Monday, June 25, 2007

Regarding the Implications of MySpace Link Filtering

Perhaps the days of the "Googlebomb" are drawing to a close.

MySpace has begun to re-code outbound links from user pages in an effort to mask the URL to which these links refer.

Outbound links from MySpace pages are being redirected through in a move that is perhaps related to MySpace's recent advertising agreement with Google, and directed towards ensuring that MySpace spam doesn't interfere with Google's PageRank algorithm.

People who have grown up with Google might not recognize what a dramatic improvement it represented, compared to earlier Internet search engines. Previous to Google, many search engines essentially ordered results according to the frequency with which a user's search phrase appeared on indexed pages. Yahoo, the pre-Google Internet search authority, wasn't strictly a search engine, but took a "brute force" approach to presenting the Internet in an ordered manner (focusing its efforts on creating a human-edited directory, rather than on developing sophisticated algorithms for sorting indexed pages).

Before long, spammers learned to exploit the page-sorting algorithms commonly used by search engines by filling pages with invisible text that wasn't really relevant to a user's query.

In response, various improvements were made to popular methods of relevance ranking. But the big breakthrough in Internet search technology responsible for Google's success was really a psychological insight.

The basic psychological assumption that underlies Google's PageRank algorithm is that humans defer to authority; the more humans defer to a particular source, the more authoritative that source is considered to be. Thus, the page that comes up first in a Google search is the page that has the most pages linking to it under a given search phrase. Each time a page links to another, that link is considered a vote in favor of viewing the link's destination as authoritative.

Thus, the ability of MySpace spammers to produce large numbers of links that are indexed by Google represents a threat to Google's (economically successful) definition of authority.

The point of indexing and algorithmically analyzing web pages for the purposes of an Internet search is to uncover patterns in the collected data. Search engines seek to identify the same types of patterns that human cognition would identify. In a very direct sense, Google's algorithm can be viewed as a statistical description of certain aspects of human behavior. And what is dangerous about the MySpace link redirection scheme is that it seeks to "edit" the observable results of human behavior in order to make the collected data fit the mathematical descriptions upon which Google's business model is based.

Whether this is evidence of a central authority administered by distributed means or is evidence of an "invisible hand" may become clear insofar as whether or how such link redirection schemes proliferate.

The benefits of such a scheme to a central authority should be evident to anybody sufficiently acquainted with distributed systems, cognitive science, systems theory, or the current political situation in the United States. If the emergent features of Google's algorithms can be considered as presenting authoritative accounts of opinion (as in the case of the "failure" Googlebomb) as well as authoritative accounts of fact, then the manipulation of the algorithm may be able to effect the manipulation of opinion (and thereby, the perception of fact).

If MySpace spam is a problem for Google, wouldn't it be easier for Google to exclude MySpace profiles, and index only official MySpace content? Is Google's advertising agreement with MySpace a buyout, rich-guys-scratching-eachother's-backs-and-the-public-good-be-damned, or subsidized (directly or indirectly) by interests in the US central government?

The significance of MySpace link redirection may be more subtle, however. This may be evidence of "flocking behavior" among powerful corporations, whose behavior is entangled with and constrained by political interests. The financial interests of various types of organizations may be converging on certain types of social interaction.

It is also important to consider whether such a link redirection scheme can be used as a form of censorship.

However one wishes to account for the appearance of this practice in our present online environment, it will be vitally important for the preservation of personal liberty that those private individuals whose trade subsists in free expression - everybody from the scientist to the artist - be allowed to carry out his or her work in the absence of censorship. Developments in online communications are having a profound impact on culture and social organization. Censorship has a ripple effect in these types of social systems.

In any event, it will be important to watch whether or how such link redirection schemes proliferate.

1 comment: said...

Dear America Jones,
Google are interferinng with this practice.I remember Nixon Accessories used to link to Myspace and had a higher ranking.Now they don't because Myspace changed the configuration.