I recently read an article by Matthew Shaer in the Christian Science Monitor entitled “The future of search: Do you ask Google or the gaggle?” and subtitled “To improve results, new search engines rely on users instead of computers.” The article goes on to talk about Google’s SearchWiki, Jimmy Wales’s Wikia Search, and a number of “people-powered” search tools.
I agree strongly with Wales on the value of transparency and that “because search is so secretive, and so propriety, there are fewer checks and balances”. But I agree just as strongly with Shaer that “handing over control to a community could engender a flood of spam, or devolve into a mess of internecine backbiting among users”, both of which he’s observed on the Yahoo Answers site.
Wales ultimately sees the question as not whether humans make the decisions, but rather by what process, i.e., democratically vs. top-down. His Wikia Search effort is an attempt to take repeat Wikipedia’s success for general web search.
But, while I like democracy as a political system (as Churchill said, it’s the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried), I’m not sold on Wikia Search or any of the crop of people-powered search engines.
Perhaps the problem is that, much as in electoral democracy, we need to be vigilant about attempts to game the system. The anonymity of web users is as much a problem as the secrecy of search ranking algorithms. since it allows people to game “people-powered” systems with impunity.
Would a transparent people-powered search system work? Perhaps, assuming it could address the privacy concerns of users. I’m all for transparent social navigation.
But let’s not forget the other part of people power: giving users meaningful control. Crowdsourcing might improve on the current crop of ranking algorithms, but what I really want is a search engine that provides me with transparency, control, and guidance. Let me get under the hood.