The Spock controversy – or, how about a little growing up before going live?

Anything that Tim O’Reilly claims to be excited about, one has got to take a good look at. That’s how this evening I ended up using my beta invitation to Spock, the search engine that claims it will revolutionize people search.

The product clearly has some way to go before it is truly useful, both in terms of being richly populated with tags, votes and other ephemera of user-generated content, and in terms of disambiguation (yet: hats off to the team for opening up this cornerstone problem as a public challenge). How come a Spock search for Gil Penchina still returns five Gil Penchinas? C’mon, there’s only one Gil Penchina, right? Either de-dupe the profiles, or get rid of the impostors. This shouldn’t be a hard one.

Spock’s public debut a couple of weeks ago at the Web 2.0 Expo generated some more material for the debate about gender politics on the Web. Apparently (the story is roughly reconstructed in Tim O’Reilly’s post and subsequent comments), the team demoed the product by showing their results to searches for bloggers (men), drunk drivers (men), politicians (men), Foo Campers (men), and swimsuit and lingerie models (women). This was really more adolescent than one would expect at an industry forum, and probably not the smartest choice in light of Kathy Sierra‘s recent experience with double standards for women in the Web community (not to mention death threats). The discussion on Tim O’Reilly’s blog continued for the next two weeks, was spammed by some troll who couldn’t think of a better use of the engine than searching for “slutty whores” (well, at least the infamous Don Imus “nappy-headed ho’s” wasn’t necessarily a tautology), and was heavily moderated by Tim, who, no matter how outstanding a peacemaker he’s become, is probably by now sitting awake at night wishing that people would grow up without his loving care.

So, where do I stand on Spock? Give them a chance, I say. They will grow out of whatever caffeine-dazed self-destructive frat-boy mood engulfed them during their last few all-nighters to tweak the code before showing up on the stage. They’re showing that they are capable of listening: in the Challenge, they quickly backpedaled from an initial intent to keep exclusive ownership of the Challenge winner’s source code and algorithms to a fairer non-exclusive licensing arrangement proposal. Would I want to work there? Maybe not – I’m happier at a company with a woman CEO, although a somewhat conservative one for my taste. But the world needs more search engines, not fewer. Gil’s doing his share. Let these guys do theirs, too.

4 thoughts on “The Spock controversy – or, how about a little growing up before going live?

  1. Please don’t send me one – once you’re on the invitation list you cannot get off their list without some difficulty. I had someone send me an invite which I did not accept but I ended up getting emails all the same and had to spend time trying to find a contact email on their website (not easily found) so that I could get back off their list. To unsubscribe you have to confirm you want to unsubscribe but funny thing, I never even got asked if I wanted to confirm being on their list in the first place. The person who sent me the invitation I don’t know – he’s a member of another networking group I belong to and he must have just been sending invites out to every address he could find.

  2. Thanks for pointing that out, Kathie. Another confirmation that the company needs to “grow up” a bit – compliance with best practice in privacy protection is going to be more and more important going forward.

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