Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Age of the Algorithm: Article Summary

  • Audience and Publishing Information

The article was published in Masionneuve magazine, which describes itself as appealing to curious, intelligent urban-dwelling readers with at least an undergraduate degree, but is not strictly a professional publication. The magazine was developed and is still based in Canada, although of course the articles it makes available online can reach a much wider audience than that. Masionneuve received (National) Magazine of the Year Awards in 2004 and 2012. [1]The article itself was nominated for a 2011 National Magazine Award.[2]

  • Topic: Search algorithms and their effects

People tend to assume that the “top” results from a search engine like Google are also the “best” results, when really they’re just the most popular, most cited, or most relevant results, all according to distinctions made by Google’s search algorithm. Letting algorithms make our choices for us about what on the internet is worth reading presents several problems, especially when the algorithms rank sources by factors that tend to be very different from the ones humans would normally use. While both people and algorithms would consider the number of citations (or links) an article gets to be a decent indicator of its reliability or quality, people would also be interested in the credibility of the author(s), the quality of the writing, and the accuracy of the content; the algorithm considers none of these, except as partially indicated by citation rates, and yet we often forget to consider this difference in search technique when evaluating the choices presented to us by Google and its smaller cousins.

This discrepancy also has consequences for the market, especially in the spheres producing reference-style web content and online news. Some entities, such as Demand Media, are beginning to produce content for the web based entirely on user demand as identified by search algorithms. They produce only those articles that pertain to what readers are already searching for; nothing that does not already have a prospective interested reader is posted, because Demand Media’s focus is to produce content for niche audiences and then immediately sell space to advertisers looking for targeted access to those audiences. The result is a constant, fast-flowing stream of articles on highly specific topics, most of which have not been appropriately researched or fact-checked, especially because they are being written by people who, although they may actually be very good writers and familiar with the research methods and skills that would produce sound articles, are encouraged, not to write better, but only to write more and to write faster.

  • Thesis: Demand Media (and its ilk) are a step toward a culture that values fast and cheap over accuracy and quality.

Businesses, like Demand Media, produce content aimed solely at giving advertisers constant access to consumers by flooding Google’s first page of results with targeted (but not well-written or reasonably researched) articles produced by undervalued assembly-line style writers. This type of information production may be pushing us toward a kind of fast-food search engine, where results are immediately available, but not good for the searcher’s consumption. More troubling is that all of this is being based on algorithms which may not be fully understood, even by their creators, and which, especially in financial arenas, have shown a distressing tendency to overreach their bounds, to occasionally devastating ends.

  • Author and Reception

Ira Basen is a graduate of Carleton University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He teaches in the Communications Management and Professional Communication programs at McMaster University, and also teaches at Ryerson University and the University of Toronto. In addition to being part of the creation and writing of several CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) programs, he has also developed multiple training courses for their journalists on media ethics and on content created by online users.[3] Before he published The Age of the Algorithm, Basen also produced another similar article exploring the same topic, which was published by The Globe and Mail in 2010.[4]

The article does not seem to have generated much online discussion; it was picked up by Byliner, but hasn’t apparently generated much noise there that I can see.[5] As a matter of fact, I couldn’t easily find much reaction to it online at all, but am now left to wonder how much of that is a lack of response and how much is due to the manipulations of (of course) Google’s search algorithm. However, I did find that the article was cited by multiple authors in a very recent book, published in 2014, called Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society.[6]

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