The Problem with Popular

Reading thenextweb.com article “Why I adopted a scorched earth policy, dismantled two blogs and jumped to Tumblr” by Steve Rubel I was intrigued by his ending comments, “I believe that Plus One, if adopted, is a game changer. These endorsements, plus Facebook likes and other social signals, will help tell Google what to pay attention to and what to let fade away.”

In short, popularity will become the new personalization filter.

I also came across The Filter Bubble, a web site based on the book by Eli Pariser, which addresses how personalized data is kept, used, and more important questions such as who owns it.

So here is the problem: people use the web to complete tasks. As a site owner, I want to make it as easy as possible to help you complete your task. The more I know about you, the better I can help by making assumptions about what tasks you are trying to complete. In trying to help, I’m filtering what you see. I’m limiting it to pages you are most likely seeking to find.

This is no different in search. As the content explosion continues, the search engines are seeking to supplement their algorithms with human suggestions and recommendations coupled with user history. Likes and +1’s, check-ins and favorites, all of these are going to be taken into consideration, which means some really good content is going to get left out.

For example, I was an early user of Delicious and belonged to its forum. It was fascinating to communicate with the founder and provide feedback, to hear how others were using the technology, and I found lots of great content. As the community grew, and more content was tagged, I had to sift through more mundane content to get to the good content.

The simple matter of fact is that most people don’t know good, they know popular. Popular isn’t always good and it is often softened to please the largest numbers. Technical is not often popular. So if we are going to focus on ranking what people like as opposed to what is genuinely good, we are going to reduce the incredible ability to find outstanding sites, services, and thinkers online.

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