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Electronic Elitistism: Google’s Imperfect Democracy

Opinion | April 28, 2014

When the Internet became accessible to the public with the advent of Personal Computers (PCs), it existed in a state of anarchy. Though there were millions of live sites, they were disorganized and unsearchable without specific domain names or a background in programming. Critics dismissed the World Wide Web as an unusable outlet of the unverified claims and the voices of the rabble.

Search engines emerged as the valuable key that allowed individual Internet users to make sense of the web from their PCs in their own home. These online search engines generally ranked results by the number of times the term appeared on the page, a slow process that could overlook the optimal search results. But without a better search engine to optimize the access to resources online, web surfers were dependent on these early providers.

In 1999, when Google earned its first patent as an online search engine, the organization of the Internet faced an overhaul of revolutionary proportions. As Google.com became the search engine of choice for the ballooning ranks of Internet users, it effectively democratized the Internet. Google’s “PageRank”algorithm was a bottom-up approach to organizing the Internet that empowered individual users. It valued websites based on how many other sites linked to them. According to Google, “As the web gets bigger, this approach actually improves, as each new site is another point of information and another vote to be counted.”By crowdsourcing linking information, Google’s organization gives primacy to web creators and their organic network of relationships to provide searchers with the best results. In other words: one link, one vote.

Effectively, each of these links was a sort of digital vote that pushed certain pages higher in the search result output and relegated sites with less traffic or fewer links at a lower ranking. This allowed the average Google user to optimize his or her search results in very little time. In under a second, the massive chaos of the Internet could be distilled into meticulously organized results, all based on the interconnectedness of individual websites.

Using this algorithm, Google was the simplest, fastest, and most accurate search engine on the web.

As Google itself became a hub of the Internet, sites quickly adjusted to its algorithm to maximize Google pages’visibility to searchers. Early websites that established themselves prior to Google’s launch had an advantage in search ranking because they had more exposure time for linking. Sites with early exposure acquired links exponentially, potentially pushing out smaller, newer, and potentially better sites.

This early establishment of a small number of websites as the frequent top results in Google makes it more and more difficult for startups to get traffic without a significant marketing budget. This suggests that Google’s algorithm, though once revolutionary, has stopped making room for new voices. The power of the hub of the Internet finds itself in an established elite of the web, concentrating the finite resources of the web in a few wealthy hands. In political terms, Google has become an oligarchy.

Matthew Hindman, author of The Myth of Digital Democracy, writes that the content on these few sites has also fallen into the laps of a small set of elites. Though there are hundreds of thousands of Americans blogging about politics, for example, a majority of online traffic goes to fewer than 20 mainstream professionals writing on larger outlets. While the Internet has created a vocal channel for marginalized citizens and has potential as a mobilizing tool for democracy, elites still strongly shape how material online is expressed.

If true democracy fails online, even when governed by a benevolent algorithm without the capacity for prejudice or partisanship, how can democracy be expected to survive and thrive when muddled by human passions, greed, and antagonism?

Until a more egalitarian and equally efficient system is implemented and popularized, it seems absurd for Google to be replaced by a more egalitarian search engine provider. Perhaps the old bastion of liberalism, Winston Churchill, had it right when he said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”