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Anti-war slogan coined, repurposed and Googlewashed … in 42 days
This year marks the 100th anniversary of George Orwell's birth, and the writer who best explained the power of language on politics would be amazed what can be done with the Internet.
On February 17 a front page news analysis in the New York Times bylined by Patrick Tyler described the global anti-war protests as the emergence of "the second superpower".
Tyler wrote: "...the huge anti-war demonstrations around the world this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion."
This potent phrase spread rapidly.
Anti-war campaigners, peace groups and NGOs took to describing the global popular protest as "the second superpower" [Greenpeace release]. And in less than a month, the phrase was being used by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. [Financial Times - reg req'd].
And a week ago, a Google search for the phrase would have shown the vigorous propagation of this 'meme'.
Rub out the word
Then came this. Entitled The Second Superpower Rears its Beautiful Head, by James F Moore, it was accompanied by a brand new blog.
The details need not detain us for very long, because the consequences of this piece are much more important than its anodyne contents.
It's a plea for net users to organize themselves as a "superpower", and represents a class of techno-utopian literature that John Perry Barlow has been promoting - the same sappy stuff, but not as well written - for the past ten years.
Only note how this example is sprinkled with trigger words for progressives, liberals and NPR listeners. It concludes - if you can find your way through this mound of feel-good styrofoam peanuts - "we do not have to create a world where differences are resolved by war. It is not our destiny to live in a world of destruction, tedium, and tragedy. We will create a world of peace".
In common with the genre, there's no social or political context, although the author offers a single specific instruction that is very jarring in the surrounding blandness: we must co-operate with The World Bank. Huh?
It's politics with the politics taken out: in short, it's "revolution lite".
Now here's the important bit. Look what the phrase "Second Superpower" produces on Google now. Try it!. Moore's essay is right there at the top. And not just first, but it already occupies all but three of the first thirty spots.
The bashful Moore writes: "It was nice of Dave Winer [weblog tools vendor] and Doc Searls [advertising consultant] to pick up on it, even if it's not really ready for much exposure." No matter, Moore is an overnight A-list blogging superstar, at his very first attempt.
Although it took millions of people around the world to compel the Gray Lady to describe the anti-war movement as a "Second Superpower", it took only a handful of webloggers to spin the alternative meaning to manufacture sufficient PageRank™ to flood Google with Moore's alternative, neutered definition.
Indeed, if you were wearing your Google-goggles, and the search engine was your primary view of the world, you would have a hard time believing that the phrase "Second Superpower" ever meant anything else.
To all intents and purposes, the original meaning has been erased. Obliterated, in just seven weeks.
You're especially susceptible to this if you subscribe to the view that Google's PageRank™ is "inherently democratic," which is how Google, Inc. describes it.
And this Googlewash took just 42 days.
You are in a twisty maze of weblogs, all alike
All a strange coincidence, no doubt, but the picture darkens when you look at a parallel conversation taking place elsewhere, whose hyperlinks contributed to the redefinition, and help explain how this semantic ethnic-cleansing took place so quickly.
Moore's subversion of the meaning of "Secondary Superpower" - his high PageRank™ from derives from followers of 'A-list' tech bloggers linking from an eerily similar "Emergent Democracy" discussion list, which in turn takes its name from a similarly essay posted by Joi Ito [Lunch - Lunch - Lunch - Segway - Lunch - Lunch - Fawning Parody] who is a colossus of authority in these circles, hence lots of PageRank™-boosting hyperlinks, and who like Moore, appeared from nowhere as a figure of authority.
Lunchin' Ito's essay is uncannily similar to Moore's - both are vague and elusive and fail to describe how the "emergent" democracy might form a legal framework, a currency, a definition of property or - most important this, when you're being hit with a stick by a bastard - an armed resistance (which in polite circles today, we call a "military").
As with Moore, academic and historical research in this field is vapored away, as if by magic.
However, we have an idea of how this utopian "democracy" might look, if we follow the participants of Lunchbox's mailing list. These participants are quite clear about how they define democracy:
"Democracy can function perfectly well without people painting their faces and blocking streets," writes one contributor.
Orwell would be amused, indeed.
"Words define action," sums up Alan Black. Black helps organise San Francisco's annual LitQuake event and is holding a festival to commemorate Orwell's centenary in the city in June.
"Newspeak was one of the planks of the totalitarian regime. Big Brother was constantly redefining history and redefining words - he knew people respond to key words," he says. "It's interesting that they've identified that the only way to oppose the one superpower comes from the people, and sought to redefine that."
But the real marvel is that they did it with so few people. Pew Research Center's latest research says the number of Internet users who look at blogs is " so small that it is not possible to draw statistically meaningful conclusions about who uses blogs." They peg it at about four per cent. But we're looking at a small sub-genre of blogdom, the tech blogs, and specifically, we're looking at an 'A list' of that sub- sub-genre.
Which means that Google is being "gamed" - and the language perverted - by what in statistical terms in an extremely small fraction indeed.
That was enough to make a "meaning" disappear.
Writing about Google's collusion with the People's Republic of China to block access to mainland users, censorship researcher Seth Finkelsetein observed:
"Contrary to earlier utopian theories of the Internet, it takes very little effort for governments to cause certain information simply to vanish for a huge number of people."
Rub out the word 'government', and replace it with 'weblog A-list'. In this case a commons resource, this very potent and quite viral phrase, was created by millions of people. But it was poisoned by a very select number of 'bloggers'. Possibly a dozen, but no more than 30, we'd guess.
Who is poisoning the well?
The phrase "greenwash" will be familiar to many of you: it's where a spot of judicious marketing paint is applied to something decidedly rotten, transforming it into something that looks as if it's wholesome and radical new, but which is essentially unchanged.
This is the first Googlewash we've encountered. 42 days, too.
What else is coming down the pipe? ®