Strongly Emergent

What comes from combining humans, computers, and narrative

Sherlock Holmes, Search Engine Optimizer

A culture of honor is a remarkably convenient thing for a writer. A writer needs characters to do stupid things on a regular basis, and nothing so dependably produces idiotic behavior as a character bound by honor. Importantly, it produces a very credible kind of idiocy: let a character clench his hand against his chest, grit his teeth, glower, and declare that he must undertake some course of action for his sacred honor— and other characters will easily nod along and agree, and readers who either live in or are passingly familiar with a culture of honor (which is nearly all of them) will understand what is going on without thinking, merely by this incident, that your character is a moron not worth reading about.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used this device frequently, and to good effect. I recently re-read the Sherlock Holmes canon over the course of a few days, and matters of honor frequently cropped up. I noticed, too, that Holmes, conveniently, was always on the side of honor. There is of course a large body of Holmes scholarship, both more and less lucid, but I only propose to extend it, not to contradict it.

I noticed that honor, in the Sherlock Holmes canon, leads Holmes to a very effective method of search engine optimization. The newspapers and the telegraph were impressive advances, and changed the information environment of the 19th century enormously, but personal reputation was, then as now, a tremendously important source of information about others. Holmes consistently trades away recognition in mass media in favor of gaining personal reputation as a man of honor and discretion. He optimizes his reputation for a specific audience: the wealthy of England. There are many cases that he takes on for no money at all, which serve (in addition to their stated purpose) to build a reputation for him as a man of sterling moral character. We see his reward for this over the course of the stories: the nobility and royalty of Europe resort to him, and reward him handsomely.

Holmes eschews joining the official police or intelligence forces; he is an entrepreneur. He aims for a very specific market, and achieves his aims. He has the dual aims of sustaining his appetite for interesting problems, and of sustaining his appetite for a roof over his head, good food, and supplies for his various studies. This isn’t the most obvious layer of the stories - but quickly becomes apparent on a careful reading. Sherlock Holmes is not just a great detective, he is a very proficient marketer. He knows where his services fetch the best price, markets there, and throws the rest to the winds. This is only obscured by the fact that there are two prices that may be paid for Sherlock Holmes’ involvement, and the more important one is that the problem be interesting. It takes - as in “The Adventure of the Priory School” - quite a tremendous amount of money to awaken anything like avarice in Holmes. Still it cannot be doubted, from the notes that his biographer gives us, that he is very efficient at making a comfortable living from himself.

The lesson we can draw from Sherlock Holmes is basically one about optimization. Figure out what’s important to you, and optimize towards that - even if it looks strange to other people. Holmes has a way to achieve both money and a steady supply of interesting problems— and troubles himself with nothing else, to the perennial puzzlement of Lestrade and the rest of the police forces. Go and do likewise: build a reputation where it matters for getting what you want, and pay the rest no mind.