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Real-Time Search and the Glenn Beck News Effect

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, August 30 2010

As I slowly wended my way back from vacation in yesterday, I was struck by the knowledge that while I was relaxing in the regions of Cape Cod where, blissfully, AT&T's cell networks don't reach, Glenn Beck had just about taken over the world. "What the heck is going on?," said my co-traveler as she check out the Washington Post politics page on her iPhone while on the Mass Pike. "Four out of five headlines talk about Glenn Beck." CNN.com, a sort of soft-launch back into the world of political news, was more of the same. Beck's face was spread giant across the iPhone screen.

Beck and Sarah Palin, as you may well know if you weren't at the beach this week, headlined a rally down on the National Mall in Washington. And news of that historic event was driving discussion on social networks, judging from how throughly Beck and Palin dominated Google's brand-new real-time search feature. Here's the LA Times:

Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin lit up the newly launched Google Realtime instant search engine before, during and after their joint rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that pledged to "restore honor" to, er, something or someone or other.

A steady stream of about three Beck-related tweets every second appeared on the Twitter post tracker under the search phrase "restoring honor," which was the No. 1 topic on Google Trends for much of Saturday morning.

"Glenn Beck rally" and "Sarah Palin" also were top or near the top of  Google's "hot searches" category throughout the day. ...

Most of the major news outlets shaped their Saturday Web coverage around Beck's rally, with the event that drew thousands to Washington, D.C., on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech featuring in the central main display of news sites from CBS and CNN to the Los Angeles Times and the other one in New York.

Most major outlets also tweeted their coverage.

Who's talking about what on social media, and who's searching for what on Google, Bing, and elsewhere, is helping editors may decisions on what their reporters should spend their time covering. At the least, that's something that Andrew Golis and his team at Yahoo News have talked about doing -- with, of course, moderation. Throwing "Beck" or "Palin" in the title of an online WaPo story, of course, helps keep the ripple effect going, a la search engine optimization.

But for those among us with a hopeful interest in seeing the Internet lead to a diversity of voices and a wider range of important topics covered, having insta-social-search drive what constitutes news might be a little concerning. There's a good chance that we end up amplifying the loudest Beckian and Palinian voices to ever louder levels, drowning out the, well, long-tail of news.