Monday, July 19, 2010

Poignant Searches

In the right circumstances, people will admit to the most remarkable things.  They’ll open up and reveal deep, inner truths that they couldn’t tell to their closest friends.  Secret thoughts and desires, not all fully understood, will—on occasion—come bubbling out from within.  Google is, for better or worse, probably the place where most people open themselves up more than any other.  They’ll query for things they’d never dare say aloud; they’ll peek under the corners of their psyche and glimpse what lies within. 

This reminds me a bit of Joe Weizenbaum’s program, ELIZA, which emulated a Rogerian-style psychiatrist through the engine of fairly simple natural language processing.  In his book “Computer Power and Human Reason” (1976), he notes how people would be pulled into a conversation with the program, and reveal—to ELIZA, and only to ELIZA—all kinds of things they couldn’t talk about with anyone else.  The subtle surprise is that people would reveal things to a program that they couldn’t talk about, even with their own analyst.  There was something about being online, about being in an apparently secure and anonymous context that let them release their innermost thoughts. 

By the same token, people ask Google some remarkable questions.   Here are a few that I’ve seen in people’s search histories.  (Comment: The queries I show here are ones I’ve seen in my conversations with people about their searching. I’m not violating any confidentiality agreements here.  As I said, it's remarkable what people will share with you...)

The questions range from the prosaic

     [ why do toenails split ]    

to the historic

     [ why did lil wayne go to jail ]     

with some questions that are practical

     [ why do pdf attachments in mac sometimes display and sometimes not ]

some that are philosophical

     [ compare school education of rich and poor ]

and others that are, for lack of a better word, poignant: 

     [ why do guys who are supposed to like you act mean to you ]. 

At the beginning I was astonished at the range of questions people would ask of Google.  But as John Batelle points out in his book (“The Search”), “Google had more than its finger on the pulse of the culture, but had jacked directly into the culture’s nervous systems.” 

More than just jacking into the culture as a whole, Google seems to be an open, infinitely non-judgmental channel into which we can pour ourselves as individuals as well.  And when we do, we find it rewarding. 

Not only does Google listen, but it also confirms and affirms—your innermost questions, thoughts and desires aren’t as strange as you thought.  There really ARE lots of other people who wonder

     [ why am I so tired ]


     [ what sex positions help you lose weight ]


     [ what does white powder coming from a hole in my leg mean? ]

and my favorite... 

     [ how do you fix a goose's broken beak ]

The querystream holds the questions, the clickstream shows the pursuit after the question is asked.  We feel free to ask questions, even though they might be improbably or  impossibly difficult:

     [ why does my boyfriend not want to spend the night ]

What is it they’re looking for? What is it they’re really asking?  Questions like this aren’t really an attempt to find the answer in their particular case, but as a way to understand the possibilities—a way to come up with possible explanations for what’s going on. 

In many cases, for many of the personal and private search tasks, the answer isn’t in any one place, but it’s everywhere.  A query like

     [ is it normal to have hot flashes when you’re 45? ]

might not have a single perfect page with the single perfect answer.  The mere fact that you’ll discover a bunch of other people asking the same question is, in itself, a validation of your question.  You really aren’t alone in a callous universe.  Other people are also asking and wondering the same thing. 

Thing is, when I used to teach Artificial Intelligence at the graduate level, I’d assign my students the programming problem of implementing ELIZA, just so they’d understand the first-hand implications of pattern-matching and creating interesting behavior from a simple rule-system.  As part of their assignment, they’d have to turn in a dialog that they’d held with their program to demonstrate that it worked. 

But it sometimes turned into an uncomfortable grading assignment as I read through their homework.  The conversations often felt a bit too… well… intimate for mere homework.  Most students would do just a short conversation to illustrate the key points of their program—but then there would be a few that would turn in long, extended conversations about their family, their boyfriend or girlfriend, their preferences and dislikes.  And this is just what they turned in—more than a few students told me anecdotally that they spent far longer on the assignment than they’d planned.  They were pulled into the conversations, even with a machine of their own devise. 

Searchers…. that’s what people are.  A homebuilt ELIZA is one thing, but to many, the brilliance of Google is that is in an oracle—a fount of knowledge giving them an infinite number of chances to ask whatever question they’d like, on whatever topic they want to ask… and they can feel completely free to do so.  Asking and clicking feels conversational and very un-judged.

For our collective sanity, I hope it  remains forever thus—a private, anonymous, ever-listening quiet place to seek out the collected thoughts of the world—a place to not just learn about the exotic, the erotic and the eclectic, but also to feel as though you’re part of a larger universe.  Although we all SAY to our students and our kids “there’s no such thing as a dumb or inappropriate question”—it’s just not true.  Can you really  ask the questions that might reveal you as an odd duck, embarassingly dumb or potentially perverted beyond redemption?  Not in any real world with parents, teachers and side-effects of questions. 

Aside from the Google search box, where else CAN you really ask literally any question that you’d like without judgment or loss of face? 

Not anywhere… and that makes the search query box a  very rare place in the world.  

1 comment:

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