June 20, 2007

Google: 1, Michael Gorman: 0

[I hate to do this to Michael Gorman, but I'm not above a little link-baiting myself. smiley image]

In the Britannica Blog Link-Bait party, Gorman said:

"If you can't Google it, it doesn't exist" is a common saying of Jimmy Wales and his ilk - a remark that gives shallowness a bad name. It does, however, illustrate neatly a state of mind that has turned away from learning and scholarship and swallowed -- hook, line, and sinker -- every banal piece of digital hype. There are intellectual treasures of all kinds in libraries and archives throughout the world that are not available on Google, and, because of the defects of all search engines using free-text searching, would not be retrievable using Google even if every last word in them were digitized. Mr. Wales may place no importance on anything other than information in digital form, but we owe more than that to the young. There is a life beyond the search engine -- a life of richness and nuance undreamed of in Mr. Wales's philosophy -- and all teachers at all levels of education must insist that their students use primary sources and authoritative secondary sources in their papers and studies, regardless whether these sources are digitized. Further, they should emphasize the acquisition of research and critical thinking skills applied to the human record in all its variety.

Unfortunately, before we even get to the Googling, Michael Gorman fell down here on the critical thinking skills. While he certainly can't be expected to be a Jimmy Wales worshipper, hanging on the pronouncements of the guru of work-for-free, it's pretty easy to know that Wales doesn't believe something so strawmannish as the impression given above. If anything, his general line could be attacked as being much more slick, that this stuff is bad for you if you use it to the exclusion of everything else, but you shouldn't do that (and implicitly, if you do, it's your fault, don't go blaming the wonderful wisdom of crowds for steering you wrong, you should have checked anyway).

Anyway, Michael Gorman put a correction in the comments of the thread:

I have heard from Mr. (Jimmy) Wales himself, that he not only has not written "If you can't Google it, it doesn't exist" but also that this quotation is directly opposite to his actual views. I had read the quotation attributed to him in the New Yorker article by Stacy Schiff (July 31 2006) - "Wales, in his public speeches, cites the Google test: ``If it isn't on Google, it doesn't exist''" - and had not seen the attribution disputed. However, I was remiss in not checking further before I published this essay. I apologize to Mr. Wales unreservedly and wish, not for the first time, that the saying "A lie is half way around the world before the truth has its boots on" was not so spot on.

Which started the inevitable blog mockery

The best part of this whole stupid Gorman thing yet: in a blog post on shoddy research, he misquotes Jimmy Wales based on a printed source. And has to apologize. The irony! The laughs! The sheer idiocy of this whole exercise!

Michael Gorman rebuts

I did not "misquote" Mr. Wales. I read that he had said those words in public speeches in the New Yorker article. It's probably counter to the snide ethic of blogs, but I chose to accept his statement that, despite the unrefuted statement in the New Yorker, he had not said and did not believe those words.

Now comes the problem of who do you believe? One thread commenter:

Actually, Gorman cites the New Yorker article accurately, and the New Yorker does its homework and fact-checking and interviewed Wales extensively for the piece. Funny, Wales waits one year to complain about being misquoted? waits until he's on the hot seat and being criticized in this forum? ...but he had no problem with this quote when it merely was contained in the puff-ball New Yorker piece (that also contained the Essjay lies to boot)? Hmmm... .And this reflects badly on Gorman? How convenient for Wales to remember he never said this... .(Gorman is actually being gracious and letting Jimmy off the hook! I doubt I would if I were Gorman.)

New Yorker:

Part of the problem is provenance. The bulk of Wikipedia's content originates not in the stacks but on the Web, which offers up everything from breaking news, spin, and gossip to proof that the moon landings never took place. Glaring errors jostle quiet omissions. Wales, in his public speeches, cites the Google test: "If it isn't on Google, it doesn't exist." This position poses another difficulty: on Wikipedia, the present takes precedent over the past.

Sing: Which side are you on?

Well, it turns out this can be determined by ... THE GOOGLE. It's a little more difficult than is apparent, since it seems the reporter tightened the quote. There's no independent reference for "If it isn't on Google, it doesn't exist". What you have to search for is "it probably doesn't exist". And then one finds speech transcripts such as:

"But there are other cases where it's borderline. Where you might say, I'm not sure if this is a hoax, if this is real, is this not real, and the example here was a film called Twisted Issues, an obscure underground punk film from 1988. The funny thing is, I gave a talk just two days ago at the University of Florida, and the next day somebody wrote me and said, "Do you know I played on the soundtrack for Twisted Issues." I said, wow really, go ahead and edit the article, really, so anyway, so the first person says it's supposedly an underground punk film, but it miserably fails the Google test. So what's the Google test. You look something up in Google, and if you can't find it, then it probably doesn't exist. It's -- this is not a foolproof test, but it's pretty good. Right? There are still a few things on the planet that are not in Google. But it's pretty good. And so it fails the Google test, and it doesn't have any listing, so a couple people say, "delete, delete." And then somebody says "Hey wait wait wait wait, I found something. It's in the Film Threat Video Guide to 20 Underground Films You Must See. So maybe it has some notability. Next person down says, complete it. Next person says, it's a real movie, it's in IMDB, keep keep." So at the end of a discussion like this, this would have been kept. In fact it was kept, and the article's still there."

Verdict: From the full section above, I think Jimmy Wales is being taken out of context. He's clearly talking about a narrow circumstance of determining whether something is a hoax or not. And note in the debate Wales uses as an example, a print reference book is actually being cited as evidence.

It's all in how you use the Google, and think critically.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on June 20, 2007 12:18 AM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

Subscribe with Bloglines      Subscribe in NewsGator Online  Google Reader or Homepage


Yes, thanks for cutting through my mockery to the real problem. Plenty of people might say "If you can't Google it, it doesn't exist" without meaning it literally, or implying that it is a good thing. Plenty of librarians might say such a thing ironically or to argue for better findability of non-digital resources on the web.

Posted by: Steve Lawson at June 20, 2007 12:34 AM

Now, does this qualify as research? ;)
Thanks for looking into it further.

Posted by: Carlos at June 20, 2007 11:05 AM

Congrats on getting your Wikipedia issue sorted out. I know that was a big thorn in your shoe...

We STILL have not clarified this between ourselves:

You call it "work for free" or "free labor". That assumes money is the only currency, no? These people who "toil" do it for a reason... just because money's not the main reason, doesn't mean they're getting nothing out of it. Discuss?

Citing: Malinowski's "Kula" etc.

Posted by: hugh macleod at June 20, 2007 11:51 AM

PS. I don't have a problem with "If it isn't on Google, it doesn't exist". At least not in that context.

At least, no more than I have a problem with somebody saying "If it doesn't make it past my filters, it doesn't exist". While that might be empirically untrue, all sentinent and semi-sentinent creatures have filters of one sort or another. Google acts as just one big filter for some people.

Posted by: hugh macleod at June 20, 2007 11:56 AM

After reading your weblog post, I was interested in finding out more about this critical thinking thing. So I searched for it on Google:


The number one result? Wikipedia:


So it goes.

Posted by: Rogers Cadenhead at June 20, 2007 12:46 PM

Steve: Yes. My core argument is that Gorman is being very superficial.

Carlos: You're welcome.

Hugh: That's an unfalsifiable rhetorical stance. If anyone does anything, by definition they can be said to be getting something out of it. Yet exploitation has a meaning. Obviously the cultists who sell flowers at airports get "something" out of it (e.g. cult approval). Yet I'd say they're working for free.

Rogers: Oh, the irony :-)

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at June 20, 2007 04:48 PM

Maybe he's thinking of AltaVista's claim (in 1999): "If you can't find it, it probably doesn't exist."


Posted by: John Hubbard at June 20, 2007 06:58 PM

Anyone who does research in the humanities knows how very little useful academic research CAN be found through google.

Posted by: daniel at June 21, 2007 12:58 AM

Sour grapes here.

Wikipedia deletes *lots* of stuff. People move articles around (or delete and then re-submit an article), thus deleting the history of submission/edits.

Things that are in Google get deleted as well. Not notable. Too trivial. Whatever trumped up reason they wish to give. Articles get deleted to be made into redirects to articles of different subjects. Cross-links get removed.

Posted by: ~ender at June 21, 2007 01:24 PM