Tag Archives: significance

Reply to Alex Gagnon’s Google Paradox

[Tried adding a comment directly on Alex Gagnon’s Posterous blog, but it kept stalling. So I’ll post this here, which may make for a different kind of interaction. Besides, I’d like to blog a bit more.]

The Google Paradox – Marc-Alexandre Gagnon.

We seem to be finding very different answers to rather similar questions. So I sincerely hope we’ll have the opportunity to meet and discuss these things in a local café.

But still, a few thoughts, in no particular order.

Let’s be clear on what we mean by “culture.” Sounds like there’s a tension, here, between the ways the concept signifies in: “cultural industry,” “Minister of culture,” “pop culture,” “our culture,” and “nature vs. culture.” As a cultural anthropologist, I tend to navigate more toward the latter contexts, but there are significant connections through these diverse conceptual frames.

Speaking of significance… It can be a useful concept, with some links to “relevance.” Especially if we think about Relevance Theory as defined by Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber. Their theory is about communication and cognition, with some strange claims about semiotics. Significance can bridge the gap between their notion of relevance and what insight semiotics may provide.

Chances are, you’re not really singling out Google, right? Blekko and Bing are providing similar results for similar reasons. Google may be the target of most SEO, but current search engines share a fairly unified notion of “quality content.”

Speaking of quality… As mentioned on Twitter, we might think of quality as a social construct. Especially “now.” The modern era had a lot to do with tastemakers, which were given some “authority/influence/power” through a rather specific social process. Similar to what @ChrisBrogan and @Julien call “trust agents.” In sociology, we talk about “gatekeepers” in pretty much the same way. And Duchamp woke a few people up in showing the effects of museumization. We had similar things in music, though my courses in musical æsthetics paid relatively little attention to these.
The basic insight from most “posts” (postcolonialism, poststructuralism, postmodernism, postnationalism, postindustrialism…) is that rigid structures may crumble. Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, of course, but also the very idea of the Nation-State with “checkbox democracy” focused on the representation of predefined “interest groups.” Self-labeled arbiters of good taste, of course, but also the notion that “quality” is an immanent feature of the art object.

And speaking of art objects… People still talk about masterpieces, great works, and cathedrals. But we may also talk about the bazaar, “the eye of the beholder,” and “life as an art form.” Life is too short for everyone to be looking at the same old “artworks.” After all, “Life, sex, and art aren’t spectator sports.”

As for our logocentrism (“language media”), it’s difficult but possible to get beyond this ethnocentric bias. Part of this was prefigured in much 20th Century philosophy (from Russell to Davidson) and popular culture (Wings of Desire). But we can have a broader approach. In anthropology, we work on several things which are directly related to this, from linguistic anthropology and the ethnography of communication to cognitive anthropology and the anthropology of senses. We may live in a “visual” society but our obsession is with language. Which has a lot to do with the fact that the Internet was set in a Euro-American context.
But “our culture” isn’t a prison. We can adopt a broader worldview.

Naming Significance

Been thinking about names again.

Partly because of Lexicon Branding, a Sausalito, CA firm specialized in naming research for brands.

As it so happens, my master’s thesis was on proper names. I mainly focused on anthroponyms (personal names) and toponyms (place names), but the connection is obvious between Lexicon’s work and what I have done in the past.

In the past, I have mostly worked in a semiotic framework. The discipline of semiotics has lost some of its mainstream prominence but semiotic approaches are in fact quite common in social sciences, humanities, and marketing. My own training in semiotics has helped me integrate language sciences and music studies with symbolic anthropology and ethnographic approaches. Calling myself a “semiotician” might not seem like an excellent strategy to get a good job. But my training in semiotics can be quite useful in many contexts.

Within semiotics, I have mostly focused on names and on music. My master’s thesis was on proper names used in Malian praise-songs and my Ph.D. dissertation has involved both names and music in those same praise-singing performance contexts. As it so happens, there are clear connections (in my mind) between proper names and some musical patterns used in those praise-songs. The significance of both types of signs goes beyond some simplified explanations of meaning.

From a semiotic perspective, names are simply fascinating. As verbal signs, they are deeply significant. Not just meaningful by virtue of an arbitrary (or partially motivated) connection with an object. But significant through a more complex process of semiosis. More than other verbal signs, names can evoke a complex reality on their own. They resonate in a specific context. And they are salient across language boundaries.

In the Bamanan-speaking performance contexts I’ve observed, proper names have special significance.  For instance, those who are praised are those who have made a name for themselves. Simply calling out someone’s last name is equivalent to praising that person. Mentioning a place name in a praise-singing performance is a way to refer to events which have taken place at that location, often requiring listeners to possess some priviledged information about those events. Naming someone is a way to make that person social. Someone’s first name can have a deep impact on their character. Given the social structure, it’s often important to live up to one’s name and maintain a good name for the family as a whole.

What’s more, names (and musical patterns) are more motivated than the typical linguistic sign. As such, names can more easily participate in sound symbolism than other words. In this, names can resemble onomatopoeia and ideophones (which happen to be more frequent in African languages than in other linguistic contexts). In fact, some names share with sound symbolism the presence of non-typical morphophonological features for the language in which they are used. For instance, some English-speakers try to pronounce my first name as it is in French (/alεksãdr/), which implies a sequence of sounds which isn’t typical in English. Of course, I tend to go by “Alex” and a lot of people use the English version of my name (and spell it “Alexander”). But the point remains that even my first name can have some features reminiscent of sound symbolism, when used in a different language.

Lots more that I’ve discussed in both my master’s thesis and my Ph.D. dissertation. Going back to this fascination for names is a way for me to tie some loose ends.

Quite stimulating.

What does it all have to do with brand names? Quite a lot, actually, and it’s easy to realize. As some experts in social marketing tend to say, personal names often act like personal brands. “Branding yourself” is a market-driven approach to making a name for yourself. In Mali, people talk about the “publicity” aspect of the performance events I have been studying. In different parts of Africa (and in Brazil), people literally pay for the priviledge of being mentioned in song, because these mentions can be quite advantageous as “personal branding and marketing.”

One thing which attracts me to Lexicon specifically is the emphasis on cross-cultural communication. For very obvious reasons, Lexicon needs to make sure that the brand names it designs can have appropriate effects in a wide variety of linguistic and cultural contexts. We can all think of cases in which brand names had negative connotations in a language other than the one in which they were designed. But Lexicon’s approach seems to go much further. Beyond preventing the branding faux-pas which can have very detrimental effects on the product’s adoption, Lexicon works on the deeper integration of names in diverse cultural contexts.

Since I chersih human diversity, I’m deeply moved by examples of cultural awareness. In any context.

"To Be Verified": Trivia and Critical Thinking

A friend posted a link to the following list of factoids on his Facebook profile: Useless facts, Weird Information, humor. It contains such intriguing statements about biology, language, inventions, etc.

Similar lists abound, often containing the same tidbits:

Several neat pieces of trivial information. Not exactly “useless.” But gratuitous and irrelevant. The type of thing you may wish to plug in a conversation. Especially at the proverbial “cocktail party.” This is, after all, an appropriate context for attention economy. But these lists are also useful as preparation for game shows and barroom competitions. The stuff of erudition.

One of my first reflexes, when I see such lists of trivia online, is to look for ways to evaluate their accuracy. This is partly due to my training in folkloristics, as “netlore” is a prolific medium for verbal folklore (folk beliefs, rumors, urban legends, myths, and jokes). My reflex is also, I think, a common reaction among academics. After all, the detective work of critical thinking is pretty much our “bread and butter.” Sure, we can become bothersome with this. “Don’t be a bore, it’s just trivia.” But many of us may react from a fear of such “trivial” thinking preventing more careful consideration.

An obvious place to start verifying these tidbits is Snopes. In fact, they do debunk several of the statements made in those lists. For instance, the one about an alleged Donald Duck “ban” in Finland found in the list my friend shared through Facebook. Unfortunately, however, many factoids are absent from Snopes, despite that site’s extensive database.

These specific trivia lists are quite interesting. They include some statements which are easy to verify. For instance, the product of two numbers. (However, many calculators are insufficiently precise for the specific example used in those factoid lists.) The ease with which one can verify the accuracy of some statements brings an air of legitimacy to the list in which those easily verified statements are included. The apparent truth-value of those statements is such that a complete list can be perceived as being on unshakable foundations. For full effectiveness, the easily verified statements should not be common knowledge. “Did you know? Two plus two equals four.”

Other statements appear to be based on hypothesis. The plausibility of such statements may be relatively difficult to assess for anyone not familiar with research in that specific field. For instance, the statement about typical life expectancy of currently living humans compared to individual longevity. At first sight, it does seem plausible that today’s extreme longevity would only benefit extremely few individuals in the future. Yet my guess is that those who do research on aging may rebut the statement that “Only one person in two billion will live to be 116 or older.” Because such statements require special training, their effect is a weaker version of the legitimizing effect of easily verifiable statements.

Some of the most difficult statements to assess are the ones which contain quantifiers, especially those for uniqueness. There may, in fact, be “only one” fish which can blink with both eyes. And it seems possible that the English language may include only one word ending in “-mt” (or, to avoid pedantic disclaimers, “only one common word”). To verify these claims, one would need to have access to an exhaustive catalog of fish species or English words. While the dream of “the Web as encyclopedia” may hinge on such claims of exhaustivity, there is a type of “black swan effect” related to the common fallacy about lack of evidence being considered sufficient evidence of lack.

I just noticed, while writing this post, a Google Answers page which not only evaluates the accuracy of several statements found in those trivia lists but also mentions ease of verifiability as a matter of interest. Critical thinking is active in many parts of the online world.

An obvious feature of those factoid lists, found online or in dead-tree print, is the lack of context. Even when those lists are concerned with a single topic (say, snails or sleep), they provide inadequate context for the information they contain. I’m using the term “context” rather loosely as it covers both the text’s internal relationships (the “immediate context,” if you will) and the broader references to the world at large. Without going into details about philosophy of language, these approaches clearly inform my perspective.

A typical academic, especially an English-speaking one, might put the context issue this way: “citation needed.” After all, the Wikipedia approach to truth is close to current academic practice (especially in English-speaking North America) with peer-review replacing audits. Even journalists are trained to cite sources, though they rarely help others apply critical thinking to those sources. In some ways, sources are conceived as the most efficient way to assess accuracy.

My own approach isn’t that far from the citation-happy one. Like most other academics, I’ve learned the value of an appropriate citation. Where I “beg to differ” is on the perceived “weight” of a citation as support. Through an awkward quirk of academic writing, some citation practices amount to fallacious appeal to authority. I’m probably overreacting about this but I’ve heard enough academics make statements equating citations with evidence that I tend to be weary of what I perceive to be excessive referencing. In fact, some of my most link-laden posts could be perceived as attempts to poke fun at citation-happy writing styles. One may even notice my extensive use of Wikipedia links. These are sometimes meant as inside jokes (to my own sorry self). Same thing with many of my blogging tags/categories, actually. Yes, blogging can be playful.

The broad concept is that, regardless of a source’s authority, critical thinking should be applied as much as possible. No more, no less.

Less Than 30 Minutes


At 20:27 (EST) on Saturday, November 17, 2007, I post a blog entry on the archaic/rare French term «queruleuse» (one equivalent of “querulous”). At 20:54 (EST) of the same day, Google is already linking my main blog page as the first page containing the term “queruleuse” and as the fourth page containing the term “querulente.” At that point in time, the only other result for “queruleuse” was to a Google Book. Interestingly enough, a search in Google Book directly lists other Google Books containing that term, including different versions of the same passage. These other books do not currently show up on the main Google search for that term. And blogs containing links to this blog are now (over two hours after my «queruleuse» post) showing above the Google Book in search results.

Now, there’s nothing very extraordinary, here. The term «queruleuse» is probably not the proper version of the term. In fact, «querulente» seems a bit more common. Also, “querulous” and “querulent” both exist in English, and their definitions seem fairly similar to the concept to which «queruleuse» was supposed to refer. So, no magic, here.

But I do find it very interesting that it takes Google less than a half hour for Google to update its database to show my main page as the first result for a term which exists in its own Google Books database.

I guess the reason I find it so interesting is that I have thought a bit about SEO, Search Engine Optimization. I usually don’t care about such issues but a couple of things made me think about Google’s PageRank specifically.

One was that someone recently left a comment on this very blog (my main blog, among several), asking how long it took me to get a PageRank of 5. I don’t know the answer but it seems to me that my PageRank hasn’t varied since pretty much the beginning. I don’t use the Google Toolbar in my main browser so I don’t really know. But when I did look at the PR indicator on this blog, it seemed to be pretty much always at the midway point and I assumed it was just normal. What’s funny is that, after attending a couple Yulblog meetings more than a year ago, someone mentioned my PageRank, trying to interpret why it was so high. I checked that Yulblogger’s blog recently and it has a PR of 6, IIRC. Maybe even 7. (Pretty much an A-List blogger, IMHO.)

The other thing which made me think about PageRank is a discussion about it on a recent episode of the This Week in Tech (TWiT) “netcast” (or “podcast,” as everybody else would call it). On that episode, Chaos Manor author Jerry Pournelle mused about PageRank and its inability to provide a true measure of just about anything. Though most people would agree that PageRank is a less than ideal measure for popularity, influence, or even relevance, Pournelle’s point was made more strongly than “consensus opinion among bloggers.” I tend to agree with Pournelle. 😉

Of course, some people probably think that I’m a sore loser and that the reason I make claims about the irrelevance of PageRank is that I’d like to get higher in a blogosphere’s hierarchy. But, honestly, I had no idea that PR5 might be a decent rank until this commenter asked me about. Even when the aforementioned Yulblogger talked about it, I didn’t understand that it was supposed to be a rather significant number. I just thought this blogger was teasing (despite not being a teaser).

Answering the commenter’s question as to when my PR reached 5, I talked about the rarity of my name. Basically, I can always rely on my name being available on almost any service. Things might change if a distant cousin gets really famous really soon, of course… ;-) In fact, I’m wondering if talking about this on my blog might push someone to use my name for some service just to tease/annoy me. I guess there could even be more serious consequences. But, in the meantime, I’m having fun with my name’s rarity. And I’m assuming this rarity is a factor in my PageRank.

Problem is, this isn’t my only blog with my name in the domain. One of the others is on Google’s very own Blogger platform. So I’m guessing other factors contribute to this (my main) blog’s PageRank.

One factor is likely to be my absurdly long list of categories. Reason for this long list is that I was originally using them as tags, linked to Technorati tags. Actually, I recently shortened this list significantly by transforming many categories into tags. It’s funny that the PageRank-interested commenter replied to this very same post about categories and tags since I was then positing that the modification to my categories list would decrease the number of visits to this blog. Though it’s hard for me to assess an actual causal link, I do get significantly less visits since that time. And I probably do get a few more comments than before (which is exactly what I wanted). AFAICT, WordPress.com tags still work as Technorati tags so I have no idea how the change could have had an impact. Come to think of it, the impact probably is spurious.

A related factor is my absurdly long blogroll. I don’t “do it on purpose,” I just add pretty much any blog I come across. In fact, I’ve been adding most blogs authored by MyBlogLog visitors to this blog (those you see on the right, here). Kind of as a courtesy to them for having visited my blog. And I do the same thing with blogs managed by people who comment on this blog. I even do it with blogs by pretty much any Yulblogger I’ve come across, somehow. All of this is meant as a way to collect links to a wide diversity of blogs, using arbitrary selection criteria. Just because I can.

Actually, early on (before I grokked the concept of what a blogroll was really supposed to be), I started using the “Link This” bookmarklet to collect links whether they were to actual blogs or simply main pages. I wasn’t really using any Social Networking Service (SNS) at that point in time (though I had used some SNS several years prior) and I was thinking of these lists of people pretty much the same way many now conceive of SNS. Nowadays, I use Facebook as my main SNS (though I have accounts on other SNS, including MySpace). So this use of links/blogrolls has been superseded by actual SNS.

What has not been superseded and may in fact be another factor for my PageRank is the fact that I tend to keep links of much of the stuff I read. After looking at a wide variety of “social bookmarking systems,” I recently settled on Spurl (my Spurl RSS). And it’s not really that Spurl is my “favourite social bookmarking system evah.” But Spurl is the one system which fits the most in (or least disrupts) my workflow right now. In fact, I keep thinking about “social bookmarking systems” and I have lots of ideas about the ideal one. I know I’ll be posting some of these ideas someday, but many of these ideas are a bit hard to describe in writing.

At any rate, my tendency to keep links on just about anything I read might contribute to my PageRank as Google’s PageRank does measure the number of outgoing links. On the other hand, the fact that I put my Spurl feed on my main page probably doesn’t have much of an impact on my PageRank since I started doing this a while after I started this blog and I’m pretty sure my PageRank remained the same. (I’m pretty sure Google search only looks at the actual blog entries, not the complete blog site. But you never know…)

Now, another tendency I have may also be a factor. I tend to link to my own blog entries. Yeah, I know, many bloggers see this as self-serving and lame. But I do it as a matter of convenience and “thought management.” It helps me situate some of my “streams of thought” and I like the idea of backtracking my blog entries. Actually, it’s all part of a series of habits after I started blogging, 2.5 years ago. And since I basically blog for fun, I don’t really care if people think my habits are lame.

Sheesh! All this for a silly integer about which I tend not to think. But I do enjoy thinking about what brings people to specific blogs. I don’t see blog statistics on any of my other blogs and I get few enough comments or trackbacks to not get much data on other factors. So it’s not like I can use my blogs as a basis for a quantitative study of “blog influence” or “search engine relevance.”

One dimension which would interesting to explore, in relation to PageRank, is the network of citations in academic texts. We all know that Brin and Page got their PageRank idea from the academic world and the academic world is currently looking at PageRank-like measures of “citation impact” (“CitationRank” would be a cool name). I tend to care very little about the quantitative evaluation of even “citation impact” in academia, but I really am intrigued by the network analysis of citations between academic references. One fun thing there is that there seems to be a high clustering coefficient among academic papers in some research fields. In some cases, the coefficient itself could reveal something interesting but the very concept of “academic small worlds” may be important to consider. Especially since these “worlds” might integrate as apparently-coherent (and consistent) worldviews.

Groupthink, anyone? 😉