Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Whose search engine is bigger?

Fred Vogelstein over at Wired has been turning out some great material about Facebook over the last couple of weeks. His first piece, "Great Wall of Facebook," and his follow-up interview with company CEO Mark Zuckerberg are compelling in what they portend for the company's future.

The gist of the matter is this: Facebook began as a social networking site, and indeed it very much remains that. However, it's also in the process of re-imagining itself as a new type of search engine, one that prioritizes human social connections over abstract computer algorithms. And it's a move expressly designed to pit Facebook against its archrival, search engine giant Google:

Today, the Google-Facebook rivalry isn't just going strong, it has evolved into a full-blown battle over the future of the Internet—its structure, design, and utility. For the last decade or so, the Web has been defined by Google's algorithms—rigorous and efficient equations that parse practically every byte of online activity to build a dispassionate atlas of the online world. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg envisions a more personalized, humanized Web, where our network of friends, colleagues, peers, and family is our primary source of information, just as it is offline. In Zuckerberg's vision, users will query this "social graph" to find a doctor, the best camera, or someone to hire—rather than tapping the cold mathematics of a Google search. It is a complete rethinking of how we navigate the online world, one that places Facebook right at the center. In other words, right where Google is now.

Two things are intriguing to me about Facebook's foray into search. First, I'm fascinated by Zuckerberg's rhetoric. He describes Google as a tool of the "surveillance society" -- as if Facebook had no interest whatsoever in paying attention to what its users are doing. He also describes Google's approach to search as "top-down," suggesting not-so-implicitly that Facebook's approach is more bottom-up. Why is it that every technology company is the authentic champion of grassroots democracy until the next new hotshot comes along? It's getting old...really, really old. Didn't Apple beat that one to death with Microsoft?

More compelling to me is Vogelstein's discussion of Facebook and Google's respective philosophies of search. Prior to reading his article and interview, it hadn't dawned on me that there could be such radically different search architectures -- much less that there would be a struggle over them. And that make these times we're currently living in all the more interesting.

There's a lovely moment near the beginning of Michel Foucault's The Order of Things, in which the late philosopher shows how living creatures used to be classified prior to the advent of the modern kingdom-phylum-class-order-family-genus-species system. There was a radically different order of things, as it were, and reshuffling that order involved a tremendous redistribution of power throughout society.

Perhaps it's overblown to pitch the impending Facebook-Google showdown in such world-historical terms. All the same, the struggle over how best to bring order to knowledge and information isn't just about one company's desire to triumph over another -- it's about how, where, and among whom power will be dispersed in society.