Database of Intentions

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John Batelle, in his 2005 book “The Search,” likened Google to a “database of intentions.” In an April 2009 white paper entitled “Predicting the Present with Google Trends,” Google economists Hal Varian and Hyunyoung Choi determined that Google Internet search query analytics may not absolutely predict the future, but it can almost certainly lend insight on the present. Expanding on this idea, I’ve looked at a series of cases, from Iran to Indonesia, Mexico to China.

Internet search analytics on proper nouns, such as electoral candidates or even Bollywood stars such as Shahrukh Khan, can be easily monitored. Recently, I’ve begun exploring Google Internet search query data on antonyms, such as war and peace. In a recent post for Harvard’s Internet & Democracy blog, I found that contrary to rankings on the Global Peace Index, the most “peaceful” nations were often those most searching for “war” terms online.  I likened online “war” and “peace” to Orwell, not Tolstoy. On Friday I broadened this query by looking across languages in three regions in the Middle East: Iraq, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories.  In the wake of the Gaza War, and the January Israeli offensive, Israeli Internet search queries on “war” diminished to pre-war levels within one week, finding parity with queries on “peace.” In the Palestinian territories, however, this reduction in volume took six months.  In short, the Gaza offensive created only a blip in Israeli Internet user focus on war, but search queries on “war” persisted for over 25 times as long among Palestinian Internet users.

Google may “predict the present.” And the Google “database of intentions” may reveal denizen pathos long after guns fall silent. Perhaps Google can offer “cloud” perspective through what Clausewitz termed the “fog of war.”

Internet Search for Strategic Management

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Last week, Car Czar Steven Rattner announced that would step down from his post at the helm of the Big 3 automakers.  As tax-payers and law makers scrutinize the use of Federal bailout money, managers might learn from Internet search analytics as a potential leading indicator of regional interest. For managers of the Big 3 and beyond, online tools may guide them in streamlining brand and inventory according to online regional interest, make and model user search query preferences. As outlined on the Harvard Internet & Democracy blog, “Big 3 on the Information Superhighway,” managers may yet become as reliant on the Information Superhighway as they have on Eisenhower’s Interstate.

Stravinsky Online

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Each summer Wednesday the Boston Landmarks Orchestra performs on the Esplanade, along the crepuscular sunset shores of the Charles.  Last night the symphony brought Stravinsky into my ears and thoughts, and reminded me of a quote that successful music requires a core of repetition supplemented with innovation. Stravinsky pioneered what came to be known as “Motivic Development,” the repetition of a melodic phrase, around which the piece centers. “I know that the twelve notes in each octave and the variety of rhythm offer me opportunities that all of human genius will never exhaust.” The constituent elements of the Internet are static, like the notes. But it is the syncopation and the style with which they are assembled that allow for new-found genius. Each deviation is small, but the aggregated change we witness online is the iterative process of consistency and deviation that is Stravinsky.

Google or the Polls

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On Friday, Google Managing Policy Counsel Pablo Chavez wrote about the initial results of Indonesia’s Presidential election on the Google Global Policy Blog.  Early polling data indicated that incumbent SBY had been re-elected, but this was no surprise.  Polls, and putative on-the-ground opinion was that he would win.  Surprising, however, were the subsequent results of opposition contender Megawati and Jusuf Kalla.  As discussed in today’s Internet & Democracy piece entitled “Google: Tomorrow’s Silicon (Not Crystal) Ball,” Google –not the pollsters– got election ordering correct.  Polling indicated that Jusuf Kalla would lead Megawati.  Internet search analytics –albeit referencing only 5% of Indonesia’s 240 million citizens– proved to be more accurate in predicting electoral outcome.  In lead-up weeks, Google proffered swelling numbers on SBY, and trending on Mega that far surpassed Jusuf Kalla.  Though undoubtedly not perfect, with the advent of greater Internet penetration this predictive role will grow.

I’ve outlined such predictions in a July 16, 2009 Jakarta Globe Op-Ed, “In the Future, Crystal Balls will be all Silicon,” a Creative Commons re-publication of my Internet & Democracy post. In a subsequent article, “Understanding Election Twitter,” for the Carnegie Council’s Policy Innovations magazine, I highlight the importance in understanding domestic political institutions. Only when being informed translates into being influential does it matter for politics.

Half-Way to McDonalds

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If Tencent’s goal is to equal McDonald’s, in having served 1 Billion (hamburgers), then they’re half way there with over 570 Million registered QQ Instant Messaging (IM) accounts.  Founded in 1998, Tencent has more than 2x the number of Facebook users, and 20x the number on Twitter.  Yet no one in the West has heard of them, and only in January did they launch an English version of their MSN-esq web-portal website, IMQQ.com.  As I highlighted in my “Micro-Blogging in China” post yesterday on Harvard’s Internet & Democracy blog, Western media focus on Chinese access to Facebook and Twitter is only noteworthy to the extent that such services are used both domestically in contentious regions, and followed outside of such regions.  As outlined in their study, “Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere,” Bruce Etling, John Palfrey, and John Kelly of Morningside Analytics discuss the importance of “Bridge Bloggers” in the Levant and Maghreb who transcend linguistic divides.  In the same way, continuous Chinese access to Twitter is only necessary insofar that Twitter provides a bridge platform that some users on both sides of the Chinese Firewall pay attention to.  Today Twitter is a politically transcendent bridge, and for that it’s useful. Perhaps tomorrow, with more and more Americans learning Mandarin, Uighur in Xinjiang will be as enthralled in the periodic updates of Californians on Komoo.cn.

Jilbab Paris

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In “Reading Google in Jakarta,” a Foreign Policy piece I published yesterday, I addressed the politicization of the Muslim head scarf in Indonesian politics.  Tomorrow Indonesia will host its second-ever Democratic presidential election. Candidate and incumbent Vice President  Jusuf Kalla has brought the issue of “Jilbab” –the Bahasa term for the Arabic “hijab,” or head scarf– to the forefront of electoral debate.  As covered in the July 2 New York Times article, “Head Scarf Emerges as Indonesia Political Symbol,” the issue has broadly reignited the question about the role of Islam in modern Muslim democracy, and its public or private religious importance.

While putative media opinion has been that the Golkar party’s tactics are winning them support, that depends on the demographic.  For the 13 million Indonesians on the Internet –largely young Muslims with the same global Facebook curiosity and Google predilections– online tools indicate otherwise.  As outlined in my piece yesterday, while “Jilbab” references on Facebook have increased three-fold, Google queries have declined by 20 percent over recent months.  And despite the media bandwagoning over the substantive debate surrounding “Jilbab” in politics, for online voters, Google search remains focused on “Jilbab Paris,” and “Jilbab Cantik,” (pretty) by increasing proportions. Between substance and style, the New York Times might have been more accurate to reference the latter when highlighting the issues of politically engaged Muslim youth online.

Mid-Term Elections in Mexico

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On Sunday July 5, Mexico will elect host its mid-term elections, bringing change to its lower house of Congress, six governor and hundreds of mayoral offices.  The reform agenda of President Felipe Calderon will depend on his ability to secure a majority in the 500-member Chamber of Deputies, or “Deputatos.”  Calderon’s party, the National Action Party (PAN) competes with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).  Though Calderon’s PAN hold more Senate and Deputy seats, they lack a majority due to the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), a group that occupies seats vital to Calderon’s reform.

Today, Mexico has roughly 27M people, or 25 percent of its population, online.  Before Sunday’s elections, online trends point to pockets of support across demographics and regions. Aside from trends that can be observed looking at Internet search volume, for Mexico’s youth demographic, Facebook’s Lexicon displays prevalence of terms on Facebook Wall posts. When comparing “PRI” with “PAN,” the margin of difference for Calderon’s PAN has increased since March 2009.  In fact, Facebook Wall reference volume on PAN is triple PRI, and peaking around June 15. A majority for either side will signal reform in Mexico.

Net in Nusantara

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A week from today, on July 8, Indonesia, the largest Muslim democracy in the world, will host its Presidential elections. While the power elite will vie for office, the Net is playing an increasingly important role in mobilizing information and youth demographics. While not yet pervasive, Indonesia’s 13M online accounted for the second-largest regional stronghold of Google search interest during the Iranian elections, across Sunni and Shiite beliefs. In fact, on a basis relative to all Bahasa Internet traffic, Bahasa traffic on Iranian terms trailed only to Farsi as the language of choice for queries on Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. The greatest use of the net in Nusantara during the period was to gain information about Iran.

One week before their own presidential elections, search volume data yields interesting information. While incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono leads by 10 points according to a June 11 poll, aggregated search on iterations of his name –sby, boediono, budiono, pd (after his party)– show him leading by 6:1 over Megawati, and by even wider margins over former VP incumbent Jusuf Kalla.  Putative opinion in Indonesia is that “Mega” –as first Indonesian President Sukarno’s daughter is known– is out of the running.  In certain regions such as Jawa Timur (East Java) “SBY” leads both in search and in political stronghold. Online “Mega” appears to have a chance, until one realizes that queries on her name are by “Breakout” proportions “say no Megawati.” On July 8, it appears as though it will be smooth sailing in Nusantara for incumbent SBY.

Cooperation on the Pitch

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Yochai Benkler, Faculty Co-Director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, has articulated the concept of online “design levers” that can influence environments, promote coordination, and facilitate cooperation.

Yesterday, U.S. soccer lost the FIFA Confederation Cup Finals to Brazil, allowing an American 2-0 lead to erode in under 40 minutes, and relinquished what would have garnered an unprecedented FIFA world title.  Online, design levers improve interactions. On the pitch, designing for coordination can cut both ways.  Team cooperation is undoubtedly  imperative for success at the highest levels of football. But during the process of player development over-coordination may stifle individual expression and creativity. Brazilian soccer players, like American basketball players, develop skill on the street, not during well-coordinated league play. During ad hoc games, individuality, risk taking, and aggressive play are encouraged; during coordinated games, team subsumes individual. Good players become “ball hogs,” and teamwork is encouraged to the skill developmental detriment of a young player. While teamwork and individual prowess must ultimately dovetail to win championships –though Kobe Bryant’s 60-point-games and Fernando Torres’ 17-minute hat-tricks largely prove this wrong– under-coordination is perhaps the best strategy for individual autonomy and skill development. Perhaps we want coordinated online universes with design levers, but on the pitch I want teammates who became players on the streets.

E.B. White’s “Here is Internet”

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Today I read a 1948 book by E.B. White entitled “Here is New York,” a casual but vivid literary snapshot of Manhattan from a sultry midtown vantage, articulated in prose that when read is less duty than pleasure.  On page 25 I happened upon a paragraph that piqued my interest  By injecting the online noun (“The Internet”) for its offline counterpart (“New York”), one discovers sad prescience in what I’ve titled as E.B. White’s “Here is Internet:”

“Although the Internet often imparts a feeling of great forlornness or forsakeness, it seldom seems dead unresourceful; and you always feel that either by shifting your domain or reducing your time you can experience rejuvenation.  Many people who have no real independence of spirit depend on the Internet’s tremendous variety and sources of excitement for spiritual sustenance and maintenance of morale.  Offline there are few chances of sudden rejuvenation –a shift in weather, perhaps, or something arriving in the mail. But on the Internet the chances are endless.  I think that although many persons are here from some excess of spirit (which caused them to break away from their small offline world), some, too, are here from a deficiency of spirit, who find in the Internet a protection, or an easy substitution.”