Of all the jobs I've had in the past twenty odd years, I'm pretty sure the one that pleased my parents the most was my brief stint as a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, my family's local paper of record. My mother in particular seemed quite proud to see her son's work land on her breakfast table each morning (well, not exactly, I worked at a local edition in Ventura, and my mother lived in Pasadena. Every every once in a while, one of my pieces did make the national edition...).
In any case, when I delivered the news I was leaving the Times to help start a magazine focused on technology, Mom wasn't entirely convinced. "The newspaper," she declared, "is our social glue. It's what keeps us all on the same page. Technology is going to destroy that, everyone will end up reading whatever suits their fancy."
That was back in 1992 (the magazine was Wired), and given what's happened with the newspaper industry in the past 16 or so years, it's hard to argue with either my decision to leave the Times, or my mother's assertion that our culture was on the brink of losing an important component of its "social glue."
Fast forward to two nights ago, when I was talking with my own son about technology. Earlier in the day, he had emailed me from his room downstairs, asking me - for the fourth time - for the link to his Boy Scout troop web page. Mildly irritated, I turned to my browser's toolbar and entered "CA Troop 43" or some such, but the results did not give me the page I wanted. In fact, they gave me a bunch of other Troops - Troop 9, Troop 777 - that happened to have the numbers 4 or 3 on their site for other reasons.
I recalled that my son's troop used an old community application that was difficult for search engines to find, putting it in what search experts call "the deep web" - websites that are easily accessible if you know the exact URL, but near impossible to find using Google.
If I had enabled Google Desktop Search, I could have found that scout website - desktop search scans my entire hard drive and integrates it with my web search, and it turns out, I had the URL in an email folder on my local computer. But desktop search, like Web History, kind of creeps me out. I remembered that I had the URL in an email, searched my mail, and found it that way. Instead of sending it - yet again - to my son, I thought I'd talk to him at dinner and perhaps teach him the value of bookmarks.
This story is getting a bit convoluted, but stay with me. What happened next was interesting. At dinner I gently chided my son for lazy information gathering habits. "I'm not your personal Google," I told him. "Why couldn't you find the URL yourself? Did you even try?"
"Actually dad, I did, and it gave me all sorts of wrong answers - Troop 43 in Texas, and Iowa, but nothing for mine!"
"What did you search for, son?"
"Troop 43, of course!"
"Well that's your first problem. There's a Troop 43 in nearly every state, sometimes in every county, and the one here in Marin is really hard to find because no one links to it. Also, it's on a community domain, one that probably protects its content from search engine crawlers. You should have narrowed your search - like I did, but to be honest, even that wouldn't have helped. You have to search elsewhere - did you think to search your mail?"
As my son contemplated the idea that Google might not be omniscient, something struck me. Faced with the same question - "what is Troop 43's website address" - my son and I both did the exact same thing - we asked Google. I asked the question a little bit differently than did my son, but we both got poor results. Yet due to years of conditioning, we instinctively assumed Google would give us the One Right Answer. That assumption - in particular my son's, who has never used a computer without a browser and Google services - united us.
In ten short years, Google has become our social glue - we all presume that two people, asking roughly the same question, will get pretty much the same answer, and that answer will be correct. For most of the past decade, that was a pretty fair assumption. Google has become a universal search resource, reliable, accurate, and ... consistent.
But for a variety of reasons, that assumption is no longer true. The ongoing goal of all search providers has been to personalize search - to tailor answers to the individual who is doing the searching. Search no longer takes one signal - your query - and finds results against the entire web. Instead it takes many signals - your search history, your geographic location, things you've clicked on in the past, files on your hard drive (if you allow it), and many others - and processes those signals against probable sub sets of data that have a higher chance of providing *you* the best answer. And that answer, increasingly, will be quite different from someone else's, even if that other person asks exactly the same question.
Along the way, I think, something has been lost. It's the same thing my mother lamented as she watched my generation abandon the newspaper - common ground, common spaces - a common set of facts around which we as humans can gather, debate, and connect. And therein lies an opportunity, I sense, to create a new kind of search that is in fact *not* personalized, but rather socialized - shared and common to all.