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Google Autocomplete: Poetry and Prejudice

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The Autocomplete function of Google Search is both annoying and fascinating. When you start typing in the first letters or words of your search into the Google search box, Autocomplete takes a guess at what you are looking for and "completes" the search phrase by offering you multiple query phrases. The queries offered by Autocomplete are "a reflection of the search activity of users and the content of web pages indexed by Google". Considering the fact that more than five billion Google searches are conducted on an average day, the Google Autocomplete function has a huge database of search information that it can reference. This also means that the Autocomplete suggestions are quite dynamic and can vary over time. A popular new song lyric, the name of a viral video or a recent movie quote can catapult itself to the top of the Autocomplete suggestion list within a matter of hours or days if millions of users start search for that specific phrase. Autocomplete may also take a user's browsing history or location into account, which explains why it may offer a varying set of suggestions to different users.

Autocomplete can be quite annoying because the suggested lists of queries are based on their web popularity and can thus consist of bizarre combinations which are not at all related to one's intended searches. On the other hand, Autocomplete is also a fascinating tool to provide a window into the Zeitgeist of web users, revealing what kinds of phrases are most commonly used on the web, and by inference, what contemporary ideas are currently associated with the entered keywords. The Google Zeitgeist website reveals the most widely searched terms to help identify cultural trends - based on the frequency of Google search engine queries - during any given year.

The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) recently used the Google Search Autocomplete function in an ad campaign to highlight the extent of misogyny on the web. Searching for "women should..." or "women need to..." was autocompleted to phrases such as "women should be slaves" or "women need to be put in their place". The fact that Autocomplete suggested these phrases means that probably hundreds of thousands of internet users have used these phrases in their search queries or on web pages indexed by Google - a reminder of how much gender injustice still exists in our world.


recent article in Slate pointed towards another form of bias unveiled by Autocomplete: Occupational prejudice. The search phrase "scientists are...." was autocompleted to suggest that scientists were either liars, liberal or stupid. I tried it out and received similar suggestions by Autocomplete:

  Scientists

 I guess we scientists have been upgraded from merely being stupid to being idiots. I was curious whether other professions fare better.

  Bankers

Well, apparently bankers do not.

  Doctors

And doctors are not only as stupid as scientists, they are also overpaid, arrogant and dangerous.

  Professors

I can understand that doctors are thought to be overpaid, but it is a bit of a surprise that folks on the web think that professors are overpaid, especially considering the fact that many of them have spent a decade or more in postgraduate education before they become professors and still earn far less than non-academic colleagues in the private industry.

  Philosophers

Philosophers, on the other hand, are not perceived as being stupid by the Google Zeitgeist. They are wise and annoying with a tinge of depression.

  Editors

The next time you contact your editors, please remember that they are people, too.

The fact that Autocomplete suggests these phrases means that they are frequently used in searches and web pages but there is no way to know who is using them and what the intent is behind their usage.

What does the Google Zeitgeist tell us about people of different nationalities?

  Germans

Germans are not seen in a very positive light, but the prejudices regarding Germans being rude, cold and weird should not come as a surprise to anyone who watches Hollywood movies which love to propagate such clichés.

  Americans

Interestingly, search queries suggest that both Americans and Germans may come across as weird and rude.

  Canadians

Maybe the web collective feels that members of all nationalities are weird and rude - even the Canadians, who are also known to be nice even though they are afraid of the dark.

  Pakistanis

When I queried the characteristics of Pakistanis with the "Pakistanis are...." Phrase, I was surprised by the fact that Autocomplete offered very different suggestions than those for Germans and North Americans. The latter were being described by adjectives such as rude, weird, nice or cold - but when it came to Pakistanis, the search queries instead focused on their ethnic identity.

Are Pakistanis white or not white? Are they mostly Indians or do they have Arab origins?  The odd thing is that I have conversations around these questions with many Pakistanis, who often try to convince me that they indeed have "white" roots. Some Pakistanis I know - especially those who are proud of their fair skin color - frequently mention their possible Greek origins (dating back to the times of Alexander the Great and his invasion of the Indian subcontinent) conquests, others emphasize the fact that the people who currently reside in Pakistan may have had Arab forefathers when the Arabs invaded the Indian subcontinent. On the other hand, I also know plenty of Pakistanis who see themselves as people with a primarily Indian heritage. The fact that this is a hotly debated topic among Pakistanis suggests that maybe the internet queries suggested by Autocomplete were in fact based on queries or web pages of Pakistanis who are interested in discussing this topic.

  Arabs

 When it comes to Arabs, their ethnic identity is also apparently a popular topic in internet queries, and again my personal interactions with American Arabs mirror the Autocomplete suggestions. I have often heard American Arabs mention that they feel they ought to be accepted as part the American "white" population ("Hello - I just received a phone call, Dr. Frantz Fanon is on hold for you on line 1).  

I first thought that perhaps the desire to identify oneself with being "white" was a remnant of one's colonial past, but my search for "Nigerians are..." did not support this hypothesis.

  Nigerians

The Web seems to hold extremely positive views of Nigerians - smart, intelligent and educated.

Moving beyond searches for nationalities, what characteristics do web users associate with members of other groups?

Well, religions do not fare well.

  Christianity

  Islam

Christianity and Islam are seen as evil, full of falsehood and (oddly enough) may not even be religions.

  Atheism

In contrast, atheism is not labeled as evil. The suggested queries instead revolve around the question of whether or not atheism is a religion.

How about a cultural ideology?

  Postmodernism

Ok, Google Zeitgeist tells us that postmodernism is BS and dead.

The human emotion of Schadenfreude, on the other hand, is very much alive.

  Schadenfreude

Autocomplete is not only a tool to identify biases and phrases used on the web; it has also become an inspiration for poets. The Google Poetics blog is run by Sampsa Nuotio and Raisa Omaheimo and collects Google poems, recognizing that Autocomplete suggestions sometimes contain a Dadaist beauty and are in essence prose poems. Inspired by their collection of Google poems, I sometimes enter words or verses from famous poems to generate Autocomplete's mutant versions of those famous verses:

Here is a Google Autocomplete poem based on "Do not go gentle into that good night" by Dylan Thomas:

  Do not go

Do not go

do not go where the path may lead

do not go gentle poem

do not go my love

Do not go beyond what is written

 

And one based on the line "Let us go then, you and I" from T.S. Eliot's  'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'

  Let us

Let us

let us entertain you

let us entertain you gift cards

let us play with your look

let us go then you and i

 

I would like to now close with a final ode to Google:

Google 

Google is

google is evil

google is god

google is your friend

google is down

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An earlier version of this post was first published here on the 3Quarksdaily blog.

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