The Search Engine That Talks Back to You

On: March 20, 2011
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About Caroline Goralczyk
I’m a student of the MA track in New Media and a journalist to be, currently living in Amsterdam and enjoying the city at its fullest. After studying as an exchange student at the UvA, I decided to come back and stay here for a little longer to pursue my Master’s degree. In Vienna I was working for a news magazine where I had the chance to gain first-hand experience on how important new media channels can be for professional journalists nowadays. Therefore, my main interest in New Media lies in its influence on journalism and political communication in regard to news making and publishing.

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We are incredibly attuned to the idea that the sole purpose of our technology is to solve problems. It also creates concepts and philosophy. We must more fully explore these aspects of our inventions, because the next generation of technology will speak to us, understand us, and perceive our behavior. It will enter every home and office and intercede between us and much of the information and experience we receive. The design of such intimate technology is an aesthetic issue as much as an engineering one. We must recognize this if we are to understand and choose what we become as a result of what we have made. (Krueger 1977)

In his work on ‘Responsive Environments’, Myron Krueger (1977) explored the relationship between the human and the machine in art and virtual reality by putting forth questions of interactivity and how content is in flux with its medium and its spectators. Now, when considering the vast amount of information circulating on the web and questions of organizing knowledge online, the notion of interactivity is more than ever on the fore when thinking about concepts such as ‘produsage’, the personalization of search results and folksonomies which all include the user’s action in deciding on relevance in filtering information.

With the mission of defining ‘the future of information consumption’, the founders of Qwiki, a self-proclaimed multimedia alternative to the text-based search provided by Google state to have launched the ‘next big thing’: a narrative search-tool based on the computer ‘telling you a story’ accompanied by videos and pictures about the term you are looking for. “Whether you’re planning a vacation on the web, evaluating restaurants on your phone, or helping with homework in front of the family Google TV, Qwiki is working to deliver information in a format that’s quintessentially human – via storytelling instead of search.”

Now, is this really an alternative to Google’s PageRank system which is now predominantly organizing the information on the web in the sense of being a ‘status-authoring device’ (Rogers 2009) in ranking sources? By seemingly providing an alternative to Google, Qwiki draws its information from Wikipedia content, Yahoo, Google and social networks (Qwiki 2011) which, besides matters of source transparency, also raise issues of privacy and diversity of information in the face of personalization of search. In their Terms of Service, the company announces that it “may store information that we collect through cookies, log files, web beacons, and/or third party sources to create a “profile” of your preference and activities. We may tie your personally identifiable information to information in the profile, in order to improve and customize our Service and provide tailored promotions and marketing offers for you. We may purchase marketing data from third parties and add it to our existing user database, to better target our advertising and to provide pertinent offers in which we think you would be interested. To enrich our profiles, we may tie this information to the personally identifiable information we have” (Qwiki 2011).

This pattern seems to resemble the current discussion on personalization of search and the organization of information on the web, particularly in relation to the business of search: as search engines and first and foremost Google with its dominant market position have come to be the number one device for information retrieval on the web, the matter of search increasingly becomes a matter of power and representation. As its ranking system supposedly functions “as a mere (vote) counting mechanism” with ‘no human involvement’ in its process, “users have come to trust Google as a source of objective information” (Rieder 2009).

However, when considering that the categorization of information does not involve the users in the case of Qwiki, but rather presents them a finish product, the question of objectivity immediately puts itself out of action. Also, when having the use of personal queries for targeted advertising in mind, the question suggests itself of how information can be organized objectively and transparently on the web at all. In the case of Qwiki, the content given is not only predetermined and categorized beforehand, as users cannot ‘choose’ from sources like in Google but moreover, when moving towards a fusion of personal settings and personal histories on the site, “the search engine’s acquaintance with the user would ultimately provide the uncanny, as if it knew what you were looking for and desiring all along” (Rogers 2009) which implies convenience for the user, but will be used for commercial gains. In this regard, Qwiki has a solid potential for small businesses to promote their products by telling a visualized story about them and offering them to a targeted audience, but not in the sense of offering a suitable alternative as an objective and transparent search device next to Google.

Krueger, Myron (1977). “Responsive Environments.” In: Wardrip-Fruin, Noah and Montfort, Nick (eds). The New Media Reader. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.

Rieder, Bernhard. “Democratizing Search? From Critique to Society-oriented Design.” Deep Search. The Politics of Search beyond Google. Eds. Konrad Becker, and Felix Stalder. Innsbruck: StudienVerlag, 2009. 133-151.

Rogers, Richard. “The Googlization Question. Towards the Inculpable Engine.” Deep Search. The Politics of Search beyond Google. Eds. Konrad Becker, and Felix Stalder. Innsbruck: StudienVerlag, 2009. 173-184.

Qwiki, 2011.  Sunday, retrieved March 20, 2011. http://www.qwiki.com/

‘Qwiki Founder: How I Launched A Talking Search Engine’ Huffington Post, 2010. Retrieved Sunday, March 20, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/11/09/qwiki-founder-doug-imbruce_n_780706.html

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