One of the major powers of Google is that it can crawl sites at a deep level and unearth interesting and relevant content independent of any hierarchy imposed otherwise by the content’s owner or publisher. The home page, the table of contents, the chapter structure — such things are superfluous. You run a search on a topic, and you see an ordered list of results based on what Google’s algorithm thinks is most relevant and useful based on the term you’ve entered. PageRank is about relevance and granularity, not elegance and long-form thinking.
Load up digital music, and you can shuffle it, find it reordered alphabetically, or play all of the songs by an artists sequentially, depending on the system. Digital music carries with it only so much information — genre, artist, song title, duration, and date downloaded are some comment elements. But the information about what order to play the songs often gets lost as the music moves around your digital ecosystem.
Follow a Twitter stream, and you’re exposed to articles elevated by who you follow. Are these articles important in the minds of experts in their areas? Or filler being elevated by your friend or associate? Are you in the deep end of the pool? Or in the shallow end?
In each case, the order established by the originator of the content — the journal editor, the book editor, the newspaper editor, the producer, the artist — is usually lost. The article or chapter that Google thinks is most relevant to your search query may be something an editor put toward the end on a whim, or as a concession, or as filler. But Google doesn’t know this. The song that leads the digital music pile of your latest Florence + The Machine indulgence may be something from the middle of the album, and so a song meant to thematically bridge the somber early section with the later section more redolent of absolution becomes the album’s lead because of technology, not artistic design.
Journals often put order on their papers, but each journal’s ordering system and approach is unique. For some, news leads. For others, it’s opinion or a round-up. In the scientific well, the lead article is usually the most important as deemed by the editors at the time, with a rough pecking order following. Toward the bottom of the list, some really esoteric stuff might find its way in.
Not to say that journal editors get it right. The original Watson-Crick paper on DNA was somewhere in the middle of its 1953 issue of Nature. Outside of print, you can’t tell where in the issue the paper appeared. Nor was peer-review then what it is today. The sorting pressures weren’t nearly as intense. But it would be interesting to see what else was in the issue. Instead, our age of atomization has broken apart these old relationships, leaving little trace of the packaging of yesteryear.
Packaging is merely the physical manifestation of authority. If you control the packaging of content, you have a certain authority over it. You can put a lesser article in the proper spot. So when Google or another search engine responds to a user query and puts that same article at the top of a results list, the authority shifts — from editor to user/algorithm. This is why algorithms are forms of editorial expression. They recast authority.
Packaging is lacking in many newer publishing initiatives, which are filled with streams, refresh-dependent sortings, and the like. Order and organization are secondary to flow and dynamism. While it’s democratic, but perhaps there’s some signal to be sent to the community by a leader. How do you send a signal about hierarchy in a stream? In a newsfeed?
A question that lingers in my mind constantly is, “Does [blank] make things better or worse?” And the honest answer is usually, “I don’t know.” It’s hard to judge where certain initiatives or design approaches will end up, what benefits might lurk at their heart. Were the old ways of ordering information actually misleading and far too idiosyncratic to defend? Or were they better, more interesting, and important? Is the speed and precision of search far more valuable than a carefully considered package of information? I don’t know.
But as a firm believer that “and” is preferable to “either/or” in most cases, I do find having fewer clear and local controls a little distressing. The list on the face of this blog is assumed by the technology to be reverse-chronology. I can set which articles are sorted into that framework, but not their order. In a more controlled publishing environment, I’d be able to set not only which articles appear, but the order of their appearance. I could send more and different messages.
Because we now live in a world of increasingly undifferentiated lists assembled by opaque technologies, are the advantages we’re gaining as far as access to information coming at the price of organization, comprehension, and community? Or were these old approaches feeble attempts at precision, curation, and messaging, a low-yield and vain attempt at information control? One that we’re better off without?
I have a feeling we may never know. That’s the thing with change. Sometimes, the alternative overwhelms the predecessor so completely that it pushes it off the page.