"Try finding Harper's Magazine when you Google 'magazines that publish essays' or 'magazines that publish short stories' -- it isn't easy." No, Rick, no it's not.
I don't want to delve too deeply into John "Rick" MacArthur's latest Internet troll, in which he rails against being indexed by search engines. Ain't no troll like a Rick MacArthur troll, non?
But I do want to point out how he thinks people might find things on the so-called Internet.
Google's bias for search results that list its own products above those of its competitors is now well-known, but equally damaging, and less remarked, is the bias that elevates websites with free content over ones that ask readers to pay at least something for the difficult labor of writing, editing, photographing, drawing, and painting and thinking coherently. Try finding Harper's Magazine when you Google "magazines that publish essays" or "magazines that publish short stories" -- it isn't easy.
Well, I thought I'd try out that search strategy for some other common things John MacArthur, or someone with his same sensibility, might go looking for things.
The joke here, of course, is that MacArthur has no idea how people use the Internet, or how to use the Internet himself. While that might seem like a failure to understand The Machine, i.e. Google, it's actually a failure to understand other people.
Rick MacArthur wants the world to bend to his reality. And in real life, if you're a wealthy and powerful person, the world does just that. On the Internet, advertisers may attempt to reassemble the ads you see into a perfectly relevant constellation, but the other human beings do exactly what they want to, regardless of what John MacArthur wants. And a vanishingly small number of them devote time to Googling, "magazines that publish essays."
Even if Harper's was the #1 result for that search term, it wouldn't help Harper's one bit. Seriously. Not one bit. Right now, the number-one result for that search is a post by writer Meghan Ward, "20 Places to Publish Personal Essays
." Ward told me that the post has received 450 unique visitors in the last week. That's a respectable number for a personal site post, but you just can't build a magazine business around those kinds of numbers. And that's traffic from all sources, not just Google.
The point is: most people don't read any essays, and those that do want to read the best essays, and they count on -- for good or for ill -- their friends and Internet friends to act as the editors of the world's essays for them.
For just about every person, the Internet is not content brands that they return to mindlessly day after day. The Internet experience is composed of people (friends, famous people, Internet famous people, high school frenemies) and individual things (stories, items of clothing, pictures). These components get rearranged anew every single day into the idiosyncratic Internet that one knows as one's own.
And because Google is built by ingesting human intelligence, the way its search work reflects those priorities. MacArthur wants the Internet to be a directory of brand names, but that's not how it developed. And if you remember the hand-edited Internet directory of coherent, complete websites that Yahoo once was, you know why: It was impossible to find anything! For human and technical reasons, the fundamental unit that makes sense is not harpers.org (the site) but http://harpers.org/blog/2013/01/googles-media-barons/ (the page). Anyone who has used the Internet knows this, but MacArthur can't admit that because it would mean agreeing that Google indexing pages is a good thing.
One last thought. Nowadays, most people see several versions of the hand-edited Internet: one is the stream of content their friends share, two is Wikipedia, and three is the way Google recommends search terms in real-time. Your Internet is increasingly shaped by other people's judgment processed through machines' ranking algorithms. With Facebook Graph Search, and Google's Search Plus Your World, this trend is picking up steam. And what's fascinating about that is that someday soon MacArthur's idea of search might start to make sense: for general queries, top search results would become the ones close to you that your friends had liked. That won't help Harper's a bit, but it might help you.