Google just released a new service called “Sidewiki” that has some pretty huge ramifications. Essentially it’s a tool to comment on websites; if you have it as a feature installed on your browser (it works as an add-on for Microsoft Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox – curiously though not for Google’s own Chrome browser) when you surf to a site, it lets you see text other users have highlighted and comments they’ve made.
WHILE you’re on that site.
Let me repeat that: you can see comments from other users about a particular site while you’re ON that website.
So if I have an axe to grind with Walmart, I can pop over to Walmart.com and air my grievances in view of anyone else (with SideWiki installed) who visits the site. As I write this, Foxnews.com already has one detractor commenting on the network’s political leanings.
A meta-service like this might not otherwise be a big deal (others have failed), except that Google has over 80 percent of the search engine market share, which translates into a huge audience that could form a critical mass of users relatively quickly.
There’s a really fascinating discussion of the ramifications of this going on at Jeff Jarvis’ blog (Buzzmachine.com). [Update: The discussion continues – “Sidewiki: What Google Should do“] Jarvis is seriously concerned (and he’s a huge proponent of Google – having authored the book What Would Google Do?). While there are obvious benefits to this application (centralizing comments, ostensibly enabling freer dialogue, allowing users to warn one anther of malicious/dangerous content, collecting more data about pages to improve recommendations) – there are some serious potential downsides.
- First, it potentially robs sites of traffic: if discussion about your site is going on in Sidewiki – it’s not happening on your site which means a loss of ad revenue (though there is some talk of being able to push content out of Sidewiki and incorporate it in one’s site with an RSS feed).
- Second, if the comments are merely unflattering or negative and don’t violate Google’s guidelines – you have no recourse to remove them.
- Third, it appears to be up to users to flag content that violates Google’s terms of service (and it would seem that the content remains up until someone has time to review it) meaning that offensive content could be viewed until then. Though a lot of moderation can be crowdsourced with tools that allow users to report problems or rate the merit of an entry with an up/down vote – invariably humans must be involved. Moderating discussion forums requires no small investment of time (which costs money a for-profit company like Google likely isn’t willing to spend). How long might a link to a porn video stay up on the Blues Clues site before someone catches it?
- Fourth – censorship. Google has already proven itself willing to censor on behalf of the Chinese government, and they’ve also been working with the US government; what’s to stop them from pulling unfavorable information from the Sidewiki comments on US government agency sites (or the sites of moneyed corporate partners)?
Whatever the outcome, it’s undeniably an interesting time to be alive. (For a lengthier description of Google Sidewiki, check out PC Magazine’s First Look).