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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Selective Inclusion

A lot of people seem to think that the rise of the internet and the ready availability of vast amounts of information will lead to a new era of understanding between people with different views. I'll admit this is a nice vision, but the unfortunate reality is that there's little to no evidence that most people actually want to understand those with different views from their own. Indeed, it seems that a fairly common reaction to having access to so much diverse information is to try to find some way to make it less diverse.

And this brings us to a recent story on NPR that discusses the rise of religious search engines. And by religious search engines, I do not mean that the software itself prays:

Some Jews, Muslims and Christians are abandoning Yahoo and Google and turning to search engines with results that meet their religious standards.

Shea Houdmann runs SeekFind, a Colorado Springs-based Christian search engine that only returns results from websites that are consistent with the Bible. He says SeekFind is designed "to promote what we believe to be biblical truth" and excludes sites that don't meet that standard.


Husain Benyounis, a 44-year-old Muslim man from New Zealand, starting using I’mHalal about eight months ago, and now he says he’s a fan.

“I do use it at home, at work and everywhere,” Benyounis says.

He says the search engine offered him content that he can trust would be appropriate for him as a practicing Muslim. And he is much more comfortable allowing his teenage son to surf the Web using I'mHalal. For example, a search for “sex” would return results giving the Islamic view on sexuality.

Now, some of you might be thinking that this sounds an awful lot like censorship. There's a reason for that: it's because it sounds an awful lot like censorship. Nevertheless, there's a rhetorical "foil" for this objection:

“In a sense, I guess kind of what SeekFind does is a form of censorship, but I would more describe it as selective inclusion,” he [Michael Gartenberg of Altimeter Group] says.

Some who oppose such search engines argue that allowing people to only access material that they already agree with will lead to an intolerant society. But Gartenberg says he does not see it that way.

“It’s no more censorship than if I find something on television that I find offensive to me and I could change the channel,” he says.

Now, first, I have to disagree with Mr. Gartenberg as to his analogy. See, if I notice something I don't want to watch and change the channel, I first have to notice it and make an active choice. These search engines, in contrast, remove information from my sight in the first place, much like a censor who deletes channels from my cable package* before I even have the chance to change the channel. That's a minor point, however, since arguably people are choosing to censor themselves. So let's take up the second issue: just how selective is the selective inclusion?

To find out, I conducted a little experiment. I entered the same search terms in the search engines Google, SeekFind, and I'mHalal(Beta). I then recorded the number of hits produced by each as well as the top three links. Coincidentally, this allows me to calculate a "selectivity ratio" which is simply the number of hits produced by SeekFind/I'mHalal divided by the number of hits for Google using the same terms. In short, it's a proportion of the searchable internet universe that the two religious engines come up with. Sound interesting? Good, then let's begin.

I started with several basic science terms that I thought we might be interested in: Evolution, Gravity, and Heat.

1st Hit:Evolution- WikipediaGravity- WikipediaHeat (1995)
2nd HitEvolutionHow does gravity work?Miami Heat
3rd Hit:Understanding EvolutionGravity SoftwareHeat- Wikipedia
Selectivity Ratio:0.0000570.0000110.000005
1st Hit:Theory of EvolutionGravityA Closer Look at How Pit Vipers 'See' Heat
2nd HitEvolution is Religion, Not ScienceGravityA Closer Look at How Pit Vipers 'See' Heat
3rd Hit:Evolution TheoriesGravityMade in His Image: Balancing Body Temperature
Selectivity Ratio:0.3150.2280.287
1st Hit:Evolution- WikipediaGravity- WikipediaHeat- Wikipedia
2nd HitEvolution for the GNOME DesktopGravityMiami Heat
3rd Hit:EvolutionGravityJapanese AV Idol directory

Okay, so, based on our first pass it looks strongly like "selective" in this case means, "really, really really" selective for the Christian search engine (i.e. SeekFind) and only "really" selective for the Islamic search engine (i.e. I'mHalal). But these are science terms- what about political and social issues? Well, to figure that out I also searched for three more issues: Democracy, Homosexuality, and Feminism.

1st Hit:Democracy- WikipediaHomosexuality- WikipediaFeminism- Wikipedia
2nd HitDemocracyHomosexuality-
3rd Hit:Democracy now!Homosexuality and BisexualityFeminism and Women's Studies
Selectivity Ratio:0.00000240.0000400.0000032
1st Hit:Secular Politics and Economic DemocracyChristianity and HomosexualityWhat does the Bible say about feminism? Should a Christian be a feminist?
2nd HitChristianity, Democracy, and IraqBiblical HomosexualityFeminism
3rd Hit:Secular PoliticsHomosexuality Facts and FictionNeopaganism, Feminism, and the New Polytheism
Selectivity Ratio:0.2640.00000580.086
1st Hit:Democracy- WikipediaHomosexuality and IslamFeminism- Wikipedia
2nd HitDemocracyHomosexuality: What is the real sickness?Feminism
3rd Hit:E-Democracy- WikipediaHomosexualityFeminism- Schools- Wikipedia

Okay, so, based on this it looks like Christians and Muslims** are more afraid of democracy, homosexuals, and feminism than they are of science. I'm going to cautiously interpret that as being good, even as I note the rather horrific nature of the selectivity ratios. Now, you might say that I've deliberately picked topics that religious folks might have an issue with. I disagree- after all, what is so bloody controversial about "heat"? Nevertheless, I'll play that game and try one last search term: charity.

1st Hit:Charity Navigator
2nd HitCharity- Wikipedia
3rd Hit:Charity
Selectivity Ratio:0.0000016
1st Hit:Jonathan Edwards on Charity
2nd HitChristian Charity
3rd Hit:Christian Charity Organization
Selectivity Ratio:0.11
2nd HitGlobal Impact
3rd Hit:Charity Navigator

And, unfortunately, what it looks like is that Christians and Muslims- at least as represented by the people who put these search engines together- are even less interested in talking about charity than they are in talking about homosexuality (Christians), evolution (Christians and Muslims), or gravity (Christians and Muslims). I do have to give the Muslim community credit, however, in that they seem less terrified of the modern world than their Christian brethren- which is certainly a novel difference from the typical U.S. perception.

I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions but as for me, I gotta tell you: this looks a LOT like censorship.

* Not that I actually have cable. I have a baby on the way, you think I can afford cable?

** Note that I really don't mean to tar all Christians and Muslims here, but that's the alleged target audience for the search engines, so I'm in a bit of a bind.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I bet the better results from the muslim world are almost entirely from Iran. 70% of the population being under 30 and all.

Thursday, September 16, 2010 1:44:00 PM  

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