fhwang.net

Building the egoist toolkit

Over drinks after a tech-arts symposium last weekend, Jon Ippolito tells me you can use Amazon's Search Inside the Book to look for your own name to see where your name shows up in honest-to-God dead tree publications. Currently he's cited in three books: One of them is titled, curiously enough, "The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World". My results are much less exciting. Amazon returns one result for "Francis Hwang", and it's not me anyway:

Excerpt from page 237 "... Importance in Toxicology and Medicine, pp. 487511, London: Taylor and Francis. HWANG, J.-J., HSAI, M. T. S. and JIRTLE, R. L., 1993, ..."

I had a different online vanity tool to offer Jon in return, since he hadn't heard that you can get email alerts on new search results from Google's Web Alerts. Possibly there are noble souls out there who are earnestly getting alerts on topics like "abortion rights" or "Iraq occupation". Personally, I get alerts for "Francis Hwang", though I've only received five notifications in about as many weeks.

Jon's got a slight lead over me on Google: 3550 hits to my 3310, and you have to drop some of my hits because there are a few other Francis Hwangs out there in the world. There's a PhD student somewhere in Canada, and wierdly enough, there's another Francis Hwang who, like me, an artist living in Brooklyn. Am I obliged to hunt him down for some sort of duel to the death? Maybe midway through our fight we'll decide to join forces against evil or something. I guess that would be fun.

Even discounting my various dopplegangers, my Google numbers compare to Jon's Google numbers more favorably than our Amazon numbers do, which puts those Google numbers into some useful perspective. Google hits don't say much that's definitive about how famous you are. For one thing, my hits go up because I've probably spent a lot more hours in online communications than Jon (he just seems more well-adjusted than that), so I've sprayed my name around in newsgroups sigs and bulletin boards like it was some memetic marker scent. On the other hand, Amazon numbers don't say much either since there's a lot of thought and energy that takes place outside of books.

For all the talk of Google's influence, it's important to note that the search engine offers only one particular view of the fragmented world, and it's a view that's inherently skewed because it only indexes online content. Just because it's an improbably massive repository of knowledge doesn't make it the repository of knowledge. You can't hope to summarize human knowledge into simple search terms and come away with anything remotely comprehensive and balanced. The map is not the territory, etc., etc.

A search engine tracks online activity: That activity is not at all representative of what people do in the real world. Living and working in New York, I come into regular contact with industries of considerable cultural, economic, and political influence whose inner workings are largely absent from the internet, such as fashion, fine arts, law, etc. Matthew Barney gets less hits on Google than Clay Shirky: Does that mean Barney is less famous than Shirky? (Is that even a question that can be answered?)

Anyway, another thought that results from my conversation with Jon is that there's a market—technically, not necessarily economically—for a unified set of tools to track your own fame. There seem to be various tools out there forming slowly, but they would be enhanced if it were easier to recombine them. Why doesn't Amazon's Search Inside the Book have an RSS feed? Somebody could be releasing a book that mentions me right now, dammit. I need to know these things.

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