June 13, 2000

The Shape of Webs To Come

Self-Organizing Systems The most recent attempts to measure the Web's dimensions (May 2000) have produced not so much interesting results as a new wave of metaphors to "naturalize" the predictable effects of mass media advertising, specifically the last two seasons of site-pumping TV ad campaigns.

Of course, the number of web sites continues to grow exponentially. So does the number of "pages," although with so much custom and even ordinary HTML output now created on-the-fly by n-tier database systems, the concept of "pages" is outmoded and "total pages" is a purely speculative measure. Search engines don't even index this massive on-the-fly content, and they don't yet read XML. But even omitting this kind of content, the Web is booming. No surprise to anyone.

Neither should it surprise anyone that present growth in web traffic is increasingly confined to fewer and fewer sites. That's what advertising and PR are supposed to accomplish. And the professionals who are very well paid to do it know their business. They've known it since the birth of mass media marketing in the early decades of the last century, when the science or art -- whatever it is -- was still called by its proper and more descriptive name, propaganda.

That early twentieth-century discovery is elegantly simple: If you have the right media tools and a sufficiently fragmented, disoriented population, fearful, anxious and confused by modern life, you can discover, by hook or by crook, effective techniques of propagating an idea, a symbol, an icon, a value, whatever, such that it enters mass culture and takes on a life of its own, reverberating in the vast emptiness of the popular psyche, its presence growing, amplifying beyond anything in your power to communicate directly. How many of us can still hum and sing the jingles of our childhood? "It's Ellis Brooks, today, for your Chevrolet, corner of Christian Bush and Van Ness...." That one cut so deep in the San Francisco Bay Area, that, last time I looked, Ellis Brooks sprawled for blocks, and if it weren't for the original sign still hanging, you'd be hard pressed to find the Chevy showroom among all the Ellis Brooks imports.

Propaganda works. No surprise, especially since it contributes to the further growth of the underlying conditions upon which it depends: cultural fragmentation, disorientation, fear, anxiety, confusion. I've never bought a Chevy -- never would, never will -- but that junk is still rattling around in my brain as if it were important, essential to my life experience; as if it were a treasured piece of accumulated wisdom I would wish to pass down to future generations.

No surprise. So why all the buzzing excitement over the recent web surveys and academic and think-tank analyses that only rehearse what we all know so well, that with mass media ad campaigns a few sites can dominate an exponentially growing field of competitors? In part, the excitement, no doubt, stems from relief. Thank God, it still works! Thank God, the principles remain fundamentally unchanged despite this new medium's relatively low barriers to entry. The alternative -- everyone can enter, and there's no way to achieve dominance -- is just too scary, too populist, too... well... democratic.

To understand the role played by relief in the excitement, you have to take note that the major marketing executives and strategists dedicated to pulling off this stunt of rendering most of the Web effectively invisible to inexperienced users have worked most of their lives in a media economy of scarcity. They have worked and planned around technological and legislative limits on the number of media outlets: there have always been relatively few radio stations, even fewer TV broadcast licenses, and only a handful of networks controlling them all. You need a knowledge of history, to go back to Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler's early experiences with leaflet and other print materials, to have confidence that well-designed propaganda's effectiveness does not utterly depend upon having a media monopoly -- not that Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler each didn't know how to use a media monopoly when they finally got one. The glee of relief can only come to those who have no sense of history; to those who forget the past; to those who, for obvious reasons, probably cannot acknowledge even to themselves the path-breaking experience and truly creative genius -- call it "evil genius" if it makes you feel better -- of the founding, grandmasters of their discipline.

"Naturally," the new wave of academic metaphors to conceptualize the Web phenomenon also serves to conceal the obvious, that the shape of the Web we now see results from very particular and deliberate human planning and effort. "The more pages a site has, the more likely it is that more pages will be added to it," one of these academics says, "It's just like the growth of a tree." Neither of the studies being cited around the Web, (e.g., MSNBC's "Measuring the Web's Diameter"), takes the least note of the phenomenal boom in dot.com advertising on radio, TV, billboards, magazines, newspapers, books, etc. It's as if Notre Dame physicist Albert-Laszlo Barabasi and his colleagues, Reka Albert and Hawoong Jeong, authors of one of the cited studies, and Bernardo Huberman and Lada Adamic of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, authors of the other most frequently cited study, were all living on another planet where the only medium available were the Internet. They evidently did not watch either of the last two Superbowls, when millions per minute were dropped to influence web traffic patterns, to say nothing of what every major player has been spending on a weekly basis ever since. Perhaps they are so dedicated to their studies that they don't even own TVs.

But more likely their studious silence on the obvious intent and impact of mass media propagandizing of the Web results from the inconvenient fact that noticing it would spoil the neatness of their theoretical model, which depends upon the Web being a "Self-Organizing System," or "SOS" for short-"just like a tree" or, more correctly and encompassing, just like a rain forest ecosystem.

According to USENET's SOS FAQ, "Many natural systems show organization (e.g. galaxies, planets, chemical compounds, cells, organisms and societies)" of the self-organizing variety. Investigation of self-organizing systems is particularly hot right now in ecological studies, applied to the rise, evolution and extinction of species that cohabitate within local and global ecosystems, and in astrophysics, applied, among many other things, to the theoretical distribution of planetary solar systems like our own in the universe as a whole: "The forms we identify around us are only a small sub-set of those theoretically possible. So why don't we see more variety?" So, of course, it's tempting to take the metaphors seriously and apply the same model and mathematics to the "ecology" of the Web "universe."

But here's the kicker, the definition of SOS and the premise upon which the currently cited studies of the Web are based: "The essence of self-organization is that system structure often appears without explicit pressure or involvement from outside the system"; evidence of self-organization is "the evolution of a system into an organized form in the absence of external constraints." In terms of the field's own definitions, the idea that the Web is a self-organizing system, especially that Web traffic patterns are self-organizing, "without explicit pressure or involvement from outside the system," is monstrously absurd.

But nowhere in the recently publicized studies nor in any of the collateral web documents I have searched is there even a hint that there might be a problem, or at least one worth considering. Instead, we are told that "the Web has taken on an organic life of its own," "follows natural laws and can be studied as 'an ecology of knowledge,'" because, as a self-organizing system, the Web "exhibits the type of physical order found in, say, magnetic fields, galaxies and plant growth."

Of course, there's nothing new about the use of nature metaphors to terminate social and political inquiry into historical phenomena. The notion of the unquestionable rightness of "the survival of the fittest," as an apology for inequitable distributions of wealth, health and happiness under capitalism, predates Darwin's borrowing of the metaphor to explain the planless patterns of natural selection, but Darwin's theories were quickly reimported into social and political discourse to perpetuate, with greater scientistic glory, the same aggressive anti-poor campaign on behalf of burgeoning corporate and financial power during the peak of the industrial revolution. Now, on behalf of the primary beneficiaries of the information-media revolution, the science of self-organizing systems provides a convenient "natural" rationale for not sending up an SOS over the virtual extinction of traffic to Internet sites that cannot afford major media advertising.

As if that weren't bad enough, these recent studies have been taken, in a leap of logic I cannot fathom for the life of me, to justify new "intelligence search techniques that can adroitly skip from site to site, seeking out the most relevant or most popular sites within the Web behemoth."

Search-engine companies already are relying increasingly on such techniques, said Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Watch. He said that's the rationale behind search sites such as Google, which ranks its results by link "importance" ... DirectHit, which bases its analysis on "what people are clicking on" ... and Inktomi, which is "looking at what people are actually viewing."

Note that in the preceding quotations, as throughout professional discussion of these matters, it's hard to tell what "relevance" or "importance" mean, aside from serving as synonyms for "popular." Perhaps "relevance" and "important," if different at all, are the special categories reserved for soon-to-be-popular content owned by the media giants that, increasingly, are buying up established search engines to create vast integrated marketing (a.k.a., progaganda) apparatuses, spanning print, radio, TV, film, video, DVD, and the Net.

In any event, it's not hard to discern the self-fulfilling prophecy here. Mass media ad campaigns produce the concentrated traffic patterns that allow "scientific" studies of the Net to declare the operation of an entirely "natural power law distribution" in an independent "self-organizing system," which in turn calls for search engine traffic direction concentrating user attention upon what is already popular, that is, upon what has been or is being marketed by the traditional mass media. There may be signs of a self-organizing system here -- one well worth studying -- but it is the media apparatus as a whole, to which the Web appears to be growing increasingly subservient, less and less self-organizing.

But we may confidently expect no publicized studies of the overall media apparatus as a self-organizing system, because that wouldn't be "scientific." It would be radical politics. For such a study couldn't help but send up an SOS potentially calling forth "external forces" -- those of us now passive consumers of mass media culture -- who might very well object to the "power law" the media have achieved over American and global individual and collective consciousness if we saw it too starkly and directly in its "ecological" totality.

Ironically, it is only the academic and scientific community, out of which these legitimations of de facto media marketing power over the Web have arisen, that has complained about its obvious consequences: "importance" and "popularity" too rarely coincide. The new "intelligence search techniques" are inevitably skipping over academic and scientific sites as of no "relevance" to anyone.

Naturally, they're asking for government funding to remedy the injustice of this "natural" omission.

See MSNBC: "Measuring the Web's Diameter" and MSNBC: "Web Growth Outpaces Search Engines" for source of quotations and background information used above.

Posted by Raoul

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