Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, is certainly provocative theory and a great read. Essentially his thesis boils down to the argument that the ability to search and access the world’s information means that our habits of concentration and work have changed with growing web usage. This is causing our brains to evolve to a different pattern of skimming information which he claims is rather shallow, hence the title.
Despite all the hype that surrounds the new media darlings of Twitter and Facebook, when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of business, more time, effort and most significantly money is spent by businesses focussing on search than anything else, so the behaviour of companies suggests that he may have a point.
He singles out the largest of these companies to make the point: “Google as the supplier of the Web’s principle navigation tool, also shapes our relationship with the content that it serves up so efficiently and in such profusion. The intellectual technologies it has pioneered promotes the superficial skimming of information and discourages any deep, prolonged engagement with a single argument, idea or narrative.” Carr believes one of Google’s founders: “Page had another insight, not all links are created equal. The authourity of a web page can be gauged by the incoming links it attracts. A page with a lot of incoming links has more authority than a page with only one or two. The greater the authority of the web page, the greater the worth of its own outgoing links. Page’s analogy led him to realise that the relative value of any web page could be estimated through a mathematical analysis of two factors: the number of of incoming links the page attracted and the authority of the sites that were the sources of those links. If you could create a database of all the links on the web, you could have the raw material to feed into a software algorythim that could evaluate and rank the value of all the pages on the web. You would also have the makings of the world’s most powerful search engine.”
Carr succinctly describes a powerful group of Influentials we have observed participating in online conversations – the ‘viewer’. The characteristics of a viewer are relatively simple; they are searchers. Viewers seek information about a topic that is important to them and transient in their community memberships. Individually they contribute little to the addition of content but savour the information that is freely available to make ‘informed’ choices. The people who invariably influence this group are those with one significant attribute – Google juice. Therefore the algorithm running at the heart of search reflects the core reason why these viewers make the decisions they do because they make judgements as they skim.
Carr, I believe, underestimates the engagement the viewer has with the content. It may be shallow but it is not irrelevant as it is the frequency and speed of interaction that makes a true ‘influential’. They don’t need long to understand and they certainly make judgements by synthesising and aggregating thoughts very differently from traditional opinion forming, but this is not superficial. The power of this engagement is illustrated by how these patterns of search create endorsement for deep content experts such as ‘idea starters’ and ‘curators.’ It is the viewers’ choices on Google that give a democratised influential their authority. If these choices were as superficial as Carr believes, these new influentials would be an arbitrary selection of noisy web citizens. They are clearly not; even lesser known influentials stand out for the veracity of their opinions and depth of content. As I said, Carr’s book is a great read and makes a powerful point about the changes the web has created in the dissemination of knowledge, but he has not fully explored how this dynamic works and therefore over emphasises the negative points and does scant justice to the new benefits of the web and how it engages us with influential thought and knowledge.