Yesterday, Microsoft announced another step in their “long-term partnership” with Facebook. The two companies have had close ties since Microsoft invested a hefty sum in Facebook in 2007 and the former has managed advertisement on the latter’s site for quite a while. The “next step” will basically add a “social layer” to Bing search results (go to Ars Technica for a writeup or All Things Digital for a liveblog of the PR event) and this is actually a pretty big thing. Google has certainly taken contextual information into account when deciding which results to show and how to rank them: physical location, search history, and gmail contacts have been part of that process for a while, but the effects have been rather subtle.

Bing’s new features basically use the same technical layer as the Facebook boxes that popped up all over the Web about half a year ago (most modern browsers have plug-ins that allow you to block those by the way). If Bing detects the Facebook cookie while you’re on their site and adds a couple of features that allow you to interact with “friends” more easily. There are some basic convenience features but it is the “liked results” that are the most remarkable: results will use your contact’s “likes” to rank results. While we will have to wait to see how these features will pan out, social search may look something like this:

Bing social search interface

In this example, the first result is the announcement of a news article on the release of the DVD version of Iron Man 2 and this would be hardly a top-ranked result without the social layer. If Bing continues to make inroads on Google, the “like” button may take on additional importance for driving traffic and marketeers will most certainly device new ways to get people to “like” stuff – e.g. “press the button and win a free t-shirt”.

Cas Sunstein’s arguments on the dangers of echo chambers – “incestuous amplification” in social groups – will certainly be taken up again, and perhaps rightfully so: while the Internet remains a beautifully heterogeneous mess, the algorithmically sustained support for the logic of homophily (“birds of a feather…”) that can be observed in more and more places on the Web merits critical examination. While Diana Mutz’s work makes the inconvenient argument that “hearing the other side” of political debate may actually lead to less political engagement, our representative systems of democratic governance require a certain willingness to accept different political viewpoints (that always float on less clearly delineated cultural sensibilities) as sincere and legitimate. Also, adding a “friend” dimension to yet another dimension of the Web could be seen as a further reduction of the “publicness” that, according to Michael Schudson, caracterizes working democratic discourse. Being able to dissociate ourselves from our private entanglements and take into account the interests of those who do not ressemble us is perhaps the central prerequisite to successfully navigating a smaller planet.

Bing’s new features are certainly not the end of life as we know it but I believe that the privacy question – as important as it is – is covering a series of more difficult problems that sit at the heart of political life in the age of the Internet…

Post filed under critique, search engines, social networks.

One Comment

  1. The emphasis on the social layer as an essentially good thing is indeed becoming quite disturbingly strong in today’s online world. Here’s a glimpse of what political life might turn out to be: http://nyti.ms/bFJW7w

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