A Reluctant Defense of the Sidewiki

First, I’ll be clear: I have issues with Google. Any truly self-respecting SEO does. But when I read a recent TalkBiz article on Google taking over the web, I was surprised by how much I disagreed with Paul Myers. I was ready to be like “yeah totally!” as I have been about Google-bashing before, but not this time.

I’ll try to summarize the take-home points of the article, but I really recommend reading the post in full.

Google has a new feature in their toolbar called Sidewiki, which allows for comment annotations by surfers on the page they’re surfing, shown in a left pane. To Myers, there are key problems with this service, which allows comments to appear on a given page without the site owner’s consent. The important ones, to me, are the following:

1. Comments can be potentially malicious or harmful (he uses the example of someone calling the business owner a pedophile, and how the worst allegations leave a scar even if moderated)
2. It is debatable whether Google will be able to properly moderate these comments, meaning correctly and in a timely fashion. The article assumes they won’t.
3. To many confused users the Sidewiki window might like part of the site, which could damage the message.
4. The Sidewiki window takes up valuable real estate on the site, and, due to the left-column position, distracts viewers. Taking up this space alone could damage sales, which is particularly annoying if the Sidewiki shows ads, and even more so if the traffic originally came via AdWords.
5. It competes with and sabotages comment threads on the actual site.
6. It is now up to businesses to opt-out, if they know how to and are able to, or be forced to make this extra feature available.

I do agree with a few of Myers’ criticisms, but I think these problems can be addressed without scuttling the whole service. And I disagree with some of his major arguments. I’ll try to address each of Myers’ points consecutively.

1. How is this new? If there’s a shop down the road you don’t like, you can go ahead and plaster a “PEDO” sticker on their window in the middle of the night. That’s more legally questionable than a comment on the Sidewiki on someone’s site, granted, but it’s the same idea. The problem is that the web allows this to happen quickly, easily, and anonymously, which connects to moderation problems (point 2) in that the owner can’t really do much about it. However, malicious comments can be addressed by solving point 3 – awareness of Sidewiki’s autonomy. If users understand the comments are written anonymously and are separate from the site’s content, then I don’t see those comments carrying much clout.

2. I agree completely that Google faces an almighty moderating task, but I imagine this could be at least partly solved with some kind of social mechanism for evaluating and prioritizing comments. There is already a “Did you find this comment useful?” system. Yes, Myers is right that this will likely spammed to hell, but I’ll give Google the benefit of the doubt to try to deal with it. I imagine that they see this coming. Plus, just because something is heavily spammable, doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. He used blogs as an example of something damaged by spam, but that doesn’t mean you cancel blog comments, or blogs entirely.

Comments may indeed be negative but they may also be true. Is that really so bad? Myers wants protection for the webmaster, but what about the surfer who wants to know potentially useful information? If the site does something shady and people want to warn others, what other mechanism is there? Is this mechanism in fact the ideal method so far? Every site featuring product reviews has competitors unjustly slamming each other, but the sites still serve a useful function for the researching consumer and we try to sift through both sides of the story.

That said, the ability to add links scares me.

3. I can’t imagine most people, or as the article put it, a reasonable person, would really treat Sidewiki as part of the site. That said, some assurance and transparency about the external nature of the comments could help deal with any confusion. It’s a solvable problem, either through some common sense in the toolbar user or greater clarity by Google.

4. When it comes to space and distraction concerns, I’m sorry, but too bad. I believe that higher (browser) level tools will have a greater and greater impact on traffic in the years to come, and I think Google is very well aware that search engines become irrelevant if people are finding sites through browser suggestions. Hence, Chrome, and the toolbar for those who don’t go with Chrome. I think Firefox could really mess with the traffic game if they so chose, but they keep things deliciously neat. The browser itself (toolbars and plugins included) will shape a lot of the way we use the internet and which sites we visit, and Google found a way to implement a novel discussion mechanism a level above the normal web, taking advantage of the user base they built. If people want to customize their browsing experience to include a panel of comments at the left of a given page, who has the right to deny them? Plus, if they want to buy something, presumably that desire to purchase won’t evaporate. The purchase will be made eventually somewhere by the user who will likely have the Sidewiki open on that last site when it happens.

5. As for interfering with comment threads on the site itself -yeah, this one kinda sucks. There will definitely be people who might have commented on the site’s actual thread that will comment in the Sidewiki instead, but a few points should be kept in mind. First, not all sites allow comments and so Sidewiki offers an opportunity here. What if you don’t want people discussing your site? I say too bad, and Sidewiki is just a convenient message board-like tool that gives your readers the chance to discuss your material. Since that could just as easily have happened on an actual message board somewhere else, the only potential problem is if people think the comments are actually part of your site, addressed in 3. Fact is, for those who want to see comments, it’s a lot more convenient to have them displayed at the same time as your content. As people become more accustomed to the distinction, there will a emerge a clear difference in types of comments on a given site. Want to contact the owner privately? Email. Want to contact the owner publicly? Comment using whatever comment mechanism is on the site, if any. Want to contact fellow users of the site? Use the Sidewiki.

6. The service would be severely compromised if offered solely on an opt-in basis. Since it’s independent of their site, I don’t see why choosing to participate is an issue. If someone wants to discuss my site on a message board, I don’t get to opt into or opt out of that discussion. If they want to discuss it through a Sidewiki, same deal.

Web Evolution vs Web Intelligent Design

The web is evolving in much the same ways society evolves: lots of interrelated small actions produce emerging trends, and the occasional massive influencer shifts the course. We like to let ambitious entities transform what we do and how we think, but we have limits, based in part on the total harm caused to others, and on perceived excessive benefit to the influencer.

The web is in its infancy. We seem far from where we were 15 years ago, but there is still massive room for growth. With the web itself perhaps the symbol of this era’s progress, it’s interesting to watch the web progress. Who is meant to be pushing the web forward? If we take it as a given that the web should be improving and evolving, then how is that evolution meant to come about?

Before addressing that question, let’s first think about that given – that progress is a good thing. We webfolk love that technology evolved to get us where we are today, but once we’re settled in that new technology we like it to stay the same. Business owners define their strategy based around current circumstances, and tweak, tune, and expand their work to excel. If these circumstances change too dramatically, the business might not work as well anymore – if at all. When much of a company’s model relies on another company, there is potential for disaster. If Google makes a change to their algorithm that sinks the rankings you got used to and budgeted around, with the way things stand now, too bad for you. It’s their site. Just as I get annoyed at sites that claim they’re too massive to moderate their content, I do mind when people feel like Google owes them something. They are running a business, and want to make money as much as you do. Maybe there are corporate ethics that are supposed to govern here, but given how little they apply in other industries (see US health care debate), I hardly expect Google to gauge profits against moral considerations too strictly. They say “Don’t Be Evil”, but that doesn’t mean they have to be perfect.

So when Google wants to change their search engine or add a new service that people can choose whether they want to adopt, as long as they’re being transparent, I don’t see why we should blame them. We don’t want the web to evolve too much is because we understand this web, and rely on it for our livelihoods. But million (billions?) of surfers around the world do not, so even if change is bad for some business owners, if it’s good for the web, as Sidewiki could very well be, it should have a chance. Moreover, it will, whether you like it or not.

There are a lot of great changes coming to the web. Just like the advent of expected transparency pissed off business users that were used to their ways of operation, other changes, especially social-oriented changes, will be useful to users. Not all changes will be for the better, and we should be mindful of when Google profits at the expense of everyone, but I think Sidewiki sounds more like the good kind of change.

Lastly, if Google doesn’t do it, who will? They are one of the few companies out there who innovate at a high level, having the resources and user base. With the web in its infancy, who else has the resources to make big changes happen? To me, the web hasn’t moved fast enough, and there are plenty of online services that should be available. Governments are relatively clueless about the web’s potential. In an age where politicians still barely use the web to get elected (Obama made some progress, but there’s so much more that can be done), and democracy has been relatively unchanged since the web, I’m not expecting large-scale changes for the benefit of everyone to come from an elected body. While I wish governments would actually build socially, economically, and democratically useful websites, until then, the burden falls on companies. Companies like Google. To me, the Sidewiki captures the social spirit of this web-era.

So yes, Google is taking over the web, and in many ways, I think they should. If they don’t, no one else will, or it’ll take that much longer. Although the web world staying the same would probably be best for my pockets, I think that it’s just too ironic to be anti-progress in any web field. I’m not saying Myers is flat-out anti-progress, but I think the Sidewiki is an extension of the web that is inevitable, and I don’t find it surprising that Google got there first.

Ok, I’m going to go have a shower. Can’t defend Google this much without feeling dirty.

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