You’ve probably already read it somewhere (like here or here), has blundered a little bit – for a couple of hours the search query “terrorist costume” brought up a single hit, a rubber mask with Obama’s face. I really don’t know how many people would have found out on their own but there’s some buzz going now and there actually is something worth pondering about the case. How it happened is quite easy to reconstruct: amazon allows users to label products (Folksonomy) and includes these tags into their general search engine. So somebody tagged the Obama mask with “terrorist” (“costume” was already a common keyword) and there you go. What I find interesting about this is not that there would be any real political consequence to this matter but the fact that folk-tagging can be as easily dragged into different directions as anything else. I’m currently working on a talk for the Deep Search conference (running late as so often these days) and I’ve been looking at Jimmy Wales’ project Wikia Search which uses community feedback in order to re-rank results. The question for me is how this system would be less pervasive to manipulation or SEO than today’s dominant principle, link analysis. The amazon case shows quite well that when you enter a contested field, there’s going to be fallout and the reason that there isn’t more of it already is probably because the masses are not yet aware of the mischief potential. And I don’t see how the “wisdom of the crowd” principle (whether that is folksonomy, voting, result re-ranking, etc.) cannot be hijacked by a determined individual or company that understands the workings of the algorithms that structure results (in the amazon case you would have needed to know that user tags are used in the general search). So what is really interesting about the Obama mask incident is how things continue at amazon (and other folksonomy based servives) – if user tags can be used to drive traffic to specific products, the marketeers will come in droves the moment the numbers are relevant…

Post filed under algorithms, critique, folksonomy.


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