I think the answer is that it depends. They can certainly help you find that “needle in the haystack”. On the other hand, how often do you scroll past the first two pages of a Google search?
University of Chicago sociologist James Evans recently weighed in on this topic and it’s interesting to consider what he has to say. His article in Science Magazine (also summarized in The Economist and blogged about by Nicholas Carr) looks at whether the internet is changing how academics approach research.
The impact of search engines:
Evans argues that electronic search engines are making things faster and easier, but they may also be making us lazier.
“The easy online availability of sources has channeled researcher attention from the periphery to the core—to the most high-status journals. In short, searching online is more efficient, and hyperlinks quickly put researchers in touch with prevailing opinion, but they may also accelerate consensus and narrow the range of findings and ideas grappled with by scholars,” writes Evans.
Evans suspects that the same experience is true for most non-academic users of Google: everyone is looking at the same high-ranking, highly accessible, most easily available sites.
Certain sites get the most play:
Stories on news sites such as are Yahoo!Buzz filtered by popularity. Editors can gather reader votes on the appeal of stories and sort stories by their popularity. The most popular stories get the most play. Social news sites such as Digg, Reddit and Mixx also allow readers to vote on stories and the most popular stories rise to the top. Tools such as AideRSS enable readers to quickly sort through their RSS subscriptions and identify the most interesting and talked about posts. These are useful in their own right, but if we limit ourselves to the most popular items, we may be missing out.
Should we care?
“Following an ecological metaphor, having a more diverse population-level pool of genes becomes important when the environment changes—when new diseases and predators and weather patterns challenge us. New scientific findings and ideas may not fit the prevailing paradigms, but when the world changes or when doubts arise, retaining inconsistencies in our global memory becomes important as we try to craft a new understanding, ” say Evans.
What can we do?
- When conducting searches, considering broadening rather than narrowing your search. Search on a range of items rather than making all of the items ‘required’.
- If you enjoy reading someone’s post, visit their blog and see what else they’ve written. It’s the modern day equivalent of flipping through a magazine.
- In addition to reading a post, read the comments. And better yet, extend the conversation by leaving one of your own.
- In addition to Google, search on a social bookmarking site such as Delicious or Ma.gnolia
What do you think? Do you agree with Evans? What strategies might we use to extend the conversation and give air to contrasting points of view?
Photo credit: Louise Roach