The Internet and social media are rife with trolling, click-baiting, and teenage hijinks. Just ask the folks in the UK about Boaty McBoatface, and do not dare Tweet with Tay. The Internet may be in its twenties, but it seems it will never leave its teen-hood.
Under the foul-mouthed angry conspiracy blustering, there is the issue of truth. In many cases, one person’s truth is another person’s falsehood, so at times there is some room for negotiation. However, some issues are less debatable, and yet the Internet seems to create a fog around them.
Presently, I am reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes. I have reached the point where John Clayton, maid Esmerelda, Secretary Philander, Professor Archimedes Q. Porter, and his daughter Jane Porter are marooned on Africa in the same spot Lord and Lady Greystoke had been marooned twenty years prior. The child of the Lord and Lady has grown into his own, a full-blown jungle god having become king of the hairy anthropoids and relinquished that kingship to seek his own path and understand why he is different from all the jungle animals he has encountered in his life.
To this point, the writing has been excellent. It is an amazing anthropological, sociological, and psychological study, at least from a fiction point of view. It is extremely dated, and bares the marks of an old-world look at race distinctions that would be difficult to depict today, though I think it is fair to say Burroughs was even handed given the period he was writing in – 1912.
Suddenly we have the character Archimedes Q. Porter. Just as suddenly, the writing feels rehashed. Professor Porter is the quintessential absent-minded professor. He is more aware of books and theory, and more interested in debating the effect of the attack of the Moors against the Visigoths in the 700s than where he is setting down his foot, or if he is being chased by a lion. I began to ask myself, does this character feel overdone because of the age of the work? Could Professor Archimedes Q. Porter be the architype of later nutty professors? This led me to the Internet.
At last, we return to the thesis. I tried several permutations, looking up the history of absent-minded professors in literature. I have not found any definitive information. It is a thick topic requiring months of research. I did find some references suggesting the idea was not new in 1912, but also not terribly old either.
Anyway, in that quest I searched ‘Professor Archimedes Q. Porter’. My primary search engine is Yahoo. The search result list was full of references to Disney’s 1999 animated movie, “Tarzan”, along with references to an animated series. One of the most common statements was something like, ‘Professor Archimedes Q. Porter is a character in the 1999 Disney film, “Tarzan”’. Really? Not one mention of Edgar Rice Burroughs?
I admit, I do a lot of searching on movies. I concluded the results must be geared toward an unseen preference list. Therefore, I tried Google, and then Bing. The results were pretty much the same. Maybe five or six listings down there might be a reference to Jane Porter, Professor Porter’s daughter, but no clear reference to Edgar Rice Burroughs the creator of the character. Granted, a person might then search “Tarzan”, and eventually find Mr. Burroughs.
This made me think about truth, facts, and the Internet. One of the tools used by search engines is relevance – how relevant are the sites in relation to the query, but moreover, how many sites and backlinks point to the sites being queued. The more links to a site, the higher its appearance in a search result. In addition, sites with more current information have higher relevancy ratings.
Now, it is true Archimedes Q. Porter is a character in a Disney film, but that is not the whole truth, nor is it real serviceable information. Well, it is serviceable to Disney, but not to humanity. Beyond the outright falsehoods which appear on the Internet – lies, conspiracies, trolling, and click-baiting – there is a self-serving falsehood. Corporations and interested parties generating ghost sites to drive up backlinks and relevance. This may not be malevolent and may result only from a desire to generate high ratings, but it has the side effect of concealing the truth and facts.
Likewise, the timeliness issue also tends to bury details, reality, and truth. How long before an Internet search predominately shows Luke Skywalker to be a character in a Disney movie, with little or no mention of George Lucas. Might there be a day when a search of ‘E=mc2’ results only in references to The Big Bang Theory TV show and other movies and memes with no mention of Einstein himself?
I do not have a solution. It is really up to the folk who write search engine algorithms and the motivations driving them. Will search engine providers continue to yield to the reward promised by popularity contests, or will they consider some greater good?