Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Enterprise - 16

The application – the Product – could be conceived of as an assemblage of subject areas – domains – within which content was aggregated from one or more sources. It was unclear to me who had devised this breakdown, and on what basis. Had there been market research? Focus groups? At first it seemed that the subject areas had arisen organically, by some collective intuition. It then grew clear that more prosaic factors were at play: The availability of content. The cost. The degree to which deploying it as a new domain within the Product would turn into a goddamned pain in the ass.

In the Product as it stood you could, among other things, get your horoscope for today or search words and phrases in the Holy Bible.

Each developer under Brett was in charge of one or more domains. These had been distributed according to some combination of interest, proclivity and seniority. Sports belonged to Kevin and his sidekick Jim. Movies to Julie. News to Rob. Stock quotes fell to Peter, games to Lucy. Each fiefdom was defended with wary pride. They were all, perhaps, a little bigger than they had to be. More complex. For there was an unspoken competition to lay claim to the most end-user requests and session time, statistics that were scrupulously culled, parsed and displayed each day on an internal reporting site. The traffic to one's domain became a measure of the self.

The developers became adept at using little tricks to exploit the algorithm at the heart of the Product. Liberties were taken in the definition of synonymous words and phrases. Dubious predicates and key words were added. Matching scores crept up. The entire department existed in a state of cold war over language. Not over meaning – at the expense of meaning, really. Over raw language.

There was a rolling whiteboard in the middle of the room, beside an island of cubicles. On it, Brett had listed guidelines to remember in red:

1. Synonyms. Did you think of every fucking synonym? Add synonyms!!
2. Predicates. Check the score of your predicates. Is your predicate too sticky?? TEST!!
3. Matching. Add alternations! Add optionals! Does every query you can think of match?? WHY THE FUCK NOT!?
5. Last but not least: Does your domain suck? Ask yourself. MAKE SURE YOUR DOMAIN DOES NOT SUCK!!!
6. See #5!!!

At first I lived on the periphery of this world, making occasional, meek requests for copy changes. I had no programming skills, after all. I was on the creative team, the builders of images and concepts. I was not meant to get dirty. But the editorial process was absurd. I'd write up and format a Word document, send it to the right person. They'd have to lift their heads out of their code long enough to tediously copy and paste my edits. So Brett and Bob agreed to give me access to the web-based domain editor, a mostly foolproof tool, with the understanding that I was only to touch the output.

I deleted a word. And another. I deleted a sentence. I wrote a new one. I saved the file. It was queued for production.