Researching search – notes from an INC intern

A few years ago, I looked with envy on INC´s Society of the Query initiative. When I stumbled upon it, it was already too late for me: The Society of the Query conference was over and I already dedicated my diploma thesis to Wikipedia. Not that I would have regretted this decision – I think that Wikipedia is an excellent research object and I´m still working on it from time to time. But the topic of search left too many unanswered questions which seemed even more pressing in the light of the omnipresent role search engines play in our daily life.

To be more precise, I just discovered the open questions of my own research when I got to know Society of the Query. During my work on Wikipedia, I learned a lot about knowledge production online and the new mechanisms of exclusion. I observed how conservative knowledge hierarchies could be re-enacted in an environment which seemed so revolutionary and open at first sight. But I also noticed that search engines do not necessarily follow this logic. For example, the “9/11 Truth Movement” – a group often labeled as conspiracy theorists who largely believe that the World Trade Center was brought down by a controlled demolition (leading to the belief 9/11 was orchestrated by the Bush administration) – sold t-shirts with the slogan “Google WTC-7”. Obviously, they hoped this would lead Google users to information in favor of their views. This hope was apparently justified, given the high ranking of one of their most important sites for the query “9/11”.

Shirt by the 9/11 truth movement: Do marginalized positions benefit from Google?


Evidently, concluding that marginalized positions generally benefit from search engine algorithms would be far-fetched, not least because a number of studies suggest the opposite. But this has just raised my interest in search engines even more: How do they work technically? How do they shape our information practices? What are the broader societal implications resulting from this? How are search engines embedded in our culture? I wanted to tackle these questions but I couldn´t. I already dealt with another topic and it would have been hard to approach them in the very limited frame of a diploma thesis.

Today, I´m very happy that I don´t need to envy Society of the Query anymore as I have become a part of it. I have recently started an internship at INC (until January 2013) in which I will contribute to reviving the Society of the Query initiative. This will also help me with my PhD thesis which is finally focusing on search engines and their impact from the perspective of sociology of knowledge. Read more about the upcoming activities on search here. If you want to know more about me and my research, please check my website or follow me on Twitter.