Monday, March 25, 2013

Anti-Search: What About The Unexpected?

1994, when anti-search was king!
When I hear about new and improved searching on the internet, I sometimes think, "Hey, what about anti-search?"

Anti-search, of course, is finding what you were not looking for. 

You might think, who needs anti-search?  We've been taught to think of anti-search as a source of frustration and a waste of time.  Like, if you're looking for maps of San Jose, and you end up at a Dionne Warwick video, you might be annoyed by that most 21st century source of annoyance:  What, I have to Click Some More to Find What I Want?  What an outrage!

But back in the day, finding what you were weren't looking for was a crucial part of what made the internet wonderful.  If you were around, you might remember that giddy sense of suddenly finding that there were communities you'd never imagined, obsessions you'd never dreamed existed, and people who combined attitudes and interests in ways you'd never have thought possible.

That happens less and less often on the internet.  Part of it is improved search.  Part of it is the "walled garden" problem of social networking.  It's been pointed out lately that the companies that enable social networking have an interesting in closing off access to information.  If you want to view something posted on Facebook and you're not a member, you don't see that page.  You see an invitation to join Facebook. It's no longer the open internet. 

But it's worse than that.  Because in addition to the control of information problem, you're just less likely these days to find what you're not looking for.  You're seeing what your friends find interesting; you're using hashtags to find out about what you want to find out about; you're connecting with people you've chosen to connect with because you share interests and a point of view.

It's like Dear Internet, Plz Can You Show Me People Like Me?  Thx!

The problem of walled gardens is compounded by the problem of missing anti-search. 

We think of anti-search as a frustration and a waste of time because we've been encouraged by various forces to think of searching as basically a consumer activity.  Like, "I'm looking for X."  "Oh, here's X!"

In comparison, anti-search is surprise and and finding what you weren't actually looking for.  In a way it's like the experience you often have when you're in a large city.  I live in a large city, and one of the many things I love about it is the frequency with which I have the anti-search experience:  seeing people and being taken by surprise, having no sense what's going on with them and no fixed framework to slot them into. 

With respect to the practical steps we might to take to bring anti-search back into our online lives, it does seem perverse to make search engines less effective.  But perhaps more of our time-wasting on the internet could be happen outside the walled gardens, outside the bookmarks even, just following links and seeing where they take is.

We might call it "surfing" the internet.  Hey, just a thought.

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