What a tangled Web we wove

The Internet was going to be so democratic, but then it became a money-maker


January 04, 2007|By Reed Johnson | Reed Johnson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

If you search for God on Google, the first thing you're likely to find is a video essay titled "The Interview With God," a breezy Q&A with the author of creation punctuated by New Age-y piano riffs.

Why "The Interview With God" and not the Book of Job or the Bhagavad-Gita?

Because Google's busy little algorithmic brain tends to give priority to Web sites that link to the most sites with similar content, and satisfy other criteria known only to Google's inner circle.

It may well be that "The Interview With God" reached its lofty perch because it's profound, or at least profoundly popular. But at this point in the Web's evolution, it's no stretch to guess that someone connected with it probably knew how to finesse the Web's search-engine mechanisms.

For one naive, shining moment in the 1990s, the assumption was that, on the Web, popularity would be democratic, earned one click at a time. But that was before clicks meant cash and before a flood of tools and communities brought millions of new, nonprofessional content providers online, jostling to get their videos watched, audio clips downloaded and blogs and Web pages linked to bigger, more popular blogs and Web sites.

This intensifying contest has stoked the imperative to be "most viewed," "most e-mailed," "most played." And that, in turn, has led to strategies for one-upping the competition.

Today, the name of the game is to game the system.

At YouTube.com, there were accusations this year that certain videos were pushed up "most-viewed" lists by viewers using fake account names. Spammers keep finding ingenious ways to clutter up e-mail in-boxes by using code words that do end runs around filters. One site launched pop-up windows, then counted them as hits.

Then there's "Google bombing" or "Googlewash," in which individuals or groups (say, members of a political party) attempt to boost their own Web page rankings, or discredit their enemies by linking and cross-linking them to negative sites (which is why, for the past two years, a search for "miserable failure" has turned up a bio of George W. Bush). Some Wikipedia entries are periodically sabotaged -- that is, rewritten -- by so-called trolls with ideological axes to grind.

A cottage industry has sprouted up around "search engine optimization," more commonly known as boosting Google rankings. The trick: seeding a Web site with key terms that will show up in text hyperlinks, regardless of the site's actual importance or relevance. And there's always the fallback of enlisting humans to help click you up the list.

All this just compounds the flow of disinformation, evasion and falsehood abetted by one of the Internet's defining features: users' ability to disguise their identities -- thus, would-be Hollywood ingenues impersonating real-life teenagers (Lonelygirl15 on YouTube) and any number of creeps or bored kids posing as Brangelina lookalikes on Internet dating services.

If the Web has failed to live up to the hopes that launched it, perhaps that has more to do with inflated expectations than with the Web itself, says Bruce Bimber, a professor in political science and communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"So, big surprise, human nature reveals itself to be pretty much the same, even though the technologies change," says Bimber. "People behave with sort of the same mixture of crass motives and integrity online as they do elsewhere."

It's a feature of the Web's interactive nature that duplicity and deception may be rewarded rather than reviled.

When it was revealed that the witty YouTube poster Littleloca wasn't actually a teenage East Los Angeles Hispanic homegirl but a 22-year-old actress-wannabe, the hate e-mails rolled in. But so did interest from traditional entertainment/news media outlets.

Self-promotion, after all, is an old tool for grabbing the American Dream, and in many circles, the attitude seems to be "no harm, no foul" -- with extra points for audacity and creativity. Digital libertarians argue that the Web always has been a Wild West where rules were made to be broken and imposing restrictions could stifle free expression.

Yet some of the more devious Web stunts and manipulations raise questions about the quality of the information the Web generates and the popular culture it gives rise to. Rather than the Garden of Knowledge or the Virtual Democracy envisioned by early champions, the Web is a contested space roiled by competing claims and the pressure to stake out turf.

When Alinta Thornton, a senior consultant on Web design and intranet applications at the Hiser Group in Sydney, Australia, wrote and posted online her master's thesis about the Web's creeping commodification in 1996, she says, "People pooh-poohed me and said, `Don't be ridiculous.'"

The prevailing idea then was that the Web would "be a public space free of interference, both from government control and commercialism" and wedded to "a larger narrative of progress," as Thornton wrote.

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