Wednesday, August 25, 2004

On Google as a Method of Self-Validation

So, here I am, jotting down comments on urban development and idly surfing Blogger as a way not to dwell too much on a job interview this afternoon, and I stumble across the fact that Blogger is now a subsidiary of Google.

Of course, Google has been much in the news lately, having raised a ton of money by selling shares to the public. Its proprietary cataloging and page ranking technology, which relies in part on the Internet equivalent of word-of-mouth references, is also much discussed and widely admired.

One of the beauties of the method is that it is much more difficult for an individual or company to game its way to the top of the list. A site or page rises to the top because other sites or pages point to it, which is a way of implying that people find the page useful or worthwhile.

For businesses or companies, this sort of implicit endorsement can be quite valuable. But what does it mean for individuals?

I've been pondering this a bit ever since I lost my position at the top of a Google page ranking. Prior to April of this year, if you were to enter the name "sandy smith" into Google and click on "I'm Feeling Lucky," you would have gone directly to my home page on This, I imagined, is because back when the Internet was just beginning to turn from in-group plaything to mass-market phenomenon, I put up a personal site that listed some of my interests, web pages of acquaintances, a capsule bio and links to transit agencies around the world (connected to another of my interests). Since I participated in a bunch of Usenet newsgroups, what probably happened is that other Usenetters put links to my page onto their pages and thus bumped up its "usefulness" according to the Google taxonomy.

When I lost my job at Penn, I lost my web site too. Now, Googling "sandy smith" first takes you to the "home for lost pages" of a Web developer in Washington, D.C. But as I scanned down the list of "sandy smith" sites, there at position number 5 was my own profile on Blogger.

Why would this be? I only created this blog last month, and a little over a month went by between post number 1 and post number 2. According to the traffic stats, I've probably had as many visitors to my blog as a Rolls-Royce dealership in Mississippi would get in the same time span.

Which once again, leads me to wonder: Who wants to know more about me? Is my life that interesting? My thoughts? Who is reading, and why? Unfortunately, these questions Google cannot answer. All it can tell me is that, among the tens of thousands of Sandy Smiths out there in cyberspace, I must be interesting or intriguing to at least a large handful of friends, acquaintances and total strangers.

Maybe you can clue me in on why.

Just what is blight, anyway?

If you live in or around Philly, as I do, you are probably familiar with the chain of communities collectively known as the Main Line. These are all older, affluent suburbs, with charming, eclectic business districts that usually center on the train stations of the Pennsylvania Railroad route that gave the area its name.

Some of these, such as Ardmore, are struggling to remain vibrant in the face of competition from regional malls and trendy districts such as Wayne and Manayunk. Some of their shops are vacant, and some of their buildings could use a little sprucing up.

But I doubt that anyone, upon seeing them, would judge them blighted.

And yet that is exactly what officials in Ardmore--and in the northern suburb of Jenkintown--are calling them. All so they can take advantage of a decades-old state law promoting urban redevelopment.

The law, passed in 1943, gives municipalities expanded powers of condemnation in order to remove blight and redevelop rundown neighborhoods. Ardmore officials would like to construct a new retail complex and train station along historic Lancaster Avenue in order to keep people strolling the street and better connect the district to the equally historic Suburban Square shopping center across the tracks. In Jenkintown, borough officials want the designation so they can purchase fading properties and offer them to developers willing to either rehabilitate them or build new structures.

All of this may be desirable, even beneficial for neighboring merchants. But it seems a bit too heavy-handed a use of government power. And to get that power, the governments in question have to, in effect, disparage their own communities by declaring them in worse shape than they really are.

That our big cities engaged in the same sort of behavior in the urban renewal era of the 1950s and 1960s does not make it any more right or justified today.