Vanity Googling of Causes

A poster to an obscure dis­cus­sion board recent­ly described typ­ing a par­tic­u­lar search phrase into Google and find­ing noth­ing but bad infor­ma­tion. Repro­duc­ing the search I deter­mined two things: 1) that my site topped the list and 2) that the results were actu­al­ly quite accu­rate. I’ve been hear­ing an increas­ing num­ber of sto­ries like this. “Cause Googling,” a vari­a­tion on “van­i­ty googling,” is sud­den­ly becom­ing quite pop­u­lar. But the inter­est­ing thing is that these new searchers don’t actu­al­ly seem curi­ous about the results. Has Google become our new proof text?


A few days ago a Friend for­ward­ed a email from a Quak­er dis­cus­sion list from some­one who had typed “plain dress Quak­er” into Google. This searcher report­ed to the list that there was noth­ing good in the results and won­dered aloud whether he should con­tact the authors of the list­ings to tell them the truth that plain dress still exists. Of course my pages are at the top of that search and clear­ly reflect the opin­ion that plain dress exists and is rel­e­vant to our age. Most of the top-ten Google results point to more-or-less “Con­ser­v­a­tive” Quak­ers, all of whom are sym­pa­thet­ic to plain dress. Google’s results were actu­al­ly quite good.
A few months ago I attend­ed a “lis­ten­ing ses­sion” on a con­tro­ver­sial mod­ern Quak­er rit­u­al and heard an advo­cate for the prac­tice make an argu­ment based on the pos­i­tive Google search results for the term (“I looked up ‘xyz’ on Google and found…”) Here too my site tops the results but I’m not sym­pa­thet­ic and nei­ther are most of the dozen peo­ple who com­ment on the post. Like the plain dress cur­mud­geon, their descrip­tion of the results bore lit­tle resem­blance to what I found on Google.
h3. Has Google become our new proof text?
Look­ing up your pet project or cause is a vari­a­tion on “van­i­ty googling,” in which you look up your­self. But the inter­est­ing thing is that these “cause googlers” don’t actu­al­ly seem curi­ous about the results. The fel­low who searched for “plain dress Quak­er” came to my site, accord­ing to the track­ing logs, but he looked at one page and left. He didn’t fol­low any links and he has yet to do any­thing more than com­plain to a sym­pa­thet­ic list. This kind of “proof text” searcher isn’t look­ing to learn any­thing or find any­thing trans­for­ma­tive; instead they just want to con­firm their cause exists in the world. They (mis)use the results to con­firm their world­view: whether they think of them­selves as the last hold­out of a dying tra­di­tion or the van­guard of some brave new syn­the­sis, they’ll find some­thing in the Google results to back them up.
Sin­cere searchers who come want­i­ng to learn some­thing about the issues I write about will come in via search engine and start mani­a­cal­ly click­ing on links, look­ing through dozens of pages. Many of them fol­low this read­ing by send­ing me an excit­ed email, leav­ing a com­ment, and/or sign­ing up on our relat­ed dis­cus­sion list. Using Google to tal­ly our place in the world can be fun, but it’s only a par­lour game and debate tac­tic.
h3. Tweak­ing the Results
As I was writ­ing this post I got a Google-referred vis­it from some­one search­ing for the “best spir­i­tu­al web­sites.” Well if Google is the all-knowing author­i­ty, you’ve found the sixth best spir­i­tu­al web­site on the whole entire world wide web right here (who would­da thought?) But wait: ask Google for the “best Quak­er web­sites” and you’ll find me list­ed for the top four results.
There’s such awe-worship for search engines these days that we could make up claims for our­selves, post the claims on a blog and then adver­tise our invent­ed claims. For exam­ple,
“Google has declared Mar­tin Kel­ley as the spir­i­tu­al heir to George Fox.”
Just by writ­ing that phrase here, we should be able to hit the search engine in a week’s time for “spir­i­tu­al heir to George Fox”:google and get this page, hence mak­ing the claim legit. With Google as judge, the pos­si­bil­i­ties are end­less!
h3. See also:
* “How Insid­ers and Seek­ers Use the Quak­er Net”:http://www.nonviolence.org/martink/archives/000333.php
* “It’s light that makes me uncom­fort­able” and oth­er Googlisms
* At least one the­olo­gian has argued that Google results for “god” con­sti­tutes “proof of His existence”:http://msnbc.msn.com/id/6144581/site/newsweek/ (found on “The Revealer”:http://www.therevealer.org/archives/today_000940.php)
* In “Non­prof­it Web­site Design and Measurement”:http://www.nonviolence.org/martink/archives/000457.php I repro­duce my web­sites report for my employ­er, Friends Gen­er­al Con­fer­ence. I talk a lot in there about how Google is used.

  • Enjoyed the arti­cle on the Googlisms; and I agree that the web has done far more in out­reach to peo­ple inter­est­ed in Quak­erism than any Quak­er orga­ni­za­tion has done. Just check out the Belief​.net Quak­er dis­cus­sion boards.
    Using a search engine such as Google to “proof text” one’s posi­tion is very tempt­ing. Mia cul­pa! OTH, it can be far more inter­est­ing to google for the oppos­ing point of view and see what you get.

  • Joe: yes, I post­ed the arti­cle because I think a lot of peo­ple don’t real­ly under­stand how the inter­net is being used. There’s a divide between those who use the inter­net to learn some­thing new – to hear oppos­ing points of view or to explore a lead­ing – and those who use it only to con­firm their cur­rent world­view. Do we Google to be trans­formed or sim­ply to argue our case? Of course, this isn’t real­ly about the inter­net, or even a par­tic­u­lar search engine. The larg­er issue is one of human nature. Are we able to see beyond our small lit­tle group, to look past dif­fer­ences of style or lan­guage to embrace our broth­ers and sis­ters in the Spir­it? Do we real­ly expect that there’s a Great Peo­ple to be gath­ered or are we real­ly just con­tent with what­ev­er small cozy set­up we’ve got going?

  • While Google has indeed dubbed me the spir­i­tu­al heir to George Fox (thank you all!), I find entries three and four much more inter­est­ing. Who knew that Esther Green­leaf Mür­er has been “putting her Quak­er Bible index online”:http://​qbible2​.home​.att​.net/ and has it cross ref­er­enced with online edi­tions of Fox’s epis­tles?. Wow!