Google's Microformats & The Limit of Participation

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


April 5, 2011

Google's Microformats & The Limit of Participation

Nicholas Carr writes about Google’s new recipes search feature. Now alongside Everything, Images, Videos, News, etc., Google has added a filtering option that eliminates pages that aren’t recipes.

For Google to recognize that a page is a recipe, the page has to be written using a special format called a microformat, which allows Google (or anyone else) to detect which parts of the page are the ingredient list, the list of steps, the serving size, cooking and preparation time, etc. Normally, Google can’t figure this out because every website formats their pages differently. But if everyone used the same format, Google can answer questions like “Show me all the fettuccine alfredo recipes that I can make in 30 minutes or less.”

Carr has a few problems with this new feature, and all of them relate to Google’s place as a powerful intermediary to information. First, the microformat is too complex for ordinary users to use, and this complexity biases the search results in the favor of large corporate-owned sites who can afford to hire programmers. Amateurs are excluded, which is at odds with the usual rhetoric about openness and the web as a level playing field. Second Google offers filtering for short cooking times and low calorie counts, another form of bias that reflects a “cooking culture focused on speed an diets.” If you’re a slow food advocate, Google just gave an advantage to the other side.

The conclusion: Google is not neutral, ideology and business interests are built into the code itself. The web is not a level playing field, because Google is a business with near-monopoly power as an intermediary. It’s possible to make an even more radical argument: the format itself is a kind of disciplinary apparatus that enforces conformity and ultimately, cultural homogeneity by depriving pages of traffic if they don’t follow the rules of the format.

I think there’s some truth to this line of reasoning, but Carr focuses on the way that Google, as a near monopoly, has the ability to exclude, to censor. In a way, the argument is about meritocracy: will Google really give priority to the best recipe? Or it will be corrupted by the profit motive?

To me, a more interesting critique is the opposite one: not the way that we are forcibly excluded, but how we are forcibly included, as in the more radical critique I outlined above, where the price of inclusion is the loss of cultural diversity. The ideology of Google and Silicon Valley is about the supposed wonders of access and participation and how the web (brought to you by their tools) empowers us all to become publishers. Google’s search engine works by indexing web pages and then looking at what other page link to it - a page that has lots of links into it is interpreted to mean it’s more popular, and therefore more valuable, and that’s why it’s in Google’s business interest to promote the ideology of participation. The company becomes more profitable by expropriating labor that people on the internet perform, in creating content and also “voting” on the value of other people’s work by linking to it.

This model of participation closely resembles the pre-web activity of academic publishing. Research is made (more or less) freely available just like we content, and links are analogous to academic citations. The most influential valuable academic paper is the one that has the majority of citations. Indeed Google’s PageRank algorithm was influenced by citation analysis, a type o algorithm that does just this kind of computation. What this means is that Google has a business interest to get as many people as possible to adopt the norms and practices of academic researchers, and even to start thinking of themselves as having roughly similar life goals. Google’s PageRank algorithm becomes something like a disciplinary apparatus where subjectivity is force into conformity with its demands and limitations.

Sometimes this ideology works, especially when the people who create particular kind of information are motivated in similar ways. For example Google’s search engine works very well for subjects related to compute programming topics, partly because the people who have that knowledge have already been socialized into the academic worldview where sharing and linking to information is motivated out of a desire to enhances one’s reputation or t altruistically increase the quality of humanity’s collective knowledge.

But Google doesn’t work as well for other kinds of content, like recipes because it’s quite difficult to convince large numbers of people with that kind of knowledge to start acting as academic researchers. The result of that ideological failure is that Google’s recipe search results were quite poor: it was probably quite easy to game search results for keywords relating to recipes, artificially inflating the value of low quality content; and non-recipe pages were mixed in with the recipes. The microformat strategy is fallback, partially abandoning the open participation model and creating what is effectively a walled garden. Only pages owned by companies with the resources to implement Google’s format are displayed as recipe search results and since those companies are also likely to have a financial incentive to publish recipes of reasonable quality, the overall effect is an improvement in Google’s search results at the cost of excluding pages created by amateurs.

Having said this, I think Carr is wrong that this is really an exclusion Google is excluding pages, but only because their creators don’t really have much interest in appearing at the top of the search results page to begin with. In large measure, Google is falling back to a walled garden strategy because recipe creators aren’t motivated by the participatory ideology Instead, people mostly share recipes to maintain social bonds, the kind of activity that Google has repeatedly tried and failed to monetize. This has lead to the conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley: “Google doesn’t ‘get social,” a statement which implicitly compares them against rapidly expanding Facebook and Twitter.

What I think Carr gets right is that Google’s use of the ideology of participation is opportunistic. Web companies are presented as champions of those values and encourage us to identify with them, but for some reason, this isn’t recognized as marketing, when in reality, it’s not so different from luxury car manufacturer encouraging consumers to identify with its brand We’re used to thinking of the problems of marketing in moralizing terms, that marketers play on and encourage shallow or selfish motivations. This kind of critique of capitalism makes us more susceptible to being captured b marketing that preys on pro-social values like sharing, engagement empowerment and contribution because we falsely believe they represent an alternative to the status quo.