Searching For Search's Elementary Particle

I've just begun reading Margaret Wheatley's "Leadership and the New Science," which applies cutting-edge theories from quantum physics and biology to the business world. Wheatley describes just one of the radical shifts in mindset necessary to comprehend these new frameworks: instead of a mechanistic model that can be broken down into its composite parts, "unseen connections between what were previously thought to be separate entities are the fundamental ingredient of all creation."

There are no smallest building blocks. In fact, get small enough and there isn't actually any thing at all, only energy. And it turns out that the way energy connects is far more important than energy by itself.

The same revolution is happening online. As Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg puts it, "There is a very fundamental shift going on from the information Web to the social Web." In other words, it's no longer about the mechanistic parts, about the data; it's about the relationships.



On the search front, this means the industry's desperate scramble -- and heretofore inability -- to make sense of the social graph isn't all that surprising. After all, the brightest scientific minds of our time still don't understand how things like quantum entanglement work. Even though it appears that relationships are at the core of what it means to be human, our brains are currently trained to deconstruct. So our early, clumsy attempts at melding search and social took a mechanistic view: "People have friends. We want to reach their friends. We'll automatically send information to people's friends."

That approach, which resulted in disasters like Beacon, failed to consider that the relationship dynamic could not be reduced to its composite parts. You cannot take a friendship apart in one area and recreate it in another. You cannot put words into someone's mouth and call it word of mouth.

Google's Social Search, fresh out of the Labs and into Beta, does a better job of it. The service adds a line to your SERPs: "Results from your social circle," including content generated by folks you've connected with on Blogger, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

One reason it's better is that you have to opt into it at the important end: where you share the content. For my Facebook photos to show up on my buddies' Google searches, I have to explicitly connect the account to my Google profile. I have to further break the tenuous, illusionary boundaries that still exist (if only in my own mind) around my private information. After all, just because I connect with someone on Gmail doesn't mean I'm friends with them.

So who is likely to connect their profiles? The answer is simple: entities who want to be found. As of now, the only results I've seen from my social circle are generated by businesses. Yes, they're businesses I'm connected to in some way, but they're still businesses. And, obviously, if results from my friends show up, it's because they've chosen to allow it. Because of this explicit opt-in on the content provider's side, Google's Social Search earns the permission to cross the market norm/social norm barrier.

Does Social Search fully encompass the relational nature of the world we live in? Of course not. But at least it remembers that there are two players in a relationship, and that they both have to agree to participate. It's one step closer to that elementary particle.

1 comment about "Searching For Search's Elementary Particle".
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  1. Josh Grossman from Springpad, February 2, 2010 at 11:42 a.m.

    Thanks for alerting me to the Social Search feature from Google. They are going down the path that I think most people will useful. People have certain "trusted sources" that they rely on or accept the word of more readily than unknown sources. Being able to tap into your network, outside of questions placed on Facebook and Twitter, is a step in the right direction. (We're taking the same approach here at Springpad,, where users can tap into their networks to get recommendations for anything that people save, like recipes, restaurants, books, businesses, articles, and more).

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