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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Rock Out With Your Spock Out

Despite the fact that this is not a technology blog, nor do I care really all that much about the latest happenings in web-related apps, the fact that there is now a search engine named cryptically after everyone's favorite green-blooded S.O.B. cannot escape comment. promises to be a search engine for people. No, not for people, but rather for people - that is, it's for looking people up on the internet without having to wade through thousands of irrelevent entries like what a Google search routinely turns up. Only people come up, and there's only one entry per person (obviously, though, identitcal names will come up more than once, but you'll only get one entry for someone like Stephen King). In addition, you can search for tags, like, "star wars," and get people who have some kind of conenction to that phrase - George Bush, Harrison Ford, George Lucas, that French kid with the broomstick, etc.

Want to know if Mel Gibson is worse than Hitler? You can punch up "Mel Gibson" and compare his tags to Hitler's, and see where they rank with each other.

Spock lets you have the most important (re: frequently reported) information about people up front, in the type of straight-to-the-point, one-word snappiness that we all demand today. I think it'll be a great tool: the most popular sources may praise a politician, but if Spock reports that the most frequently used word when referring to him is "liar" or "con-artist," then we've learned a whole lot more about the person.

These are the same concerns that Wikipedia raises, and Wikipedia is much more prone to abuse. All Wikipedia content is user-generated, but Spock uses bots to gather most of their information from social networking and other sites. This could result in a good crap-to-truth ratio, or, depending on the individual, just serve to perpetuate falsehoods and misconceptions.

But I really don't see Spock as creating any new problems, rather, it would simply bring attention to the already existing ones. Because something as obviously wrong as "HGTV broadcasts child pornography" (which I guess I shouldn't really post, since Spock may be, as we speak, irrevocably linking my name with said category of pornographic material) would be identified as irrelevant within minutes, there's not a lot of potential for new abuse.

Of course, on the other hand, yet another website claiming that you're a big jerk isn't exactly a plus. Even if the initial information is incorrect, thousands of sources can spin off from there, repeating the same lies until they are assumed as fact.

Spock does have safeguards to limit abuse (it cannot totally prevent lies from being spread as truth, as I've demonstrated), though: reputations (if a user's tags are rejected one-too-many times, they'll lose priveleges) and YouTube-style "flagging" of users will weed out the juvenile delinquents.

The feature that really catches my eye is the ability to, once an individual is found, rate which tags are actually relevant for the person in question: a quick search for Liam Nesson has "actor," "catholic," and "Schindler's List" pop up, and if I thought any of these had nothing to do with Mr. Neeson (if, for example, "circus performer" had appeared), I could actually tell "Spock" that it was not relevant with a little more than 2 clicks. While this might seem a little archaic when compared to Google's robots, it seems to be the way that the internet is heading - user-generated content is king. I suppose you could call it "democratising" search results, in that the "people" are selecting which information should be displayed most readily.

Of course, user-generated content, much like the democratic process, doesn't always reflect reality: only what the most people happen to think at a given moment (for example: slavery).

Take this story: "Astonishing! thinks you're a pedophile."

Once your content is on Spock it's no longer strictly yours. For example, you can't make your Spock profile private or limit who can contribute to it. Anyone registered with Spock can vote on the tags or photos on your profile. If the 'no' votes outnumber the 'yes' votes, the new content is removed. Otherwise, you'll have to ask Spock's customer service to remove it for you.
You can be the nicest guy in the world, but if you've disagreed with the majority of the membership, you could find yourself villified very quickly. And that undermines Spock's initial goal, which was to make it easier for businesses to decide who to hire. An employer could just look you up on and find out that you've been tagged as an anti-semite, and you could eb out of a job without even being able to offer up a defense against those charges. It is far too easy to libel someone on the internet without having to have the courage and show yourself. A book must have an author's name and a publisher, and a man with a megaphone or tv show must have a face, but the internet provides anonymity to an astonishing degree. And it's difficult to call someone who may not very well exist a liar.

Don't take my thoughts as being a "nail in the coffin" kind of thing - it's intended to be constructive criticism. A "people finder" could be very useful indeed, but experience has taught me that most of the web is populated by vindictive idiots, who'll fire slurs at you across several message boards for daring to dislike the work of Joss Whedon. So, turning to them to describe every person on Earth might not turn out very well when all the smoke clears and the bodies are counted.

We'll have to see where this goes in the months ahead. Until then, here's a list of some profiles that made me chuckle. The tags show what happens when users are given the opportunity to determine content.

Jack Thompson
Paris Hilton (note the "dumb" tag)

I think my favorite has to be Lindsay Lohan, though - "doesn't always wear underwear." I wonder how useful all of this could really be?

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