Twenty-five years ago, during the process of the liberalisation of the broadcasting market in Ireland, various religious groups believed that if they could gain access to the airwaves, they would quickly convert the entire country to their way of thinking. A wily programme controller at one station in Northern Ireland commented,”they don’t understand, there is difference between access to the air and access to listeners.” The advent of religious radio stations did not bring the results anticipated by their founders; religious people were generally the only people who listened. The lesson was that there is a difference between having a platform from which to speak and having someone to listen.
A quarter of a century later, expectations of the Internet are analogous to those of broadcasting in the 1990s, there are still people who believe that putting material online will mean that someone will read or listen to what has been shared, that a website will allow them to share whatever it is that they have to say. To accept that there may be no audience at all is a difficult thought. To believe that it is possible to have a voice simply through having a website is to fail to see that the web itself is a politically controlled entity.
In 1986, American writer Langdon Winner wrote an article asking, Do artifacts have politics?
In our accustomed way of thinking technologies are seen as neutral tools that can be used well or poorly, for good, evil, or something in between. But we usually do not stop to inquire whether a given device might have been designed and built in such a way that it produces a set of consequences logically and temporally prior to any of its professed uses.
Winner’s prescience is manifest in the workings of Google, the name of which has become synonymous with searching for something on the web. Google is political, but neither it nor any of the other giants who dominate our online experience are subject to any democratic accountability.
Every second, Google’s algorithms make editorial decisions, but who determines how the algorithms make decisions? Who decides what Google might find and what it might ignore? (And there are websites that Google does not list) If something is visible, who is going to read it if it is on page 687 of the pages listing sites relevant to the search? Who is there to determine that competing sides in an argument receive comparable rankings? All of the search engines are operated by companies seeking to make a profit; it is simply not in their nature to court the disfavour of those who place the advertisements that provide the revenue sources.
Unless Google’s algorithms grant a lucky break, for most ordinary people, having no offline constituency, or community of people, who will search for a person’s online presence, will mean having no online audience, no matter what is written.