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A Companion to New Media Dynamics by Axel Bruns, Jean Burgess, John Hartley

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Chapter 15

Search and Networked Attention

Alexander Halavais

In the early 1990s, when the Internet was on the verge of becoming enmeshed in the everyday lives of a significant part of the globe's population, it would have been difficult to predict just how important the search engine would become to this process. That a substantial industry would be built on indexing would have seemed as likely as telephone directories becoming the powerhouse of the telecommunications system. The ability to search was important, perhaps, but few anticipated how central it would become.

A keen observer, however, would have noticed that the rapid rise of the search engine marked an inflection point, not the starting point, of search becoming important to our social lives. The Internet and web, by making information available at our fingertips, fulfilled a future promise long dreamt of: the future, we all knew, would be marked by an abundance of easily accessed information. And, as Herbert Simon (1971) noted well before the rise of the networked society, attention becomes the scarce resource most in demand in an information-rich environment.

The term “search engine” obscures the role of these technologies. It suggests that they are agents of the user, sent to seek out particular answers to specific questions. While this represents one use of the search engine, they more broadly are technologies of attention. As Google reminds us each time we search, there is never just one page on the web that might ...

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