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The social construction of search engines

Research project The project “opening the black box” aims to investigate norms, values and ideas, which are built into search engines and what information political consequences these may cause.

The project “opening the black box” aims to investigate norms, values and ideas, which are built into search engines and what information political consequences these may cause. Given the central role search engines play in contemporary Internet practices it is important to understand the concept of knowledge, but also business models such as the “service-for-profile” model (Elmer, Rogers), that search engines embody and how they shape the way information is presented, negotiated and hierarchized in search engine results. Drawing on concepts from the field of Science and Technology Studies (SCOT, ANT) and different types of empirical materials (qualitative interviews, analyses of search engine results and hyperlink networks with digital methods) the project aims to show that search technologies are no neutral technical tools, but rather mirror societal values and crucially shape how issues such as the controversy around biofuels is presented and formatted online.

Project overview

Project period:

2010-10-01 2011-10-01

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Humlab

Project description

Search engines have become central tools for ordering, filtering and selecting web information. Although social networking platforms such as Facebook or Twitter have gained great popularity amongst specific user groups, most notably young and internet savvy users, search engines remain central access points to the web for the majority of users (Jansen and Spink 2006).

While search engines have been celebrated as helping users to find information they desire, they have also been criticized for creating information visibility hierarchies. Introna and Nissenbaum (2000), for example, have argued that Google’s famous PageRank algorithm systematically prefers big, well-connected websites at the expense of smaller, marginalized websites, which would run counter the democratic ideal of the web, as they conclude. Moreover, search engines, amongst other platforms, have been accused to collect a great deal of user data, which they turn into value through advertising. Elmer (2004) has called this newly arising business model “service-for-profile”, which gains more and more importance in the information economy.

While a lot has been written about search engines and the information politics (Rogers 2004) and advertising schemes (Röhle 2009) they trigger, little is known about the way search engines actually come into being and how this shapes the way specific topics are represented online. What actors are involved in the construction of search engines? What ideas, norms and values are embedded in the technologies? And, as a consequence, how does this shape the way topics, such as a techno-scientific controversy, are represented and structured online?

These are the questions my project “opening the black box” aims to address. To answer these questions I employ different types of methods. First, I investigate historic ways of ordering knowledge based on popularity, most importantly from the fields of bibliometrics and scientometrics, which help to better understand Google’s PageRank algorithm using the number and quality of links to measure and hierarchize web information. Second, I conduct qualitative interviews with different stakeholders including search engine developers, information scientists, search engine optimization people, but also critical internet researchers, activists concerned about privacy issues, and proponents from law, policy and commerce to explore how search engines are developed in a broader societal context. Finally, I will investigate how the controversy on biofuels is negotiated in search engine results by employing “digital methods” (developed by the Govcom.org Foundation, Amsterdam) to analyze and visualize search engine results, dominant websites and their corresponding hyperlink networks, most particularly in the Swedish context where biofuels are very popular.

The analysis will be theoretically framed by concepts developed in the tradition of the social construction of technology (SCOT, Bijker at al. 1987), which basically challenge the idea that technologies are an outcome of linear innovation processes. Rather, they help to understand that technologies such as search engines are negotiated amongst different actor groups, including developers, politics, and various user groups, and thus embody a range of socio-political norms and values. This perspective enables me to underline that search technologies are no neutral technical tools, but rather embody societal values. Further, I embed my study in concepts from the Actor-Network Theory (ANT), which allows for conceptualizing technologies such as search engines not as passive intermediaries, but rather as “full-blown actors” shaping social reality. Drawing on ANT I conceptualize search engines as actively contributing to the way web information is ordered, shaped, and presented to the user, as I’ve discussed elsewhere (Mager 2009, 2010).

This analytical framework helps me to consider search engine results as an important location where controversies such as the one on biofuels are negotiated and formatted and allows for drawing conclusions about visibility hierarchies and information political consequences search engines trigger. Altogether, the study will show how search technologies are negotiated within the broader context of the information economy and capitalist society, at least in Western parts of the world. Which broader implications the commercialization of search technology has for present “information societies” and what we may expect from the future will be further discussed.