating. I wonder if the author knows Mr. Page or any person afflicted with autism? What will CNN do if its referral traffic slows? Come up with more snappy quotes or just buy Adwords? CNN may find itself doing some fresh thinking after this story with the “autistic” word and the clumsy parallels drawn between Bill Gates and Larry Page. Honk.

Stephen E Arnold, September 4, 2011

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Google Names: How a Mechanical Engineer Sees the Issue

September 3, 2011

I imagine you’ve all been acquainted with the latest social media fuss, as it is becoming old news by now. The corporate policy for Google+ requires members of its networking site to operate under real names. Users signed up under pseudonyms are finding their profiles suddenly deleted. That’s it. Now, enter public outrage stage left.

Maybe it’s too early, or because I’ve worked forty hours in three days, but despite being drawn into “Google+ Punts on Kafkaesque Name Policy” (thanks to the literary reference that ultimately falls flat) I find flaws with each side.

So, to Google. I realize you want your newest product to be as much like Facebook as possible, stopping only at donning a Mark Zuckerberg wig. You also must contend with an insatiable desire to squirrel away as much personal data as possible for future monetary gains, be it by ownership and sales or expanded search capacity. But come on, this is ridiculous.  The given argument for civility in online discourse is not exclusively yours to make. Not only are you alienating your burgeoning clientele, but I don’t believe you can legally force people to use their real names in a non-government application. It is, after all, the internet.

And to would be Google+ participants. I agree with you, I really do. But if I could draw diagram to illustrate my point, it would include a fist-sized sphere representing corporations, and twelve miles away would be a single dot representing your interests. Why is this policy a surprise? Or an indignation considering your beloved Facebook’s policy is identical? Couldn’t you use any name in the friendship graveyard that was known as, which the masses abandoned in lieu of a more tightly controlled environment?

Coming from an individual with little to no online presence, I respect anonymity as much as the next mechanical engineer, if not more so. But I can’t even get behind bumper stickers. So I do genuinely understand the frustration of the prospective Google+ user. But I would like to gently remind readers that true personal ambiguity was ushered out with the twentieth century. Google already knows who you are and will continue to build tools that glean even more data from a largely willing public.

What I find intriguing is this most important point that largely seems to go ignored by both sides of the argument:

The biggest problem with Google’s identity policy has always been that it’s essentially unenforceable. You can’t police millions of users with algorithms looking for nonstandard characters in names or reviewing user-flagged profiles with enough sensitivity to handle edge cases without devoting an absurd number of employee hours to review every violation. By all accounts, Google hasn’t assigned such resources.

It is for this reason that perhaps the ‘activists’ feverishly working to overturn Google’s chosen identity policy should turn to more worldly causes?

Sarah Rogers, September 3, 2011

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Social Media: Making the Personal Impersonal

August 25, 2011

Search engines are now using social media data to rank query results. As crazy as it sounds, your Tweets could now alter the way Google gives you information on such benign things as “George Washington” or “grilled cheese sandwiches.” eSchool News takes a look at how “New Web-Search Formulas Have Huge Implications for Students and Society.”

Search results now differ from person to person based on algorithms have been altered to include social media data. Knowing that most people don’t go past the second page of results, they have tailored their ranking system to consider links you have clicked on and create a filter system based on those previous links. This isn’t something ground breaking since Amazon and Netflix have been using it for years to recommend books and movies, but is new to the major search engines.

At the 2011 Technology, Entertainment, and Design talk, Eli Pariser, the author of The Filter Bubble, shared his reservations with the “invisible algorithmic editing of the web.” He believes it only shows us what it thinks we want and not what we need to see.

[I]t was believed that the web would widen our connections with the world and expose us to new perspectives, Pariser said: Instead of being limited to the newspapers, books, and other writings available in our local communities, we would have access to information from all over the globe. But thanks to these new search-engine formulas, he said, the internet instead is coming to represent ‘a passing of the torch from human gatekeepers [of information] to algorithmic ones.’ Yet, algorithms don’t have the kind of embedded ethics that human editors have, he noted. If algorithms are going to curate the world for us, then ‘we need to make sure they’re not just keyed to [personal] relevance—they also should show us things that are important, or challenging, or uncomfortable.’

It seems that search engines may be focusing on personal factors, but are not personalizing the process. The user has no control over results. That customization is left to a rigid algorithm. If a restaurant says that they make burgers “made-to-order,” then I expect to be able to pick mustard and onions on one visit, and pick cheese and ketchup on the next visit. The server should not just look at my past orders and make an educated guess. There is nothing “personal” about that.

Could this lead some well meaning people down an unintended and risky path to censorship-by-computer. Users must gain more control over these search formulas. There are certainly times when social media parameters are acceptable, but sometimes you want and need to see the other side. It depends if you are settling an argument between your friends over song lyrics or writing a thesis on communism. Until users are offered more liberal control, I think this “personal” ranking system will actually suppress and limit a lot of important information that users are seeking. The social impact on a search comes at a pretty high price.

Jennifer Wensink, August 25, 2011

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