From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

March 28, 2005*: Equal in the eyes of cyberspace.

Back in my undergraduate days (long ago, when issues very different from cyberspace concerned me) one of the burning environmental topics was the Population Bomb. It's a bit hard to remember, but about 35 years ago the claim went that the world was headed toward famine and death on a massive scale because the earth's resources couldn't maintain what appeared to be a continued and spiraling growth in population. As Paul Ehrlich, the major prophet of doom, put it:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.

As should be rather obvious (and was so considerably earlier than only thirty five years later) this didn't happen. The fallout from such an overly zealous prediction, and the easy willingness to accept it, however, is (or should be) a scepticism toward environmental predictions of doom. Predictions of environmental disasters, after all, are frequent and intense, and it seems that the only thing that we can truly be sure of is that if the sky is falling, it's doing so extremely slowly. Ehrlich undoubtedly still has his followers, but more than a generation later, he seems to have succeeded in fading into oblivion.

My interest in the deleterious effects of ever booming population growth waned long ago, but if we're looking for possible environmental disasters, the web is a great place to look. Promises of impending doom abound there. But should we believe these promises, or instead those who tell us that today's doomsayers aren't any different from the Paul Ehrlichs of a generation ago? Toward the end of December, 2004, the conservative columnist George Will wrote an Op-Ed article in the Washington Post (and on its online edition) praising Michael Crichton's anti-global-warming-scare novel State of Fear, and arguing that the fear of global warming is greatly over-exagerrated. This article wasn't the first time that I'd encountered claims that global warming isn't the danger it's often made out to be. That being the case, although in the past I'd never found many reasons to agree with George Will, I was amenable to being convinced that on this score he was right. And of course I tried to find information on the web that would tell me whether or not he was.

Readers of these columns, however, can correctly assume that I'm not going to try to resolve the global warming controversy here. The issue may interest me, but it's not the sort of thing I deal with in these columns. And that being the case, at this stage in this column it seems fair to ask - all this is well and good, but what does all this have to do with the internet? One doesn't have to turn to the internet to find conflicting opinions. These can readily be found in newspapers and on television. So why a column that seems concerned with such a trivial issue? Am I going to claim that something different is taking place on the web than in more traditional media? That wouldn't be an easy claim to prove. Perhaps we might be able to point to certain limited distinctions, and perhaps these can be significant. In a print environment, for instance, because its readership would have been predefined as readers of a particular newspaper, Will's article would probably have had a more limited impact. In addition, it would have faded from public view more quickly, and three months after its publication relatively few people would encounter it. On the web there's a greater chance of longevity and of receiving a wider audience.

But two other differences between traditional media and the web, differences that aren't necessarily obvious, should definitely be considered significant. These are the page ranking systems that various search engines use, and the rather unsophisticated searching habits of today's web users. Taken together (and it's hard to separate them) they create a sort of vicious circle of limited curiousity that creates a situation in which even in cases where an issue is controversial and hotly debated, it doesn't necessarily generate interest outside of a small circle of friends.

Back in 2001, Jakob Nielsen, of usability research fame, told us that:

Users almost never look beyond the second page of search results.
A Consumer Reports WebWatch study from 2003 found similar results:
The majority of participants never clicked beyond the first page of search results as they had blind trust in search engines to present only the best or most accurate unbiased results on the first page. As a result, two-in-five links (or 41%) selected by our participants during the assigned search sessions were paid results.
This suggests that even in cases where different and varied information, information from different points of view, information that evaluates source material in conflicting manners, is available, a large percentage of internet users aren't going to find it. Instead, they're going to be satisfied with the first information that they encounter on a subject, and they'll neither investigate additional results that are available to them, nor revise their searches in order to find different information. In other words, after a couple of clicks at the most, they'll be shut off from additional and/or different viewpoints or opinions on a subject. And this means that page ranking is all - if you can't get your site to the top of the results, you're not going to be found at all. And if only a limited number of people find you, your ranking isn't going to be high, and you'll continue to fade into oblivion.

If we run a Google search on "global warming" (at least during the time that this column was being prepared), the first result is to - an organization that very clearly states that in their opinion fears about global warming are highly exageratted. Their review of Crichton's book, for instance, is extremely positive. This site shows up second (after a couple of interesting sponsored ads) in an AltaVista search, after a (very non-commital) sub-site devoted to global warming on the governmental Environmental Protection Agency site, and before a site constructed by a number of civic environment activist groups. These same results, in the same order (though after different sponsored ads) show up on searches on Yahoo!, on All The Web, and on Ask Jeeves - which, if it surprises us at all, should cause us to be only one-third surprised.

Does any of this tell us that Crichton is right? Of course not. Nor does it suggest that he's wrong. In the ongoing debate on the subject of global warming a healthy scepticism can't hurt, and reading the arguments from both sides raises numerous ideas and questions. But that's hardly the issue here. Eight years ago Eliot Soloway and Raven Wallace told us that the web wasn't necessarily a positive framework for student inquiry. Since then the students they wrote about have gone on to college. Some may already be parents. We have little reason to assume, however, that they've become more adept at finding useful, relevant and accurate information on the web. Newer search tools, and much more information, have become available on the web. Lots of good stuff is there. But the web is a great equalizer. In the eyes of a vast number of basically satisfied web searchers, what basically distinguishes between pages isn't content, but instead their placement as close to the top of a page as possible. Any page that we can get to via a web search is pretty much like any other, and that being the case, one is generally enough. Debate over.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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