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Tagged: search

Degooglifying (Part III): Web Search

This post is part of a series in which I am detailing my move away from centralized, proprietary network services. Previous posts in this series: email, feed reader.

Of all Google services, you’d think the hardest to replace would be search. Yet, although search is critical for navigating the web, the switching costs are low — no data portability issues, easy to use more than one search engine, etc. Unfortunately, there isn’t a straightforward libre web search solution ready yet, but switching away from Google to something that’s at least more privacy-friendly is easy to do now.

Quick Alternative: DuckDuckGo

In on sense, degooglifying search is easy: use DuckDuckGo. DuckDuckGo has a strong no-tracking aproach to privacy. The !bang syntax is awesome (hello !wikipedia), the search results are decent (though I still often !g for more technical, targeted or convoluted searches), it doesn’t have any search-plus-your-world nonsense or whatever walled garden stuff Google has been experimenting with lately, and it’s pretty solid on the privacy side. After just a few days, DuckDuckGo replaced Google as my default search engine, and my wife has since switched over as well.

The switch from Google Search to DuckDuckGo is incredibly easy and well worth it. If you’re still using Google Search, give DuckDuckGo a try — you’ve got nothing to lose.

But… DuckDuckGo isn’t a final destination. Remember: the point of this exercise isn’t for me to “leave Google,” but to leave Google’s proprietary, centralized, walled gardens for free and autonomous alternatives. DuckDuckGo is a step towards autonomy, as web search sans tracking, but it is still centralized and proprietary.

Web Search Freedom

A libre search solution calls for a much bigger change — from proprietary to free, from centralized to distributed, from a giant database to a peer-to-peer network — not just a change in search engines, but a revolution in web search.

YaCy

Last summer, I ran a search engine out of my living room for a few months: YaCy — a cross-platform, free software, decentralized, peer-to-peer search engine. Rather than relying on a single centralized search provider, YaCy users can install the software on their own computers and connect to a network of other YaCy users to perform web searches. It’s a libre, non-tracking, censorship-resistant web search network. The problem was that it wasn’t stable or mature enough last summer to power my daily web searches. I intend to install it again soon, because as a peer-to-peer effort it needs users and usage in order to improve, but an intermediate step like DuckDuckGo is necessary in the meantime.

Although YaCy is designed to be installed on your own computer, there is a public web search portal available as a demo.

Seeks

Seeks is another interesting project that takes a different approach to web search freedom. Seeks is “an open, decentralized platform for collaborative search, filtering and content curation.” As far as I understand, Seeks doesn’t replace existing search engines, but it adds a distributed network layer on top of them, giving users more control over search queries and results. That is, Seeks is a P2P collaborative filter for web search rather than a P2P indexer like YaCy. Rather than replacing web indexing, Seeks is focused on the privacy, control, and trust surrounding search queries and results, even if it sits on top of proprietary search engines.

Seeks also has a public web search portal (and DuckDuckGo supports !seeks). As you can tell, its results are much better than YaCy’s, but Seeks is tackling a smaller problem and still relying on existing search engines to index the web.

Conclusion

DuckDuckGo, though proprietary and centralized, provides some major privacy advantages over Google and is ready to be used today — especially with Google just a !g away.

But web search freedom requires a revolution like that envisioned by YaCy or Seeks. Seeks seems like more of a practical, incremental and realistic solution, but it still depends on proprietary search. YaCy is more of a complete solution, but it’s not clear whether its vision is technically feasible.

I intend to experiment with both of these projects — p2p services need users to improve — and continue to watch this space for new developments.

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The Temporary Web and Digital Histories

Jeff Jarvis recently voiced some concerns about the temporary web:

Twitter is temporary. Streams are fleeting. If the future of the web after the page and the site and SEO is streams – and I believe at least part of it will be – then we risk losing information, ideas, and the permanent points – the permalinks – around which we used to coalesce. In this regard, Twitter is to web pages what web pages are to old media. Our experience of information is once again about to become fragmented and dispersed.

My own worry is that I’m twittering more and blogging less. Twitter satisfies my desire to share. That’s mostly why I blog – and that’s what makes the best blog posts, I’ve learned. I also want to store information like nuts underground; once it’s on the blog, I can find it. But when I share links on Twitter, they’ll soon disappear. I also use my blog to think through ideas and get reaction; Twitter’s flawed at that – well, I guess Einstein could have tweeted his theory of relativity but many ideas and discussions are too big for the form – yet I now use Twitter to do that now more than this blog.

I don’t relate very much to the idea that the temporary web destroys the ability to read and write in longer form. Maybe it’s because I started blogging only shortly before I started microblogging, but I can still be pretty long-winded. Jarvis notes that Twitter conversations have the “half-life of a gnat,” and that they “go up in smoke.” Sure, that’s a limitation, but it’s also a lot like regular in-person conversation. I think it has just as much to do with the nature of informal conversation as it does with the fact that Twitter lends itself towards that type of communication, yet we don’t worry about day to day conversations going up in smoke. That’s why we have other types of communication. I get Jarvis’ point, and it’s important and useful to be aware of the nature of the medium, but it doesn’t bother me too much.

What does bother me about “streams” is memory. I’m a digital pack-rat. I have important MSN conversations saved from the past 8 years (which is nearly forever for someone who hit the age of reason 10 years ago). I have tons of long emails with close friends filed away (and backed up) for safekeeping. I don’t take the ease of record-keeping with digital communication for granted. Memories of important and meaningful phone conversations fade, but I take advantage of the fact that I can revisit a conversation that happens online.

Except, Twitter is lousy at that. Ever try digging for a message you posted a year ago? Facebook has become the same way since it adopted a stream-like interface. I get the focus on real-time, but it drives me nuts that results disappear from Twitter’s search engine after only a few months. Real-time can be the default, but what about offering a sort of search that taps into the history of conversation, rather than solely what’s trending?

I welcome the move to a more stream-like web, but what about taking advantage of our ability to store and access our history? Real-time is cool, but sometimes I’d like to search the past.

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Information Serendipity In Different Mediums

I’ve been meaning to comment on Mathew Ingram’s defence of newspapers and serendipity. Clay Shirky has been talking about the bundling that occurs in newspapers as a mere accident of print, something that was only necessary given the constraints of paper, but doesn’t make sense otherwise. Mathew disagrees:

Is there a purpose in aggregating the horoscope and the weather and the news about the coup in Tegucigalpa? I think there is, and I think newspapers do a pretty good job of it.

It’s not just because they have to — although that’s part of it. Maybe I’ve just been trained as a newspaper reader for my whole life, but I like the serendipity of tripping over fascinating articles about things I would never have known even existed were it not for a newspaper. To take the Saturday Globe and Mail as an example, I read about an up-and-coming Muslim hockey player, a profile of Paul Shaffer, a review of the punk band Gossip, an article about contentious city council politics in Aurora and a great feature on retirees and their vanishing pensions.

Just two days before Mathew’s post, my friend Emilie and I were having the same conversation. She reads the newspaper daily and made the same defence. I used to read the paper regularly when I was commuting to school in Grade 9, but more recently, I’ve come to get my “news” through Gwibber and Google Reader. It’s not that Mathew or Emilie don’t use the web, but they both have found something valuable in newspapers that the web hasn’t been able to offer — information serendipity (by that, I mean serendipity with respect to encountering ideas). Mathew continues,

Could links to those stories show up in my RSS reader? Possibly – but I doubt it. The mix is just too eclectic. And I would never have sought out the article about the Muslim hockey player, because I don’t particularly care about hockey and therefore I would likely never have come across it. Would the retirement piece ever make it to Techmeme or some similar aggregator? I doubt it. But it was still worth reading. And so were the half-dozen or so articles I can’t recall right now, which I tripped across as I read the paper. I would never have deliberately sought them out either.

I think Mathew’s missing one of the most serendipitous aspects of the web — the social aspect. I wouldn’t likely stumble upon those sorts of articles through my RSS subscriptions (though I’m subscribed to some pretty eclectic stuff), but through Google Reader shared items (e.g. Turadg Aleahmad shares some really interesting things, like this Wikipedia article on Mamihlapinatapai). I stumbled across Valaam chant through a friend’s Facebook posted items the other day, a genre of music that’s entirely new to me and will likely influence my own music. I find interesting links through Twitter/Identi.ca every week that are outside my regular areas of interest (e.g. this video riding blog from Sunday). I may follow someone who shares some interests in common with me, but that doesn’t mean their other interests are my usual fare. Information serendipity here is social.

Then, beyond the social, Mike Masnick was writing about serendipity of search a few weeks before Mathew’s post:

There’s a separate side of having search so ingrained in our lives that isn’t often explored: the serendipity of search… I do a countless number of searches during the day — it’s ingrained to quickly and automatically jump to the search box all through the day — and usually two or three times per day, I end up going down a fascinating, if unexpected path to learning something new and interesting. Usually, it’s related to what I was originally searching for, but leads me on a trail of additional information, well beyond what I expected to learn. Other times, it may be a total tangent, but still one that ends up being useful and relevant in odd and unexpected ways.

A couple days after Mike’s post, I was watching Margaret Visser’s The Geometry of Love with the RCIA group at the Newman Centre. She makes a passing comment in the video about the serendipity of browsing through the stacks at Robarts Library — yet another type of information serendipity.

Beyond information serendipity, there’s a likelihood of social serendipity (in encountering people rather than ideas) that exists in a communications medium like the web that you wouldn’t find in a newspaper. On any medium, it’s not so much a question of whether there’s an element of serendipity as it’s a question of what that serendipity is like.

Information serendipity on the web is different than in newspapers. There’s information serendipity in bundling, in proximity, in linking, in social connections, and then there are other types of serendipity altogether, like social serendipity. I think it’d be really interesting to dig deeper and explore the differences…

Information Serendipity in Wikipedia

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