Source: New York Times, October 29, 2006.
OWN YOUR OWN WORDS
By STEVEN JOHNSON
Thirty years ago, the British cultural critic Raymond Williams published a book called "Keywords," a collection of mini-essays on a hundred or so words — "bourgeois," "unconscious," "genetic," "imperialism" — whose shifting meanings had been intimately bound to the social and political changes of the preceding centuries. Williams wrote not as a conventional lexicographer trying to establish a fixed set of definitions, but as an engaged public intellectual who recognized that the cultural meanings of these words were up for grabs, and that change often happens, as Williams put it, "within language." His list of key words, he wrote, was intended not as "a tradition to be learned," but "a vocabulary to use, to find our own ways in, to change as we find it necessary to change it, as we go on making our own language and history."
Williams's essential point about the social and political stakes in simple words and phrases is as true today as it was in the 1970's: think of the many battles that have erupted around terms like "liberal," "torture," "pro-life" or "intelligent design." And today, no less than in Williams's time, the public intellectual's place is on the front lines of those skirmishes, reclaiming or challenging or championing the meanings of words that matter most to our vision of the world. For the public intellectual, those skirmishes cannot take place exclusively in ivory towers, as semantic disputes among academics. Instead, he has to direct his work toward the general public for the struggle to be meaningful.
But one immense change separates us from the semantic battles of the mid-70's, a change visible in the term "key word" itself, which is now most commonly used to describe computerized search requests. In Williams's time, if one was seeking the real-world associations or usage of a given term — to see a specific word in its native habitat, and not the caged environs of Roget's Thesaurus or the Oxford English Dictionary — the options were limited. Today, however, we type our key word into Google and instantly get an entire field guide to its present usage: in op-ed columns, advertising blurbs, blog posts, MySpace pages, diaries, scholarly publications, wherever.
Those search results, as everyone knows, are ranked, in large part according to the number of other sites that link to the page in question. And as Google — and other search engines — become increasingly dominant arbiters of a word's meaning and usage, the pages that rank highly for a given key word will have a disproportionate impact on the popular understanding of what those words mean. Not merely in the dictionary-definition sense of the word, but in the more engaged, real-world sense that Williams explored in "Keywords." Does "liberal," for instance, evoke a big-government, tax-and-spend worldview that never met a bureaucrat it didn't like? Or is it a tradition of egalitarian open-mindedness? Is "intelligent design" a legitimate scientific discipline, or a Trojan horse for anti-science religious values? These are the kinds of on-the-ground disputes that public intellectuals are regularly engaged in, and they're disputes that have real consequences, even if they are never entirely resolved.
It is precisely this kind of real-world usage that Google lets you see in a single click, which creates a fascinating opportunity for anyone with a vested interest in shaping the popular meaning of words. Let's say you're a law professor who is trying to build a reputation as an expert on affirmative action. In the past, you'd build that reputation by publishing articles in various high-profile publications, or journals with scholarly credentials. Many of those articles would show up in a Google search using the key words "affirmative action," of course, but they'd be scattered all over the results. Because Google considers links to be a kind of vote endorsing the content of a given page, if you created a specific page called "affirmative action" — where your various articles and thoughts were collected — and encouraged others to link to that page, you could very quickly "own" affirmative action in Google. (Right now, none of the top results are associated with an individual, and most are intended as neutral, dictionary-style definitions and discussions. But that needn't be the case.) And of course, once your page made it to the Top 10, positive feedback would be likely to propel your page higher in the rankings, as more people linked to the page, having found it originally via Google.
The approach works as well for proper names as it does for abstract concepts. A few months ago, I posted a short assessment of Raymond Williams's career on my blog. I deliberately titled the page "Raymond Williams" to persuade Google to rank the page highly for people searching using the key words "Raymond Williams." After it went online, a few other bloggers linked to the page. Within two weeks, if you searched Google using the key word "Raymond Williams," my little riff showed up as the No. 6 result, behind a Wikipedia entry, a museum bio and a few scholarly papers.
My Raymond Williams post was probably read by several thousand people when it first appeared on my site, people who, most likely, had no particular interest in Raymond Williams, and who, most likely, forgot about Raymond Williams the second they moved on from my site. But the post lives on, thanks to Google. Each day, I average somewhere between 5 to 10 visitors arriving at my Raymond Williams page via Google. Assuming it remains on my site for a few years, and stays high in Google's rankings, that could easily amount to 10,000 people reading my assessment of why Raymond Williams matters.
What's powerful about this strategy is not the sheer number of readers, but the kind of readers I'm attracting. By writing a little blog post and seeding it in such a way that it attracts Google searches, I attract thousands of people who by definition are interested in the question of what Raymond Williams means. By positioning my work so that it will align itself with Google's vast "database of intentions" — to borrow the memorable phrase coined by the technology writer John Battelle — I get my meaning in front of the very people who are actively seeking it out.
This strategy happens to be old news to the bottom-feeders of the digital world: the spam artists who have long hacked the Google database to ensure that their sites rank highly when people search for "sex" and "blackjack" and "cheap Canadian meds." But just because the spammers got there first doesn't mean that Google-centric positioning cheapens the work of intellectuals. The Nation and Harper's exploit the very same postal system that the junk mail impresarios use, after all. My item on Raymond Williams happens to be a short blog entry, but it could just as easily be an extended essay, or an e-book, or a documentary film, or a bibliography. For example, Ralph Frerichs, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, maintains a vast digital archive on the life and work of John Snow, the 19th-century scientist and public health pioneer who is most famous for proving that cholera was transmitted by contaminated water supplies. It is as comprehensive and thorough as any offline university library archive. It is also, as of this writing, the No. 1 result for "John Snow" on Google — higher, in fact, than anything related to the former Treasury secretary John Snow. There are dozens of books that discuss Snow's life and work, but in Google's ranking, Frerichs is the gatekeeper for the phrase "John Snow." Where the general public is concerned, Frerichs's archival portrait of Snow's life is likely to be the most influential, thanks to its prominence in Google.
If key words truly do matter the way Williams believed them to, then I think it's inevitable that intellectuals who are interested in speaking to a wider audience will orient their work around Google's rising influence. That doesn't mean scholarly publications are irrelevant in this new world: the physicists don't stop talking to one another simply because most people have a watered down version ofrelativity in their heads. It just means that for the mainstream understanding of complex issues, Google (and Wikipedia, whose entries often rank near the top of Google searches) are quickly becoming central authorities. So the question is whether intellectuals are going to mope about this shift — or whether they'll see it as an opportunity to shape popular opinion.And if they make that shift, they'll take their cues from the spammers and charlatans, the drug pushers and the pornographers. They'll realize that it's not just the marketplace of ideas they should be worried about. It's also the database.
Steven Johnson's most recent book is "The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World."