I love autocomplete and the insight it gives you into the zeitgeist of the internet. I purposely take my time when entering search terms so that Google will throw inadvertently amusing (and sometimes racist) suggestions at me.
Recently @mattshirley41 decided to explore what his fellow netizens think about the United States and mapped the results. The United States Is… maps autocomplete suggestions for the 50 states.
The result is an interesting look at stereotypes of and popular phrases about each state. Georgia probably wouldn’t be on so many people’s minds if it weren’t for the song. But, how to explain the preponderance of negative stereotypes about other states? Many states are labeled as boring, broke, or racist, but very few have positive associations. Best one: “Montana is for badasses.”
Some of the negatives seem pretty easy to trace. Mississippi is the fattest state,” is statistically true. But, the meme can probably be blamed on Oprah, who loudly proclaimed it on her show, and Kathy Griffin, who imitated that proclamation in her stand up.
Maybe the multitude of negatives is explained by the fact that we don’t spend a lot of time searching for “____________ is awesome,” – no matter what goes in that blank. Maybe we’re just more concerned about learning about things that are wrong than about things that are right… Speculation about our use of negative search terms aside, the negativity of autocomplete suggestions has spawned its own industry, with services like Beat the Autocomplete helping companies and individuals to replace negatives with more positive autocomplete suggestions.
It may seem that the tone and content of autocomplete suggestions don’t matter, but they do. Like top results, they tell us what other people think about a topic, and imply that maybe we should think that, too. And, since Google added search-as-you-type, autocomplete drives those all important results.
There have been a number of high profile libel suits in which people have attempted to force Google to remove possibly damaging autocomplete suggestions. Google has generally come out the victor – apparently “don’t shoot the messenger” is a legally defensible position. I can’t picture any of the states mounting a similar case, but in an era of increasingly tight state budgets and fierce campaigns to lure out-of-state businesses and the jobs that come with them, it doesn’t seem totally impossible.
Questions of the day: If a state were to sue Google over libelous autocomplete which one would it be? And if they did sue, how could they prove that it really wasn’t true? Isn’t California really broke? Isn’t Georgia really on your mind?
Maggie (Not Margaret) is a blog about social media, marketing, culture, and what’s new on the internet written by me, Maggie O’Toole. Find anything interesting in the worlds of culture or social media that you’d like to see a post on? Leave a comment or send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.