12 January 2011

Free sex, kid porn, make money fast

My post entitled ‘Cartoon kid porn: evil pedophilia or victimless crime?’ currently sits at the number three spot on this blog’s Top Ten list of most viewed posts. Yet I doubt that the post owes its popularity to the subject matter: a criticism of the hypocrisy and irrationality of anti-cartoon kid porn crusaders, written in the form of a fictional interview. Far more likely that the Googlers were looking for more graphic fare. But since the post and its title contain the keywords kid porn, cartoon porn, pedophilia, dick, ass and the ubiquitous sex, Google’s arcane algorithmic administrations would have served it up as a search result, even if the searcher was after a more titillating link. Basically, I cheated, if unintentionally.

But now that I’ve cottoned on to the secrets of search engine optimisation (SEO), that manipulative trick by which website content is contrived to maximise hits, I too will play the game. Hence the irrelevant title of this post. If I’ve SEOed this article properly, it should make an expeditious ascent on the blog’s Top Ten. Consider this a sociological experiment.

The impact of SEOing web content is becoming increasingly obvious to the media-cracy, so much so that a new breed of IT professional has been created to facilitate the process: the SEO consultant. Michael Wolff (‘Not the Antichrist Again’, British GQ January 2011) describes the SEO man and his purpose thus:

His impact is as serious and has as little room for negotiation as the handing down of any style guide. Henceforth, this is the formal structure of how information must be presented: spell out all locations (not just the Thames, but the Thames in London, not just Paris, but Paris, France), lavish great attention and specificity on proper names (not just Barack, or Obama, but as often as it doesn’t seem silly, Barack Obama; not just the Queen , but Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of England), eschew pronouns, cultivate repetition (the more times you repeat a word, or even better, a set of words – the budget deficit – the better). And further, all words are not created equal: a Google search is not merely about finding information, it is about finding information that is then matched with an advertiser (that is, Google, an advertising sales company as much as it is a keyboard search technology company, will send you this ad).

Words are no longer just words. They can now be leveraged for monetary gain not by their writers, but by the search engine company – Google, for all practical purposes – crawling through them.

In chapter eight (‘The Church of Google’) of his book The Shallows (2010), Nicholas Carr writes about Frederick Winslow Taylor, author of the 1911 treatise The Principles of Scientific Management and implementer of systematic efficiency in early 20th century factory production methods.

Taylor’s system of measurement and optimization is still very much with us; it remains one of the underpinnings of industrial manufacturing. And now, thanks to the growing power that computer engineers and software coders wield over our intellectual and social lives, Taylor’s ethic is beginning to govern the realm of the mind as well. The Internet is a machine designed for the efficient, automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information, and its legions of programmers are intent on finding the “one best way” – the perfect algorithm – to carry out the mental movements of what we’ve come to describe as knowledge work.

According to Carr, Google is a prime exponent of Taylorism, and the Googleplex in Silicon Valley is “the Internet’s high church.” The philosophy espoused by Google’s executives reveals their obsessive focus on efficiency and precision.

The company, says CEO Eric Schmidt, is “founded around the science of measurement.” It is striving to “systemize everything” it does. “We try to be very data-driven, and quantify everything,” adds another Google executive, Marissa Mayer. “We live in a world of numbers.” Drawing on the terabytes of behavioural data it collects through its search engine and other sites, the company carries out thousands of experiments a day and uses the results to refine the algorithms that increasingly guide how all of us find information and extract meaning from it. What Taylor did for the work of the hand, Google is doing for the work of the mind.

Google’s exploits in taming the wildness of human unpredictability, in cracking the shell of human inscrutability, are legend. Carr writes about how in one famous trial, “the company tested forty-one different shades of  blue on its toolbar to see which shade drew the most clicks from visitors.” This OCD level of testing is also applied to the text on Google’s webpages. As Marissa Mayer explains, “You have to try and make words less human and more a piece of the machinery.”

Words are no longer just words. They have been reduced to mere components of the Machine – the Search Engine – and drained of humanist meaning.

So what is a sincere yet ambitious online writer to do in this Brave New World of cynical tagging (SEX, PORN, VIAGRA, $$$), misleading headlines and quantity-over-quality priorities? Does he cleave to principle and maintain his literary integrity? Or does he succumb to the pressure to SEOise his product? If he chooses to “follow the rules of SEO”, Michael Wolff writes, “the results are astounding. Google gives you an audience of a size and at a cost almost never before dreamed of. It’s like turning on a hose. But you must follow the rules.”

So our writer must surrender his individualism, his idiosyncratic proclivities and style, if he wishes to gain access to a potential audience of millions, even billions. It is a Faustian bargain as outlined by Lee Siegel in Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob (2008):

The prerequisite for popularity on the Web is an indiscriminate hunger for popularity, a willingness to use whatever is the most effective means of conformity to gravitate toward – or attract – the largest share of the market (that is, the largest “clique”).

Experience has taught me that leavening your blog post with keywords alluding to sexual relationships with children has the effect of attracting a sizable ‘clique’. Yes, humanity is really that irredeemably fucked up. But that’s just with words. Imagine the page views if a picture of a naked cartoon kid was included. An animated picture.





13.1.11

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