Four Pillars: Thinking about search

Doc Searls pointed me to a thought-provoking post by Tristan Louis called Where Virtual and Physical meet. Amongst other things, Tristan makes the point that as genres like SecondLife evolve with their own community standards, the question of how these standards operate in a court of law is moot.

The question per se is not new. Larry Lessig (in Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace) had this wonderful story about two neighbours, one growing beautiful flowers that killed all that touched them, the other growing pedigree canines that exhibited powerful and sensitive emotions. Petal from flower person floats into pedigree chum’s garden. Dog dies. Painfully. Lawsuit. Prosecution says “make the flowers not kill”. Defence says “but this mix of beauty and death is what sells, tell neighbour not to create dogs that feel so much pain”. Judge rules that flowers can kill only when paid for. Cyberlaw. All my paraphrase, I don’t have the book to hand and I read it maybe seven years ago. Apologies for any misinterpretation or misquoting.
What is new is that genres like SecondLife exist. What’s this got to do with search, you ask? Patience, patience.

Separate thread. Joel On Software gets me tangentially to a place where a community formed off Joel is discussing Microsoft and AJAX. Arguments about whether anything on AJAX can be found on MSDN or not. Turns out that MSDN is “localised” and search results relate to a specific location.

Separate thread. In the March issue of Release 1.0 (which I’m still reading) Esther Dyson makes the point that “now that it has found a business model, search is likely to evolve rapidly in two directions that empower the user to filter rather than find….”

Separate thread.  A recent conversation in the blogosphere where I work looks at the use of microformats such as hCard to try and resolve person/role conflicts between different applications when looked at from a workflow perspective.

The Tristan Louis post that took me on my random walk started that process by talking about the community rules in SecondLife and how they would stand up in court. And that made me think how easy it was for virtual rules to be come bricks in the walled gardens.

Somewhere in my head all these threads are the same. Once you move away from request-response 100%-accurate-lies models of database queries, you move into a new world.

Non-deterministic “probabilistic” search with relevance and ranking and heuristics-based feedback loops is this new world. Metadata and tags and microformats are just routes to improving how we improve. Improve search and find and archive and retrieve. And even improve mix and mash and cook and come up with something completely different.
And search means different things in this world.

  • To some it means resolve conflict, deduplicate, cleanse information.
  • To some it means improve information by empowering the creator/consumer.
  • To some it still means provide an answer I can use.
  • To all it means improve when successful

It is when the locus of the search is (a) consciously constrained by someone other than the searcher or (b) unconsciously constrained by someone other than the searcher, and this happens without the searcher’s knowledge or consent, that we hit a major problem.

So whether it is Google or Yahoo in China or MSDN re AJAX or community standards in SecondLife, we have to look at the garden wall and who’s doing the building.

When there are no walls, search can be refine or filter or cleanse or repair or fix or even good old find. Where there are walls of omission or commission, search is a corrupt and poor reflection of what it could be. 

Let me know what you think

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