The #NoSearch Project: An Interview with Paul Sutton

You may remember me writing about “A Year Without Newspapers,” which was an experiment by Adam Vincenzini. Adam’s challenge was to go an entire year without reading a newspaper. Last week, Paul Sutton introduced me to another challenging experiment and I think this one is just as tough, if not tougher to achieve.  Paul, who is the head of Social Communications at BOTTLE, began his experiment, #NoSearch, to see if he could stop using search engines for two months.  This is no easy task.  I know that personally, my day is filled with Google searches whether it’s for work or personally to find information.  When I learned about the experiment, I thought it would be interesting to interview Paul to find out what it’s like to go two months without using a search engine; no Google, Bing, Yahoo! or any other search engine between 1 June 2011 and 31 July 2011.

Here is my interview with Paul:

Q1:  How did you come up with the idea/experiment to stop using search engines for two months?

Believe it or not, the initial idea for #NoSearch came to me while I was on a train heading into London. In a carriage of perhaps 20 people, about 15 of them were engrossed in mobile devices of one kind or another – iPads, laptops, smartphones. It just struck me that all of these people – my friends, my contacts, me, you – we’re all totally reliant on what Google tells us. We have total trust in search results and maybe even blind faith in the results we get in search engines, and that gives them immense power over us and the way we perceive the world.

At the same time, working in online PR and social communications as I do, I’m all too aware that social networks enable us to share and find information like never before. We can research, ask friends and carry out polls in minutes.  It’s a form of ‘collective intelligence’, and that made me question whether we can get by online by forgoing search engines in favour of our online networks. After two weeks, the intrigue of the question hadn’t subsided so, quite simply, I decided to go and find out, settled on some rules and went Google cold turkey.

Q2: Do you think the experiment is harder or easier than you expected it to be?

There are two ways of looking at it. One the one hand, it’s actually pretty easy. I only have a moderately sized network (around 2500 Twitter followers, for example) but, as it turns out, they’re pretty knowledgeable and responsive. If I ask them a question, I normally get a response that either provides me with an answer or leads me to where I can find one. That, together with other information sources, means that I honestly haven’t missed Google at all. But on the other hand, it’s immensely frustrating. What used to take several seconds using a search engine now takes several minutes while I ask questions, look through blogs in my RSS reader or interrogate social bookmarking sites.

Q3: Now that you are not using search engines, what is your next best source(s) for news, information, etc?

Twitter. Hands down, my Twitter network is currently my lifeline. I’m connected to a whole bunch of great people who not only respond, but also know their stuff. They have access to a bank of information and they’re great at sharing it. Following that, I’m now seeing a real value in social bookmarking, a side of social media that, to be honest, I’ve never taken that seriously before. Delicious, Diigo and Stumbleupon hold such a wealth of valuable information, and while they can’t compete with Google for finding a website URL, they’re just as good for information.

Q4: Would you ever consider a couple of months without the Internet or use of your smartphone? How hard/easy do you think this experiment would be?

You must be mad! Funnily enough, my smartphone died this week and I was without it for about 24 hours until I got hold of another handset. It felt like I’d had an arm removed. It’s true to say that I *heart* my HTC. I use it constantly for keeping up to date with my friends and networks, reading blogs, knowing where I’m going and what I’m doing, getting places; there’s no way I could give it up now. As for the Internet, again, not in a million years. Even without the ability to search it, it’s always there and always accessible. How on earth did we ever manage without the web?

Q5:  Do you think that we are over connected with all of our online and social communications?

Great question. It’s an area that #NoSearch has brought to the fore in my mind and, coincidentally, I wrote a blog post called ‘Are We Over-Connected’ just last week. I think it’s all getting a bit crazy, the number of networks, platforms and tools out there now. And when you don’t have a search engine to cut through all the dross, it makes finding relevant information harder than it should be as it’s all so spread out. I’m starting to think that we’re socially over-exposed and that maybe it’s about time we cut down which platforms we use, who we connect with and what we share.

It’s still very early days for #NoSearch and I have another six weeks to go before I draw any firm conclusions, but I’ve already started to assess all the blogs I read, look at the people I follow on Twitter and evaluate all of the tools and platforms I use with a view to consolidating them. Bigger isn’t always better.

You can follow the #NoSearch project on Posterous, Twitter and Audioboo. Paul Sutton is Head of Social Communications at BOTTLE, where he’s responsible for devising creative social media strategies to meet commercial client objectives. He blogs at www.thesocialweb.co.uk and can be found on Twitter as @ThePaulSutton

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