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Reflexive Googlebombing

The concept of Googlebombing is, I think, an interesting illustration of Anthony Giddens' idea of reflexivity. Googlebombing is when, in order to promote an association between two ideas, you get lots of people to use one as the text of a link to another. Google uses links to determine what a page is about and how important it is (there was an interesting Straits Times article about how Google works). The latest attempt is to associate "George W. Bush" with "unelectable," so you may have noticed a lot of liberal bloggers putting up links like so: unelectable. (I find this petty, and it's to their credit that I haven't seen a counter-Googlebomb effort on any of the conservative blogs I read. I hope the thrill of such things wears off, though you'll notice I'm not above doing it once as an illustration.) When and if this succeeds, the #1 result in Google for "unelectable" will be Bush's bio.

Reflexivity is the idea that sociology becomes part of society. In the natural sciences, atoms and chemicals and planets do their thing regardless of whether anyone understands them or not. Natural scientific results can help us to manipulate nature based on its laws, but they don't change the laws themselves. Social science, on the other hand, is not so cut off from its object of study. People don't follow social laws automatically. They rely on conceptions of how society works in order to plan their actions. A sociological theory can become one such conception for a person.

In making links to other pages, most people on the web haven't really thought about their link's impact on Google's ranking. The ranking is an unintended consequence of their activity that is based on other frameworks (such as "ease of reading"). Then someone popularized the idea that one's link text affects Google. This new theoretical framework for thinking about one's linking behavior then became an explicit basis for action (at least some of the time). This in turn changes the nature of Google's ranking process. It's possible that, if the thrill of doing deliberate Googlebombs wears off but the practice makes people more aware on a day-to-day level of the effect of their links, that it could improve Google's operation. I certainly wasn't helping Google by habitually using "this article" or "a post" as my link text (which is not to say I'll stop -- the stylistic criterion will probably override the Google criterion for making my decisions). At the very least it would change Google, since the algorithm was designed based on the assumption of a non-reflexive internet that didn't think about how its brainpower was being mined by search engines. It's possible that the people at Google could then update their "sociology" based on changes in web society and thus change their algorithm to account for Googlebombing. Then that information would get out and be reflexively applied to people's linking practices, and on and on. Sociology can never be cumulative in the way that the natural sciences are, because the explanation changes the phenomenon.


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