Gnomedex report: Friday

Gnomedex is a friendly, human-scale conference of early-adopter geeks. When Jason Calacanis asked the crowd how many people were on the Web back in 1994 or 1995, four out of five hands went up. The event’s marketing tagline is “The Blogosphere’s Conference,” but of course this is only one slice of one blogosphere (there was, for instance, almost no overlap with this other blogosphere).

The sessions have been a wildly mixed bag. Things got off to a rocky start with the keynote by Robert Steele, a former intelligence officer turned crackpot libertarian who delivered a scattershot rant whose agenda was so vast that it was no agenda at all. For instance, Steele simultaneously advocated the “restoration” of the U.S. constitution (through, among other things, the impeachment of Dick Cheney) and the abolition of the U.S. constitution (via a new constitutional convention).

Steele believes that “central banking is an evil cancer,” but he could not make the effort to explain why. He raced flippantly through his own slides, showing a complete disrespect for the crowd (if he couldn’t take the time to prepare a presentation, why should we take the time to listen?). Among Steele’s positions: Henry Kissinger is a war criminal; the federal government is “going away”; wikipedia is for “morons” but will become the hub for a new global mind; we can attain world peace through “open everything” — including “open carry” of guns. There was something here for anyone to agree with, something else for anyone to disagree with, and in the end nothing of substance.

Far more valuable were Darren Barefoot‘s exploration of the relative value of different forms of digital do-good-ism and Ronni Bennett‘s presentation on aging and the Web (sites need to do a better job of making themselves accessible to the elderly). Vanessa Fox led a thoughtful discussion about the line between public and private information in a blog-based universe.

The day closed with Calacanis. His title slide read, “The Internet’s environmental crisis: How the Internet is being destroyed by selfish polluters — and how we can stop them.” Calacanis pines for the early days of the Web, before the SEO spammers got involved. But the talk was really a pitch for his new “human-powered” search company, Mahalo (which I wrote about here). Dave Winer called him out from the back row, declaring that the talk itself was “conference spam.”

I just thought there was something naive and/or disingenuous about the idea that Mahalo is a blow against spam. There are many classes of spam-related pollution of today’s Net — e-mail spam, comment spam, spam blogs — and of them all, actual spamming of search results is probably the least pressing. Google still does a pretty good job. The day that Google’s results look like the flow of spam into your e-mail inbox is the day that people will start clamoring for something like Mahalo. But unless Google slips up badly, that looks unlikely.

Mahalo is ad-free today, but sooner or later it will begin running search advertising. already runs Google text link ads, and one imagines it will push that more aggressively over time. (If the service succeeds in drawing big numbers, the pressure will be on to “monetize” the traffic; somebody has to pay all those “humans.”) Calacanis has an editorial background and promises clear labeling of all ads. That’s great. But Google’s ads are clearly labeled and separated from the search results, too. Having editors is a fine thing but it is no more a guarantee of incorruptibility than a good algorithm.

UPDATE: Darren Barefoot posted the full text of his talk. It’s an entertaining and enlightening walk through the comparative social value of many of the different kinds of volunteer activities and contributions people make on the Net to try to improve the world.
[tags]gnomedex, gnomedex 2007, robert steele, jason calacanis, mahalo, darren barefoot, ronni bennett, vanessa fox[/tags]

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  1. I couldn’t agree more. Google/Yahoo etc also at least have billions of search results .. they may have SOME spam, but at least they are useful. As a human-powered search engine, Mahalo will take a LONG time before reaching any meaningful numbers in results.. but hey, maybe their plan is to clog up search results on Google just like Wikipedia does.

  2. Michael Hessling

    If you look, you’ll see Google ads on Mahalo search results. Disingenuous? Hypocritical?

    I think Steffen’s right–Mahalo’s aiming to become a top 10 search result for each terms.

  3. You’re right, Michael — indeed there are ads. I’ll post a fix. I randomly visited a couple of Mahalo pages to look for ads and didn’t see them — it may be that the terms I chose didn’t have ads, or it may be that I scanned the page too quickly.

  4. ted

    Mahalo is more or less worthless. There is no reason to use it (no breadth, no depth) as a first choice, and as a second choice most people will select Google as well– just refining their query. People often use something like “Paris Hotels” as an example why search engines are full of spam, but once you do that search, it’s easy to change it to “Paris budget hotels” or “Paris hotels near train station” or whatever…

  5. Justin

    There is already a successful concept of a “page full of links created by an editor”. They are called “Start pages” and kicked that concept off in Europe. Anyone can create a start page on a subject, and be the editor of it.

    Google is very aware of them and their popularity overseas, Their dublin office created a guide on how not to make your startpage look like it is up to no good:

    I think if startpages ever become a business model in the english speaking world, google can create their own set merely be analyzing their own click stream. By checking what the most popular hits are for a phrase and eliminating those that don’t capture attention (the user comes back to the search results page) they can out Mahalo i a microsecond. And with computers, not paid humans. But I think they believe that the google search result page IS a start page, and it is still good enough not to need a human editor.

  6. “Henry Kissinger is a war criminal”
    Yes, yes he is. Oh, or is saying obvious things like that what makes one a “crackpot?”
    You’re one of those “serious” people, right?

  7. Like I said: “There was something here for anyone to agree with, something else for anyone to disagree with.” What I think of Kissinger’s criminality isn’t the point (this is one where I tend to agree with Steele); I was hoping to suggest Steele’s complete lack of coherence. He just threw out these intentionally provocative positions in all possible directions without actually making a case for any of them.

  8. Our site Bessed is a human-powered search engine launched a little while before Mahalo. One of the places where I think we and Mahalo are most in disagreement, however, is where the problem is in search, and I think your post points to it. It’s really not in the short head but instead in the long tail, and that’s where we’re trying to focus. It’s pretty easy to find good sites on Google if your search is for iPod, but more questionable if your search is for a Mickey Mouse comforter, and so we’re focused on using humans to sift through the junk on these longer tail searches and provide the best of what is out there.

    You are definitely right that Mahalo is no blow against spam, although it’s a good marketing angle. Calacanis’ hope is to SEO Mahalo to be ranked highly in existing search engines, not replace them. Frankly that’s our goal, too, but we’re mainly targeting searches where we believe there’s more pain from the searcher’s view, so that our results are welcomed as well-organized lists of good sites for searches that would otherwise be frustrating.

  9. Glad to see you made note of Ronni Bennett’s Gnomedex presentation. We surely can benefit from more elder friendly computers, and the support toward that end from people such as yourself. You’ll be one of us one of these years and can benefit, too. I found T Flash Commenters views of her segment interesting, some of which I quoted on my blog.

  10. re: above
    Thanks for clarifying. Basically that reframes the way I look at it–if it is all just a long diverse list of extreme positions a political talk can seem like theater. I guess maybe something like that was going on with that speech in your view so even the arguments you agreed with sounded less than credible–or something.


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