Digital Culture

Goodbye, Mahalo

A new “search engine” went live this week calling itself Mahalo. How does it distinguish itself from the big guns of search (Google, Yahoo, Ask, MSN)?

Mahalo is the world’s first human-powered search engine powered by an enthusiastic and energetic group of Guides. Our Guides spend their days searching, filtering out spam, and hand-crafting the best search results possible. If they haven’t yet built a search result, you can request that search result. You can also suggest links for any of our search results.

Yep, they are human-indexing the web! Disregarding the “first human-powered search engine” bit, since they aren’t a search engine (they appear to be an index, with a search on top) and they clearly aren’t the first in any case (Yahoo started out exactly the same way, and the Librarian’s Internet Index is the same thing done by information professionals).

I wonder what Weinberger might think of their attempt?

In their FAQ, they handily tell you they selection criteria. Here’s the couple that stood out to me:

Sites they will not link to:

… sites of unknown origin (i.e. we cannot establish who operates the site).
… sites which have adult content or hate speech.

Establishment of “who operates” the site on the Internet? Really? Does a nom de plume count? How about a site whose authors must remain anonymous for political reasons? And that’s setting aside the longstanding legal precedent that anonymity in speech is a necessary for free speech. (see: McIntyre v. Ohio or Talley v. California)

Restricting Adult Content and Hate Speech makes it sound like those are two very clear categories. I’m always wary of groups who feel like they should be the ones making content decisions…one of the reasons I’m so happy to be a librarian.

They will link to:

… sites that are considered authorities in their field (i.e. Edmunds for autos, Engadget for consumer electronics, and the New York Times for news).

I swear on a stack of pancakes, I will get off my ass this year and write that article that’s been rattling around in my head about how Authority as a criteria for ANYTHING is old and busted.

Digital Culture Library Issues

More mistakes with authority…

It was brought to my attention today by uber-librarian Catherine Pellegrino that there has been a bit of a dust up regarding authority in regards to the Flu Wiki. David Mattison over at The Ten Thousand Year Blog has called into issue whether or not the information in the Flu Wiki is trustworthy/true/factual/valid. David says:

…I still question the validity, accountability and transparency of their exercise. As to their leadership, who are the editors and what expertise to this subject do they bring? The only person associated with this wiki who’s chosen to reveal anything about herself is the publisher Melanie Mattson. Why are editors DemFromCT, Revere and Cassandra still hiding behind e-mail addresses?

And, my favorite bit:

But would you trust your life to information on a wiki? How could you guarantee that the information you’re reading is authentic and trustworthy even if the people are identified? How do we know these people are who they say they are? This is one of the most problematic areas with information from the Internet, whether you can trust it. A wiki simply compounds this issue to the point where the information ceases to be of value unless you yourself happen to know that it’s true.

My question would be: Do you trust your life to the information from any single doctor? If your physician told you that you had an inoperable tumor and 1 month to live, I’d be willing to bet that you’d probably get a second opinion. Why? Because, as I’ve said so many times in the past, no single source of information should be trusted.

In one of his comments on a comment, David says:

Again, the questions of legitimacy, accountability and authority all come to mind, and are concepts librarians and other information professionals stress when it comes to accepting information on the Internet.

Speak for yourself! As one of those librarians and information professionals, I certainly do not stress authority as it pertains to accepting information on the Internet. Actually, I think that Melanie is much closer to the root of the matter when she says:

We’ve established our credentials with the quality of the information. I spent the day watching PhD scientists and MDs making complete asses of themselves all over the blogosphere. The credential is the quality.

The credential IS in the quality of the information..and in the ability to check sources of said information. This is, I believe and will argue, the key advantage to a wiki structure in judging its infmormation quality. The ability to link out from the wiki to other sources builds a web of information that is stronger than any single “authoritative” source could ever be. It is this coherent web of information that lends credence to any single piece of information on the site, and allows a judgement of truth/validity to be made. Not “does the writer have a PhD?” Not “is this published by a reputable source?” Those questions give false support to facts…this is why, as scholars, we insist on a bibliography. We want to be able to verify the information for ourselves, and track back towards the originating facts.

This is part of the intrinsic nature of the web…the ability to cross link information into supporting webs of information. This is what makes the Internet such an amazing source. Not whether the person posting a page is an expert, but the ability to quickly and easily check other pages on the subject and determine if the person has support for their position. This is the key to judging information in the current age. In the age of print, it wasn’t easily done..scholars spent years traveling from library to library, painfully piecing together fragments of material in hopes of building a case. Now the case is built for you, because of the very nature of the information structure. This is something that I feel strongly that librarians and information specialists will have to come to accept if we are to stay abreast of the new, collaborative, bottom-up sorts of information sources that will be the rule, and not the exception, very soon.