Some Thoughts on Browsing and Searching

Plucked from an essay titled “Browsing for Utopia,” originally written in 2008:


Browsing is a compelling way of relating to cultural materials because of its capacity to surprise and its unpredictability. Nothing attests to the importance of browsing quite like the continued appeal of vinyl records. Since hardly any are presently produced, the vinyl enthusiast becomes a “crate-digger,” engaged in an endless scan of used record shops and flea markets, not knowing what in particular they’re looking for, but finding nonetheless. This exercise is obviously pleasurable given the continued success of such shops. Recreating this visceral unpredictability has always been somewhat of a holy grail for retailers, especially those of the online variety; many a programmer-hour has been spent developing recommendation engines and indexes in vain. It seems there are only two approaches to this problem: either one recommends based on similar purchases by other customers or based on genre. But in contrast to physical browsing, these supposed discovery-inducing systems are intractably dull, their recommendations seemingly plucked from coarsely-grained genre models.

It’s easy for retailers to provide for the needs of those with a particular item in mind, their stock must merely be organized and catalogued. The browser is more difficult to plan for. There are, after all, as many ways of to browse as there are browsers, likely many more. There are many different schools of thought on how to foster browsing. A typical approach is to separate a group of popular highlights, simultaneously providing a reduced selection and pushing items you might have overstocked. From there, stock is usually organized by genre and alphabetically. Within this differentiated field, browsers must somehow orient themselves, usually accomplished by genre selection or another vague starting point.

It may be necessary to distinguish further between browsers who intend to make a purchase and those who don’t. Some browse to buy, and others to fill time. The former are here the preferred constituency because of their decisiveness. The latter group one might describe as flâneurs, Baudelaire’s neologism for the wandering dandies of the Paris streets that later fascinated Walter Benjamin in his Arcades Project. For these characters, the means are the end. There is no goal other than filling “island paradises of idle time.”[i] Their activity lacks motivation and is indifferent to the subtle changes in course that browsing might bring. The flâneur has what Georg Simmel would later call a blasé attitude toward their surroundings. The browser-to-buy carries a curiosity and opportunism that blasé dandyism precludes. Browsing-to-buy is not unmotivated action, but action with a pace and level of directness suited to problems of vague constitution.

A more apt model might be the Situationist dérive. The dérive is delimited temporally and spatially, and has a goal in mind. Participants are required to build interest in order to provide momentum and direction to the group. Where the browser differs is in terminus. The dérive ends somewhat arbitrarily when participants lose interest, but browsing-to-buy ends definitively when a purchase is made. A purchase doesn’t automatically equal success, however, as the impulse buy and the fad demonstrate. Like Sylvia Lavin says of the Pet Rock, these purchases might merely be “good enough” objects, provisional placeholders inept enough not to turn on you.[ii] The Pet Rock can be thought of as a stand-in for something larger, a conceptual Other that one might call Utopia. The placeholders are ultimately all we have, but that doesn’t mean progress is impossible. Each lets one collect just that little bit more information, further confining the field of inquiry and enabling projections to extend farther afield. Even placeholders beget information, and being informed is the name of the game. An uninformed browser, one outside their usual genre, is often unfounded in their decisions. Imagine being at a bookstore or record shop and stepping beyond one’s usual genres or areas of interest. With all point of reference removed, judgment is suspended, and one’s buying decisions might not be sound. Even if one does not know what one is looking for, one still must know what one is looking at.

The blogger is a perfect model of such an attentive, critical browser. They are attentive enough to the grain of the data they encounter that they can construct a kind of continuous manifesto in relation to said data, curating and collecting to construct a whole greater than the sum of its parts. But the range from which a blog’s content can come must not be unlimited. In order to build an audience, readers must know the genre in which a blogger operates and the relationship (in general) they take to said genre. Misdirected ramblings are common in the blogosphere, but readership tends to tell the truth. Unlike television, the blogosphere is constituted of individuals who always already cast a suspicious eye on their media. Blogs, therefore, are both specialized and have a specialized audience.

Browsing is difficult when one’s environment—and, by extension, one’s unconscious—are saturated with information. One always seems to be looking for something, however vague or fleeting that something may be. The blogger is more attentive than a mere surfer, more curious than one with a question to be answered. The blogger will always make purchases, will always find something, but that something must be open to interrogation in order for the blogger to continue an established project.

Blogging is a matter of curation, and the toolbox contains two battling possibilities, hypertext and the search engine. Both of these claim objectivity, but for each it means something different. For hypertext, it means that its structure is a network in which no points are unequal, just more or less accessible. For the search engine, it means that lists are constructed from pure, unadulterated data indexed to provide said objectivity.

In an August 2008 editorial for the New Republic, literary editor Leon Wieseltier articulated his discontent with the rise of such objectivity, referring to it as “Google progressivism,” the notion that a more efficient, easier-to-navigate world (and world wide web) is a better one.[iii] He faults this progressivism as a digital remastering of humanity’s existence: all traffic avoided, all detours removed. By his logic, eliminating friction from the information consumer’s experience unfortunately also eliminates surprise. But his straw man is shoddily constructed. What he overlooks is that the objectivity of a search engine never calcifies, never becomes a mere list. It is always a fleeting, shifting bulk of links surprised to be in one another’s company. In short, the search engine is not hierarchical. Because the network changes, so too does the list, as if both are in constant movement, neither in front of the other. The simultaneity (or nearly so) of network and curation is always expressed at the top of Google’s list, 0.02 seconds or something similar, marking the supremacy of an efficient but “surrational” index.[iv]

The search engine shines its light on various parts of the network and is therefore less hierarchical than the network itself, not more. In a network, there may be things linked to many other things, and others linked to only a few. But often these highlights each represent a capsular milieu. A list disables this encapsulation by bringing different milieus into alignment. This juxtaposition is provisional, lasting only until another links supplant their position, which may happen daily or by the minute given the rapidity of information travel on the web. The search brackets of certain possibilities as desirable, listing not necessarily by popularity but by density. Perhaps a series of brackets is necessary, leaving room for improvisation and misdirection at every juncture while maintaining movement with a goal in mind. One can collect a group of things that add up to more than their sum. The whole can be greater than its parts.

No matter the relative specificity of one’s query, a Google search always contains at least one surprise. The function of a search engine isn’t to provide answers, but to curate a field.  It enables discoveries that are within a network of relationships and implications. By it’s very rationality, it enables the irrational. Naming aside, what Borgesian logic would put together an interactive online game for medieval enthusiasts, a staggeringly comprehensive guide to the gay and lesbian scene on the continent of Asia, bars or restaurants in three US cities, a forum for discussing the music of Canadian pop star Alanis Morrissette, and an animal rescue ranch funded by the sale of proprietor Kinky Friedman’s signature brand dips and salsas? (All of these options turn up on a Google search for “Utopia”) The sheer improbability of these results’ juxtaposition is staggering, and one can be sure even stranger constellations exist. The search engine can curate fields for one to peruse, and while these fields are dependent upon existing content, one must remain hopeful that the whole may exceed the parts. Google’s is a remarkably uncritical curation, a gesture of selection and prioritization with opaque logic at best.

Scanning such results is a hybrid activity, somewhere between searching and browsing. When one has something specific in mind, only that perfect match will suffice. But when one’s query is less a question and more a provocation, said results can provide unexpected and ultimately fruitful detours leading one to answers or—perhaps more usefully—more questions. Hypertext, while networked and nonlinear, has difficulty providing a user with conflicting opinions or permitting them to leave a given milieu, merely reinforcing already held opinions and preventing the kind of juxtapositions permitted by an index of associations like the search engine. This is the central problematic of “surfing” in general, that one is almost never exposed to content outside a given range. With hypertext, it is difficult to find conflicting opinions. Websites don’t often link to things with which they disagree, and if they do it is often in jest. Hypertext surfing means a stream of information is always passing by, but the vast majority of it is content of one’s own selection. Search engines are great at providing an extra jolt of surprise when one’s browsing habits have become sclerotic.

Browsing can be both enabled and disabled by the unprecedented access to information and visual content provided by electronic media, but it seems to this author that search engines and web browsers should have their names reversed. When one enters a web address in a browser window, something specific appears for which no alternative will suffice. The search engine, however, provides an assortment of options. All remain connected to a given query, though their relevance varies according to algorithms. Who do we have to call to make that happen?

[i] Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic, uses the phrase “island paradises of idle time” in an editorial titled “Scratches” from August 27, 2008. Wieseltier also mourns what he perceives as the death of browsing because the power of the search engine disables the kind of wandering eye and discovery it enables. Retrieved from: August 14, 2008.

[ii] Lavin references the Pet Rock in her lecture “Practice Makes Perfect,” published in Hunch 11 (2007): 106-113.

[iii] Wieseltier, “Scratches.”

[iv] In their book Situation Normal…, Lewis, Tsurumaki and Lewis develop a similar hypothesis to the one here outlined, labeling their results “surrational.” Their examples include everything from defunct military research (a ship made of ice, a bent-barrel rifle) to the spatial tactics of Buster Keaton, but one could describe the analogical results found on these pages the same way. While algorithms determine their organization, the sheer size and complexity of the Internet content they index enables what LTL might call “surrational” lists. (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998).