Pigeonholes

Recently, I decided to start making use of one of Google’s services that I’d signed up for but hadn’t really used much — the Reader service, which is an RSS-feed collecting gadget. For those not hip to the jive-talk of the internet, RSS is a simple tool used for snagging tidbits of regularly-updated material, such as news feeds, blog postings, and that sort of thing. An RSS feed collecting gadget lets you “subscribe” to these feeds, so that you get alerts there when the site(s) you’re interested in post new content — a pretty handy little thing, if you find yourself checking up on a bunch of different things, as I do. One of the sites I subscribed to is this one right here (check the upper right corner for a feed link [Edit: The feed button up top shoots you a bunch of junk. If you take the URL from there, though, you can paste it into an RSS reader — either standalone app or something web-based like Google Reader — to subscribe.]), so that I can keep myself updated on anything going on here that’s not my doing.

Now comes the part where Google Reader is interesting. Their service has a ‘Suggested Feeds’ sideline, where blogs and the like are recommended to you based on … well, whatever magic Google uses in their algorithm, but mostly it appears to be based on the assumed content abstracted from the feeds that you subscribe to — they’re hoping that, by basing it off of procedural content analysis, they can find other things that you’d actually be interested in by way of their relating to things that you’ve told them you’re interested in. In my case, most of my subscriptions are pretty straightforward categorically — ‘linguistics’ and ‘hockey’ leading the charge, and often recommended to me as a result. I noticed, though, that as I accepted or declined those subscriptions at my whim, there was another developing trend — blogs about, or promoting, atheism.

This struck me as odd, to say the least. As far as I know, I don’t have any history spending time reading atheist blogs, or browsing pro-atheist websites. I certainly didn’t have any subscriptions to such — or so I thought. After some time thinking about it and seeing what kind of things these “atheist blogs” use as talking points, I found the culprit: Elitist Idiots. Apparently, a regular retinue of social commentary and pseudo-philosophical ramblings is indicative of a strong atheist agenda and belief system. Who knew?

Google certainly knew, and now I do, too. And in consideration, I can definitely see where the two lines might cross; especially after glancing over some of the recommended feeds, I’ve realised that it’s not so much the pushing of an agenda, it’s the discussion of topics being made relevant to that agenda. On that front, we’re nearly a dead ringer for one of these blogs — except, we’re not (intentionally) pushing any sort of religious dogma on anyone. Elitist Idiots has always, in my mind, been dedicated to spouting off our opinions and worldviews, often with the intent to make our arguments, but with a strict policy of open-mindedness and discussion on the topic if people disagree with how we see things. A more focused niche, as these were, tends to attract only those people who either strongly approve or strongly disapprove of the prevailing agenda — and in our case, I think, the agenda is flexible enough that I’m hard-pressed to think of any time we’ve so flatly denied such a huge segment of society.

I tried thinking of other things that could have caused the link between us and these more strongly opinionated media. Perhaps atheists are more prone to identifying themselves as elitists (or as idiots?), but that seems unlikely. Perhaps they’re the group that most closely follows the same ideological meanderings that we do – but, if it was based on that, wouldn’t I see more politically-minded blogs being recommended? Surely someone else out there is promoting a similar social stance without being a dedicated atheist — but I haven’t seen that come up in my recommendations. I’ve also not seen any specifically religious blogs come up; the only religion promoted by similar blogs to this one, as per the Almighty Google, is atheism.

Of course, I did recently make a post about how strongly I disagree with organized religion — but in that same post, I made it my goal to emphasize that I have no problem with those who are religious. It’s not my place to tell other people what, or how, to believe. I’m not in the business of selling my philosophy; that one post, though, seems to have been sufficient evidence of my non-religious fervor, marking me as someone uninterested in reading posts about religion or with a religious undertone.

I suppose this boils down to my reading too much into an automated, computer-controlled suggestion serviced based on what the “robots” can discern from scouring our texts for relevant similar content. Still, I find it both amusing and disheartening that we seem to be so closely associated with a group that, for all their proclamations of reason and logic, refute and intentionally alienate the majority of the planet. I’m certainly not interested in playing party to a hate-fest directed at people simply for their religious beliefs; rather, I’d much prefer we could have an open forum here, where folks from all creeds could feel welcome to participate (well, okay, Amish and the like may not be the best target audience for a web-based community…) — and yet, we’re separated from that by something as simple as a suggestion service that might otherwise draw in potentially interested readers, contributors, or lurkers.

What do you all think? Have we been pushing an atheist-heavy agenda, or are Google’s ‘bots simply missing the mark? What could we change to adapt that demographic to be wider?

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4 Comments

  1. Posted 18 November, 2009 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    Whoa there sparky, what can we do to appeal to a wider demographic? Wouldn’t that sense of pandering to the majority, of making ourselves more palatable to a greater number, be a direct violation of the policy of not pandering to a specific demographic? “All of them” is as much as demographic group as any specific division therein.

    Let the robots consider us an atheist group. It’s unimportant in the end. In order to promote a community dedicated to thought, we can’t seek to play into the desires of the majority, or even political correctness for that matter. The very point is to make people think about things that they may not be comfortable thinking about, not to lull them into complacency by regurgitating their own views (though likely, more articulately than their version.)

    So, let the robots be confused by us. Let our demographic pool ebb and flow. To do otherwise is to violate our own propaganda.

  2. Posted 18 November, 2009 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    @Cerias – I’m more curious as to why we’re lumped in with them, and what it means for our exposure. I’m not saying we should play to the desires of the masses, by any means; but, if we’re only attracting those who’s thoughts are along similar lines to our own, then we’re not going to spark any real debate.

    I don’t care about being politically correct. I do care about being segregated from a large sector of society because of our failure to be so. If that makes any sense.

  3. drewflicker
    Posted 27 November, 2009 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    “…disheartening that we seem to be so closely associated with a group that, for all their proclamations of reason and logic, refute and intentionally alienate the majority of the planet.”

    I’d like to submit that atheists are *not* a defined and monolithic group. Some may intentionally alienate the religious, some may not. (I’m not even sure *how* someone can ‘refute’ an actual person. Surely you mean refute their ideas or arguments?)

    That said, haven’t you heard Dawkin’s pithy little phrase about everyone being atheists, it’s just that he goes one god further? People who have renounced even the “last god” aren’t really groupable that well by particular ideologies or characteristics. Atheism is more common among the highly educated, but so is orthodox judaeism. Social Democrats are more likely to be atheist, but so are Libertarians. Atheism is found among every SES, every political idealogy (barring the theocratic extreme), every race and moral code. I’ve met atheist Benthamites and atheist Kantians, atheists that still live by Morman ethics and Catholic rituals, on and on and on.

    Google may lump people together, but real life is a lot messier, and I don’t like to see that people are pulling one characteristic and then smearing all people that share that characteristic with a host of *other* characteristics that may or may not be present.

  4. Posted 27 November, 2009 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    To defend that portion of my statement, I’ll admit that my view of “atheists” (as a group) is, in fact, tainted by one of the same things which happens to plague most social structures by which people are identified in the plural; the majority of the blogs I was being suggested were what I could best define as “atheist extremists” — much like their more religious brethren, they, too, seem to be rather the more vocal.

    With our blog being suggested alongside blogs titled “The No God Blog” or “Why Christians Are Wrong”, it’s hard for me to forget that this is representative of only a portion of the greater whole, and therefore I foster, unjustly, a skewed negative opinion. That said, my original statement is one I’ll hold to in the case of these “extremists”, who preach atheism with as much fervor and fire-and-brimstone theatrics as the most lively Southern Baptist. If they’re so anti-religion, then why would they try so hard to turn their beliefs into one?