t byfield on Thu, 3 Apr 2003 19:00:52 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Googlewash[TM]

     [bingo. cheers, t]


     3 April 2003
          The Register 
          Biting the hand that feeds IT

   Anti-war slogan coined, repurposed and Googlewashed... in 42 days

   By Andrew Orlowski in San Francisco

   Posted: 03/04/2003 at 12:12 GMT

   This year marks the 100th anniversary of George Orwell's birth, and
   the writer who best explained the power of language on politics would
   be amazed what can be done with the Internet.

   On February 17 a front page news analysis in the New York Times
   bylined by Patrick Tyler described the global anti-war protests as the
   emergence of "the second superpower".

   Tyler wrote: "...the huge anti-war demonstrations around the world
   this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on
   the planet: the United States and world public opinion."
   This potent phrase spread rapidly.

   Anti-war campaigners, peace groups and NGOs took to describing the
   global popular protest as "the second superpower" [Greenpeace
   release]. And in less than a month, the phrase was being used by UN
   Secretary General Kofi Annan. [Financial Times - reg req'd].

   And a week ago, a Google search for the phrase would have shown the
   vigorous propagation of this 'meme'.

   Rub out the word

   Then came this. Entitled The Second Superpower Rears its Beautiful
   Head, by James F Moore, it was accompanied by a brand new blog.

   The details need not detain us for very long, because the consequences
   of this piece are much more important than its anodyne contents.

   It's a plea for net users to organize themselves as a "superpower",
   and represents a class of techno-utopian literature that John Perry
   Barlow has been promoting - the same sappy stuff, but not as well
   written - for the past ten years.

   Only note how this example is sprinkled with trigger words for
   progressives, liberals and NPR listeners. It concludes - if you can
   find your way through this mound of feel-good styrofoam peanuts - "we
   do not have to create a world where differences are resolved by war.

   It is not our destiny to live in a world of destruction, tedium, and
   tragedy. We will create a world of peace".

   In common with the genre, there's no social or political context,
   although the author offers a single specific instruction that is very
   jarring in the surrounding blandness: we must co-operate with The
   World Bank. Huh?

   It's politics with the politics taken out: in short, it's "revolution

   Now here's the important bit. Look what the phrase "Second Superpower"
   produces on Google now. Try it!. Moore's essay is right there at the
   top. And not just first, but it already occupies all but three of the
   first thirty spots.

   The bashful Moore writes: "It was nice of Dave Winer [weblog tools
   vendor] and Doc Searls [advertising consultant] to pick up on it, even
   if it's not really ready for much exposure." No matter, Moore is an
   overnight A-list blogging superstar, at his very first attempt.

   Although it took millions of people around the world to compel the
   Gray Lady to describe the anti-war movement as a "Second Superpower",
   it took only a handful of webloggers to spin the alternative meaning
   to manufacture sufficient PageRank(TM) to flood Google with Moore's
   alternative, neutered definition.

   Indeed, if you were wearing your Google-goggles, and the search engine
   was your primary view of the world, you would have a hard time
   believing that the phrase "Second Superpower" ever meant anything

   To all intents and purposes, the original meaning has been erased.

   Obliterated, in just seven weeks.

   You're especially susceptible to this if you subscribe to the view
   that Google's PageRank(TM) is "inherently democratic," which is how
   Google, Inc. describes it.

   And this Googlewash took just 42 days.

   You are in a twisty maze of weblogs, all alike

   All a strange coincidence, no doubt, but the picture darkens when you
   look at a parallel conversation taking place elsewhere, whose
   hyperlinks contributed to the redefinition, and help explain how this
   semantic ethnic-cleansing took place so quickly.

   Moore's subversion of the meaning of "Secondary Superpower" - his high
   PageRank(TM) from derives from followers of 'A-list' tech bloggers
   linking from an eerily similar "Emergent Democracy" discussion list,
   which in turn takes its name from a similarly essay posted by Joi Ito
   [Lunch - Lunch - Lunch - Segway - Lunch - Lunch - Fawning Parody] who
   is a colossus of authority in these circles, hence lots of
   PageRank(TM)-boosting hyperlinks, and who like Moore, appeared from
   nowhere as a figure of authority.

   Lunchin' Ito's essay is uncannily similar to Moore's - both are vague
   and elusive and fail to describe how the "emergent" democracy might
   form a legal framework, a currency, a definition of property or - most
   important this, when you're being hit with a stick by a bastard - an
   armed resistance (which in polite circles today, we call a

   As with Moore, academic and historical research in this field is
   vapored away, as if by magic.

   However, we have an idea of how this utopian "democracy" might look,
   if we follow the participants of Lunchbox's mailing list. These
   participants are quite clear about how they define democracy:
   "Democracy can function perfectly well without people painting their
   faces and blocking streets," writes one contributor.

   42 Days

   Orwell would be amused, indeed.

   "Words define action," sums up Alan Black. Black helps organise San
   Francisco's annual LitQuake event and is holding a festival to
   commemorate Orwell's centenary in the city in June.

   "Newspeak was one of the planks of the totalitarian regime. Big
   Brother was constantly redefining history and redefining words - he
   knew people respond to key words," he says. "It's interesting that
   they've identified that the only way to oppose the one superpower
   comes from the people, and sought to redefine that."

   But the real marvel is that they did it with so few people. Pew
   Research Center's latest research says the number of Internet users
   who look at blogs is " so small that it is not possible to draw
   statistically meaningful conclusions about who uses blogs." They peg
   it at about four per cent. But we're looking at a small sub-genre of
   blogdom, the tech blogs, and specifically, we're looking at an 'A
   list' of that sub- sub-genre.

   Which means that Google is being "gamed" - and the language perverted
   - by what in statistical terms in an extremely small fraction indeed.

   That was enough to make a "meaning" disappear.


   Writing about Google's collusion with the People's Republic of China
   to block access to mainland users, censorship researcher Seth
   Finkelsetein observed:

   "Contrary to earlier utopian theories of the Internet, it takes very
   little effort for governments to cause certain information simply to
   vanish for a huge number of people."

   Rub out the word 'government', and replace it with 'weblog A-list'. In
   this case a commons resource, this very potent and quite viral phrase,
   was created by millions of people. But it was poisoned by a very
   select number of 'bloggers'. Possibly a dozen, but no more than 30,
   we'd guess.

   Who is poisoning the well?

   The phrase "greenwash" will be familiar to many of you: it's where a
   spot of judicious marketing paint is applied to something decidedly
   rotten, transforming it into something that looks as if it's wholesome
   and radical new, but which is essentially unchanged.

   This is the first Googlewash we've encountered. 42 days, too.

   What else is coming down the pipe? 
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