Uncivil Discourse & Killed Services: You Get What You Pay For

Click anywhere on the "Google Graveyard" image above to lay flowers on the grave of your favorite deceased Google product

Click anywhere on the “Google Graveyard” image above to lay flowers on the grave of your favorite deceased Google product

Online civil discourse has gone down the crapper, Google’s messing with marketers and journalists, and the “social graph” rules Facebook and search alike. What’s a PR pro to do? Start spending some money on the important stuff.

Google’s making the (blog) headlines lately by killing Google Reader and apparently ignoring Google Alerts, leading journalists and marketing pros alike to throw their hands up in disgust and give up.

All the while, Google is plowing ahead with its plans to replace Evernote (good luck getting any love for this product from marketers or PR people, Google) as the networked note taking leader and to update its search algorithms to place even more emphasis on Google+ by making authorship (as defined in your Google+ profile) and your social graph even more important to make it to the top of people’s search engine results pages.

Meanwhile, our own ability to be civil has been tested by two high-profile cases (the firing of two people over in-person and online comments and the ongoing Steubenville rape case) involving the misuse of social media (and much, much worse) and its repercussions. I read many of the tweets and Facebook updates involved, and it depressed me. Let’s face it: social media is going to Hell in a bandwagon — one that many marketers are just now jumping on.

As I spent time researching and reading up on both of these stories — sifting through both opinion and fact — I harkened back to a wonderful conversation that Neville Hobson had with Ike Pigott on FIR #694 about the devaluation of opinion (and the proper research that needs to back it up).

If I Wanted Your Opinion I’d Ask for It on YouTube

"YouTube video Brandweer Nederweert" by mauritsonline

“YouTube video Brandweer Nederweert” by mauritsonline

Ike argues on the podcast that as it becomes easier and easier to share opinions, the overall value of opinion is dropping. Add to that the difficulty of sifting through the incredible amount of content that gets generated at ever increasing rates and the cost of researching facts is rising.

The pessimist in me would argue that the Internet is turning into one big YouTube comment thread. And the optimist in me isn’t far behind.

Google has been one very powerful tool in the battle of fact vs. fiction. But it has not been infallible: it remains a reflection of the will (or at least the wherefore) of the masses, who have not always been right. Most of the time, it works out: if, for example, I don’t have my AP Stylebook at hand, I’ll occasionally rely on comparing the number of Google entries for two alternate spellings of a word to decide which one to use, but I have less faith in that than I do in Wikipedia as the last word on anything outside of tech.

But today’s Google search has evolved beyond simply measuring the will of the masses. Today, in addition to scoring search results on signs of external validity, such as inbound links, Google is putting more and more emphasis on your social graph. The results you see in Google search today are increasingly tied not to any objective measure of validity, but to completely subjective measures, such as how close of a relationship you have with the content author. 

This is a terrifying situation for me. If you don’t understand why, let me point you to a TED talk by Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble:

In short, the fishbowl is fun to watch for a little while, but you don’t want to live there.

The Good News(?) Part 1: Less Acrimony Among “Friends”?

Is there any good news in all of this? Well, one could argue that, if we’re surrounded only by friends and people who think like us online, there will be fewer disagreements. But that’s incredibly naive: the occasional stray non-conforming message will still make it through Facebook’s “PageRank” algorithm and Google’s “Panda” engine, and when it does, it will be all the more jarring.

The Good News(?) Part 2: Author Rank to Save the Day?

"Writer's Digest Book Shipment" by angelshupe

“Writer’s Digest Book Shipment” by angelshupe

There is one more hope for all of this: Google’s Author Rank may just save the day. Marketers are scrambling to figure out how to best prepare for the emergence of Author Rank, which places more emphasis on authorship than on the site an article appears on. If Author Rank can still keep things objective, and not rely too heavily on the social graph, I may change my opinion of Google. Until then, I’m treading cautiously and always exploring alternatives.

Biting the Hand that Feeds You

One final note on this horrible Google mess, one inspired by a comment from Fresh Grounder Ruth Bazinet: I don’t think Google had any idea how much some of the biggest influencers of online opinion (myself not included) depend on both Google Reader and Google Alerts. All of the negative publicity just may backfire. Take, for example, Evernote’s recent revelation that downloads of their product have jumped since the announcement of Google Keep. Was spite perhaps partially responsible for the spike? As Mike Loukides pointed out, it’s a matter of “stability as a service,” and Google applications and services don’t have a great track record there.

The Internet is not a civil place. But it is an interesting and useful place, and as long as I have good search tools and good filter tools, I don’t care if what you say is wrong or disagreeable. When these tools start breaking down, I get cranky. But, as they say, you get what you pay for. We’ve largely relied on free versions of these tools and services, and I think it may be time to pony up the dough and put our money where or minds are.

Todd Van Hoosear

About Todd Van Hoosear

Todd’s love of technology started as a child, when his dad would bring home chips and switches from his work in the electronics industry that would feed his imagination for years. Combining a stint as an IT guy with his education in PR and communication, Todd has helped clients in the engineering, mobile, cloud, networking, consumer technology and consulting spaces bring new ideas – and new takes on old ideas – to the market.

Learn more about Todd

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