Search, searching, search engines: new media interactions in digital culture

Jack Andersen, University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Search by Pleuntje licensed under CC BY 2.0

In his book The Language of Media, Lev Manovich (2001) argued the database to be a new cultural form. With this, Manovich called attention towards understanding forms of knowledge organization as expressive and material forms of culture. He contended that people approach cultural artifacts by means of searching a structured collection of items as opposed to encountering culture through a narrative. While Manovich’s argument may seem somewhat problematic or too binary, he nevertheless introduced a notion of computer and digital media as forms of culture that enter our everyday lives by means of games, interfaces, search engines, and databases.

Today, we are saturated by social, networked, or mobile media that rely on searching, archiving, ordering and structured collections of items. Fundamentally, we may say that digital media are the foundations of all of these (Finnemann, 2011; 2014); as such, it is digital media and their characteristics (or affordances) that shape and inform, but do not determine, everyday forms of communication (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, blogs, search engines, Wikipedia, digital archives).

Attached to these forms of media and their corresponding forms of communicative actions are verbs such as to tag, to share, to like, to search, to tweet, to list, or to friend. These actions are different than listening, reading or watching — actions typically ascribed to ‘traditional’ mass media like radio, television, or newspapers.

‘New’ media are media in a slightly different sense than mass media. What we expect from mass media is the provision of news and entertainment and we do not necessarily expect them to be structured collections of items providing access to recorded information. But, because digital media invites storing, linking, and searching, we expect a search function implying some sort of underlying structured collection of links or digital materials. For instance, with Twitter or Facebook we expect to be able to perform the activities of tagging, following, or linking, whereas without a search function, other media, such as search engines, do not have a purpose at all.

Even though these forms of digital media also provide news and entertainment, they provide users with the opportunity to search, archive, or list; their point of difference could be what library scholars Margaret Egan and Jessa Shera (1952) once called receptor-initiated communication, which they opposed to mass communication, commonly understood as sender-initiated or one-to-many communication. Yet, the distinction between receptor-initiated communication and mass communication can be problematic. Since users are afforded the possibility to initiate communication with e.g. search engines or through Facebook this form of communication is no more receptor-initiated than a reader reading a book.

But users’ communicative actions with search engines are not to read, watch, or listen but to search and navigate a database and a list of search results. Of course, as long as search engines rely on written language as the dominant mode of communicative interaction, searching is also a form of reading and writing.

But new media, such as search engines and social networking sites, introduce new modes of communicative interaction because engagement with them is of a different nature than previous forms of communicative interaction with media. They are different forms of media with a different set of affordances; as such they call for, or imply, different forms of action on the part of their audience.

In current media culture, searching and search engines are significant forms of media interaction. On a par with television, radio, and the press, search engines are a new powerful form of mass media which penetrate our everyday lives and public spheres in almost every dimension. “As our use of digital media converges, mixing and combining computer applications with more traditional media, we also find search engines becoming part of our entire media ecosystem” (Halavais, 2009, p. 10). The homepages of public authorities and private companies present themselves as ordered places to be searched in order for us to produce meaningful action with them. Cell phones, apps, and e-books include a search function, and the big search engines such as Google or Bing constantly make us aware of the importance of being searchable, represented, and visible (or invisible) in their collection of digital resources. It is in this way search engines have introduced the verb “to search” as a complementary verb to the verbs typically attached to “traditional” mass media such as “to listen, to read, or to watch”.

Search engines have induced “a culture of search” (Hillis, Petit, & Jarret, 2013). They help produce the public expectation that almost everything relevant is being recorded and is available and searchable; that everything is coded and archived for retrieval. “Search is a way of life” and “a public utility”, as noted by Hillis et al. (2013, p. 4–5). Although search engines may be a public utility, they are, of course, not neutral, just like all other media. The production of search results does not come from nowhere; it is generated by the deliberate actions search algorithm designers and those (big companies, for instance) who produce content to be included in search engines.

In addition, searching using search engines can also be seen as a way of connecting with other people and with the world at large: “Every tag, search entry, and click is, in fact, a way of connecting to other people’s searches and tags; i.e., to other people’s intentions of naming and identifying the things that matter to them most” (Hirsu, 2015, p. 32). Hirsu’s description of search reminds us that humans are social creatures and that the desire to connect with other like-minded persons is still with us in the age of search. The difference compared with older forms of media is the way in which we connect (i.e., by searching) to others. Halavais (2009, p. 161) calls this sociable search: “The emergence of sociable search suggests that we need to find not just information, but each other. Search is important for the individual who wants to be part of a larger social conversation….”

Together these observations suggest how search engines perform as a means of communication by focusing on the idea of being connected to others and being part of various social conversations.

It further suggests how search engines align with established mass media, as they too rely on the idea of connecting people through conversations about social and cultural matters. In short, search engines inscribe themselves in the history of communication and our hopes of being connected or related to the other (Peters, 1999).

About the author:
Jack Andersen is an associate professor at the Royal School of Library and Information Science at the University of Copenhagen. Andersen’s research interests center around digital media, genre theory and the organization of knowledge. He has published extensively in leading information studies journals and is the editor of the volume Genre Theory in Information Studies published by Emerald in 2015 and he is co-editing, together with Laura Skouvig, the upcoming volume The Organization of Knowledge: Caught between Global Systems and Local Meaning to be published by Emerald in 2017.

Egan, M. and Shera, J. (1952). Foundations of a theory of bibliography. Library Quarterly, 44, pp. 125–137

Finnemann, N. O. (2011). Mediatization theory and digital media. Communications: The European Journal of Communication, 36(1), 67–89.

Finnemann, N. O. (2014). Digitization: New trajectories of mediatization? In K. Lundby (Ed.), Mediatization of communication: Handbooks of communication science, 1(21), 297–321. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Halavais, A. (2009). Search engine society. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Hillis, K., Petit, M., & Jarret, K. (2013). Google and the culture of search. New York, NY: Routledge.

Hirsu, L. (2015). Tag writing, search engines and cultural scripts. Computers and Composition, 35, 30–40

Manovich, L. (2001). The language of new media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Peters, J. D. (1999). Speaking into the air. A history of the idea of communication. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.