On a Thursday morning about three weeks back, I was typing in a Google search when I was interrupted by a phone call. I can't recall what I was about to search - possibly "am I an alcoholic", as the meeting on the previous night had gone late - but as I returned to my laptop, Google autocomplete greeted me with these suggestions in Finnish:
am I an alcoholic
am I fit to drive
am I allergic to dogs
tell me, Andriy, am I
This flurry of questions, directed at a Ukrainian man, somehow struck me as a hilariously bad poem, so I took a screenshot and started experimenting with different kinds of partial searches in an attempt to create more poetry. The results kept getting funnier and funnier, and after about 20 poems I felt like sharing them with others, so I uploaded them onto Facebook for my friends to see and started setting up a Tumblr blog account. When none of my friends had reacted to the poems in the first couple of minutes, I came to the conclusion that I was the only one to find them entertaining, that it was a stupid idea, and that I should probably just forget about it and go back to googling nude pictures of Rihanna instead of poetry. That was when Raisa jumped on the poems on Facebook, all excited.
I was so inspired the moment I saw them on my news feed. I wrote to Sampsa: "These are awesome! These are art! They demand a blog!" and 10 minutes later the original Finnish-language blog was launched. Creating the initial batch of poems was so much fun, I think we both had tears in our eyes and cramped stomachs from laughing so hard. The readers loved them as well; the blog garnered over 11,000 unique visitors in the first 10 hours. After that it seemed like a natural move to expand the blog to English, which we did the very next day.
Although we felt that the blog had great potential, the overnight success of the Finnish version did catch us off guard. In the first few days we were bombarded with traffic, heavily featured in the media, and absolutely swarmed with reader-submitted poems. What started out as a small, fun project had become a full-time job.
Come to think of it now, the wide-scale appeal of these poems is easy to understand. Non-sequiturial and filled with odd juxtapositions, many of them employ the classic devices of surreal comedy by nature, while others go for the more traditional joke format of breaking an established pattern with a killer punchline.
But it never was just about the jokes, it was the unexpected poignancy of some of them, and the general idea of viewing the search suggestions as poems, that appealed to me from the very beginning. There are already dozens of websites out there collecting funny autocomplete results, but the poetry angle seemed novel to me. However, since the English-language version got off the ground, we've received emails from people who've entertained the same basic idea, Joshua Gruder and Jeff Walls to name some, but I guess we were the first ones to take it this far.
I was fascinated by the project's parallels to the art of the Situationists and the Fluxus movement. This seemed to be a similar act of art; to create art by naming found objects art. They denied art being born only out of virtuosity, but claimed that anything can be art and anyone an artist, which was a heavy statement to make in those days. The concept of détournement, used both by the Situationists and the Letterists has always been dear to me. They mixed together comics and political thesis, we are now mixing popular song titles to peoples curiosities, and calling the results poetry.
Obviously the algorithms of Google cannot do what human poets do - they cannot illuminate the unknown. But I'm constantly touched and amused by the vision of a modern human being that these poems paint us. Many of us have these moments where we ponder questions like "why am I single" or "how big is the universe". It is in a way extremely comforting to know this to be so. And also deeply amusing.
Or "am I better off dead". It gets pretty dark at times. It's chilling to realize how popular search phrases like "I hate myself" and "why am I alone all the time" are. Dave Barry once wrote: "A sense of humor is a measurement of the extent to which we realize that we are trapped in a world almost totally devoid of reason. Laughter is how we express the anxiety we feel at this knowledge." I think this epitomizes a lot of what has made these poems so popular.
Check out these 13 Google-generated poems: