Saturday, July 24, 2010

Passive Aggressive Googling

Mike follows Shane Jones on Twitter. I don't because I have a thing about following too many famous people. Yet following famous people is pretty much what Twitter is about. You don't exactly get to see or talk to them, but, if they use Twitter right, you can find out that they are nostalgic for Queen or The Spice Girls or Coldplay, that they think timber wolves are the noblest animal, or that they hate the side braid. These are also things you'd probably learn about them if you were actual friends. It's highly similar to hanging around a person in real life, but they don't (usually) know you're doing it, and they don't have to hear back about it from you unless they want to.

Anyway, Shane Jones tweeted the following:

On train. Almost googled if I had soup in cabinet back home.

Mike was privy to this; I was not. Mike shared it with me. Now we both know. Mike has never done or considered this peculiar usage of Google.

I absolutely have.

Google is about knowing things, right? Google is about filling gaps in one's knowledge as soon as those gaps appear. This is conventionally, it seems, the "right" way to use Google, just as there is a "right" way to use Twitter, a way that, to other users, makes you appear to be a native to the form. There's codes: RT, FF, HT. There's a way to use hashtags if you're serious and a way to use hashtags ironically. There's even a peculiar way of leaving off final punctuation to achieve a particular tone, often a breathless tone, as if to say you had to finish this tweet but you ran out of characters. As if there's more to be said--usually about something about which there is exactly 140 characters to be said. Likewise, good Googlers not only use Google as an encyclopedia ("Who is COREY FELDMAN? I'd like to know more about AFRICAN BUFFALO.") but as a more targeted researcher ("AFRICAN BUFFALO KILLED 2009"), a troubleshooter ("TOSHIBA NB205 HIBERNATES TOO FAST"), a how-to guide ("CHANGE TAILLIGHT BUICK CENTURY 2003"), and a dictionary ("Cory Feldman." Did you mean: COREY Feldman?) Using Google to fill in these knowledge gaps is so intuitive to most of us that there's a site to help (and shame) people who don't seem to understand the ease and breadth of Googling. (How does Google work?)

But, as Shane Jones' post indicates, there's other ways and other reasons we might want to know something. And as Google becomes the primary way we expect to extend our knowledge, it's only natural that we start to Google things that provide these forms and functions of knowledge. In Shane's case, we see knowledge having the power to remind one of things once known, to help one plan, to reassure. Do I have soup at home? I'd like to know. And Google has rarely failed me when there were things I wanted to know in the past.

Anymore, Google usually serves the purpose of reassuring me that I do in fact know the things I think I know. In the course of writing this post, I have already Googled "shane jones twitter," "twitter codes," "cory feldman" [sic], and "african buffalo." In the first two I was getting myself more quickly to original sources of knowledge I already knew to exist--Shane Jones' Twitter page and a list of Twitter codes I've previously accessed. In the latter two, I was checking to make sure these things (Corey Feldman and African buffalo) in fact existed, that they were what I thought they were, that they were the references I meant them to be. In none of these cases did I want to know anything new about the search term; I just wanted to assure myself that I was using the object of those search terms correctly in unique writing. We perhaps use our knowledge itself less frequently than we use our knowledge to check our knowledge. Do I know that? Did I hear that? Do I remember where the soup is? Do I remember correctly buying it at all?

And I use Google to make myself feel better, to calm myself down. This morning I searched "tartar," then "light tartar," then (when that turned up results for light tartar sauce) "light tartar teeth," then "early signs of plaque," then (upon the search returning images of early signs OR plaques, and applying knowledge from earlier searching mistakes) "early signs of plaque teeth." The knowledge problem here? I feel funny about my teeth. I looked in the mirror last night and they looked a little off color. I have great teeth, and thus have never really experienced tooth disillusionment before, and so I wanted Google to tell me that my teeth were, in fact, nothing to worry about. Google pretty much complied (though I should really probably try to get them cleaned, when I can). Knowledge problem resolved?

To my mind, it's only a matter of time before using Google correctly means using Google to not only augment or confirm knowledge, but to create reassurance in absence of knowledge. It seems likely to me that people will begin to more often query Google with search terms in hopes of corroborating various feelings, biases, and impressions, rather than in a spirit of filling in knowledge gaps. I've already done some things like it, partly to get the search results I really want and partly to gratify my own neuroses. For example, searching for a new haircut appropriate for me entailed, I felt, searching for "short hairstyles fat faces." Do I really think my face is fat? Ehh--kind of. Really my face would likely be classified as "round," but I know what I'll get if I search for those terms, and it's not what I want. It's generic advice that I already know. Instead of that, I want to know: If I get a short hairstyle, will my face look fat? Or: Show me what a person with a fat face looks like with a short hairstyle, so I can gauge my face next to theirs and determine whether or not I will look fat with a short hairstyle. Or: I want a short hairstyle, but I'm afraid my face is fat. Can you tell me otherwise?

I legitimately use Google to help me confirm or deny fleeting impressions about myself. So I can imagine a growth in passive aggressive Googling: Isn't Jenny's face fat? Aren't side braids obnoxious? Doesn't Mike know I hate it when he leaves the light on after leaving the bathroom? People are already doing it to themselves--Type "Am I" into the Google search bar and see what suggestions come up:

am i pregnant
am i fat
am i pregnant quiz
am i depressed
am i in love
am i attractive
am i pretty
am i overweight
am i a loser
am i ugly


doesn't she look tired
doesn't she look natural
why doesn't she like me
why doesn't she love me
why doesn't she call
why doesn't she leave
why doesn't she want me
why doesn't she call me
why doesn't she text back
why doesn't she call back

We want someone to tell us what's going wrong; we want to tell them what we suspect:

is my mom crazy quiz
is my mom bipolar
is my mom crazy
is my mom an alcoholic
is my mom a hoarder
is my mom dying
is my mom verbally abusing me
is my mom jealous of me
is my mom abusing me

However, it looks like Google opts not to suggest anything for "i hate." Is it protecting us from ourselves?

As Google continues to help us know, it will start to know more and more about us. That's the whole idea; that's why it works so well. We'll reveal ourselves in questions, and Google will answer as best it can. It'll connect us to other people asking the same question, the best it can. This could be healthy--cheap, widely available therapy.

Google searching reminds us that knowledge isn't just about knowing--it's about observing, asking, coming to an understanding. It's about using the known to move into the unknown. At some point we have to check the pantry, we have to make the dentist appointment. And we know that--we're not stupid. But in some Internet storehouse a lot of our questions float around without answers. We keep so much in our heads. We have so much that flies through us, and accumulates, and festers. And when there's no answers, well--we venture guesses. Am I fat? Am I a loser? We reveal ourselves; we have nowhere else to do it. And then others ask the same questions, finding in turn our questions, with answers missing, irrelevant, incomplete.

People worry that Google will impoverish us mentally, experientially, since we use it to find out all the answers. It seems likelier to me that the questions are what will kill us.

1 comment:

  1. I find it incredible interesting that Google opts to not auto-complete for "i hate."