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How Annoying Is Anne Hathaway: A Scientific Inquiry

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On January 18th, the online magazine The Daily Beast, which now incorporates what remains of Newsweek, ran an article about the actress Anne Hathaway who had won a Golden Globe as Best Actress a few days before and then made a speech that some regarded as artificial and actressy. The Daily Beast article began like this:

"Run a Google search for 'Anne Hathaway' and 'annoying,' and 1.5 million search results are returned."

Anne Hathaway is a famous person and, as a result there is a great deal of information, opinion, and general mention of her on the Internet. This makes the use of Google's raw data as a device for gathering news about her -- or anyone else in the public eye for that matter -- somewhat imprecise.

For instance, a search for "President Obama" and "annoying" yields 6.5 million results indicting -- by the Daily Beast reporter's methodology, at least -- that he is more than four times more annoying than Anne Hathaway. Hathaway's Les Miserables co-star Amanda Seyfried, who did not win anything or making any speeches at the Golden Globes generates 660,000 results when paired with "annoying." This suggests that there is a certain baseline of annoyingness for actresses which can probably be subtracted from their Google "annoying" score.

("Annoying" by itself pulls a whopping 179 million results. As a social science experiment, this might lead to the hypothesis that Homo Cyberneticus is rather easily annoyed. The most popular result for search terms that include "annoying" is not Anne Hathaway or even Julia Roberts but the YouTube video star the Annoying Orange, a crudely animated citrus fruit with a rebarbative manner, who gets more than 41 million Google hits.)

As proof of the Internet's tendency to swallow its own tail, within two days the Daily Beast article was first on the queue of results for "Anne Hathaway" and "annoying" while several articles about the article appeared in the top ten. Nevertheless, as a meme, "Anne Hathaway, annoying" seems to be in no danger of unseating the top Anne Hathaway related search generated by Google's "live search" function, which makes suggestions as you start typing in the search box. This is, of course, "Anne Hathaway" and the ever popular "wardrobe malfunction."

It turns out that there is so much Anne Hathaway on the web that it is actually difficult to get less than 1.3 million hits when you search for her and anything. A search of "Anne Hathaway" and "donuts" produces 32 million results, "Anne Hathaway" and "Falkland Islands," 17 million, and "Anne Hathaway" and "charming" over 7 million. It is only when you search for "Anne Hathaway" and something like "lentils" that you start to see mere six figure numbers (774,000 to be precise.) And the relative paucity of results could indicate more about the popularity of lentils than of Anne Hathaway. You have to go all the way afield to "Anne Hathaway" and "Godel's Incompleteness Theorem" before you get down to just 10,000.

To be fair, the Beast's reporter, Kevin Fallon, did go on from his opening sentence to point out that if you "Try 'Anne Hathaway' and 'hate,' that number spikes to a mere 28.5 million." However, by the same token, a search for "Kevin Fallon" and "hate" produces 40,800,000 results (in just .15 seconds!)

By the morning of the following Wednesday, "Anne Hathaway" and "not annoying" produced about 2.2 million results proving either that a backlash was underway or maybe nothing at all. Google users know that a blog post about how much you love "Anne Hathaway" and how "annoying" it is that she doesn't make more movies would be fetched by the same search terms as a post about how annoying her Golden Globes speech was or how annoying she is generally.

Google's proprietary search algorithm, surely the most valuable mathematical formula in the world, is under constant siege from the parasitic activity known as Search Engine Optimization (87 million results) which seeks to raise the standing of a particular site in Google's queue for both beneficial and malign purposes. Google constantly tinkers with its algorithm to thwart SEO but it's safe to conclude that at least some distortion creeps in, especially in terms of overall numbers because of techniques like cross-linking, redirecting, and the sinister-sounding Spamdexing.

Still none of this seems to diminish the popularity of Google search result numbers as a tool for capturing the zeitgeist, at least at the Daily Beast. Another article published on the same day and located almost adjacent on their popular "Cheat Sheet," began thus: "Type the words 'flu shot' into Google and some 250 million results appear." And, in an abstract for its own story, the Beast reported that "The blogosphere is teeming with snark about the Les Miz star's polarizing personality."

So, at the end of the day, what are we to conclude about Anne Hathaway? Is she annoying or not? Well, it seems that based on sheer numbers of results alone, Google doesn't really know. Maybe we all have to decide that for ourselves.