Google Sociology

24 MB MP3

If you go to Google’s zeitgeist page, you can see the most widely searched terms on the site this week. Zeitgeist is German for “sign of the times,” and no surprise that this week the most popular terms are all related to Hurricane Katrina in one way or another, even search terms about higher gas prices and hip-hop artist Kanye West.

The fact that Google, and most of the rest of the internet, can and does keep track of this information is somewhat remarkable. Beyond simple reminders of the most popular pop icons or the news of the day, Google is (to steal a phrase from John Battelle) a database of intentions. Millions upon millions of searches adding up to some collective picture of who we are, what we’re looking for, and what we want.

What do Japanese teenagers think is cool this week? What pop star is selling, and who is falling off the charts? Which politician is popular in Iowa, New Hampshire, or California, and why? Where do suburban moms get their answers about cancer? Who visits terrorist-related or pornography sites, and how do visitors find them? What type of insurance do Latino men buy, and why? How do university students in China get their news? Nearly any question one might frame can be answered in one way or another by mining the implacable Database of Intentions that is building second by second across the internet.

John Battelle, The Search

Google is changing the way we understand knowledge and the world. And this show we’re asking what we can learn about ourselves by understanding what we’re looking for.

John Battelle

Author, The Search

Blogger, Searchblog

Co-Founder, Wired Magazine

David Weinberger

Fellow, The Berkman Institute

Blogger, JOHO the Blog

Co-author, The Cluetrain Manifesto

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  • I think it would be a really good idea if you could also talk to Eszter Hargittai who could add some insight into how different kinds of people use search engines differently. She has explored for example how many people who do not spend much of their time online know very little about how to search effectively (and she may have some idea of what search engines need to do to fix this).

  • Raymond

    “What we can learn about ourselves by understanding what we’re looking for?”

    What a terrific question, Robin.

  • Google can certainly provide fascinating data about the online dimension of people’s lives. And the Internet as a whole has helped sociological research. But isn’t there a temptation to focus on the most obvious social processes and overlook the more subtle dimensions of social life?

    For instance, while “the global progression of the ‘Las Ketchup’ craze” is intriguing, one would require context to understand the significance of this trend.

    Also, aren’t popularity rankings reinforcing themselves in a type of feedback loop? Once something becomes popular online, and is known to be popular, more people become interested in it which generates more hits on the search engines.

    Obviously, many of the things that happen online only show up on search engines once they’ve become common knowledge through other means. After all, people would only do a search for “Mahir,” “Star Wars Kid,” or “Dancing Baby” once they knew about it through peer-to-peer links.

    Search engines are clearly an important part of the online world but the portion of online activities they cover is somewhat limited. Not to mention that online life is still a very limited part of people’s lives across the globe.

  • MaxEntropy

    We can get down to brass tacks with googlefight. For example, which is more notable web-wise, “Hurricane Katrina” or Hiroshima ?

    Anyway, thank god for wikipedia and for shining your spotlight on it. At least it gives us some background and context when we’re searching for something. And it’s all ours.

  • There’s also the phenomenon where the rest of us can steal peeks into what Google users are searching for, as this ends up in our server logs.

    Yesterday, for example, somebody using Comcast Broadband searched for jon garfunkel and followed the first link to my website. Fourteen minutes later, they searched for jon garfunkel jerk. I hope they found what they were looking for.

    Curious what we’re going to learn this evening. Other search engines may have this data as well, it would be interesting to compare and contrast.

  • [Yo, should I get off the phone now? 🙂 — David Weinberger ]

  • The google zeitgeist is great, but it’s the tip of the iceberg..

    More interesting is the next generation of data capture – google already archives everything we search for (, every email we send (gmail), every driving direction we look up (

    How long is it before Google teams with a Skype clone and archives all of our audio phone conversations? Then how long before we’ve got an implant that archives everything we see and hear? Can’t remember what you said in 2009? Just search for it. The impact on marital arguments alone will be revolutionary! “But honey, you *did* promise to let my mother live with us before we married – I’ve got it here on google!”

    The battle will be between privacy and functionality – the benefit of archiving and searching your life experiences, versus the power given to authorities by that knowledge. Just wait until the ACLU figure out what’s going on.

  • nola

    i use google for my crossword puzzle consternations. I’d like to know how my user history and potential advertisers mesh. I’m not interested in buying fencing swords (epees), mongolian rivers, printer’s measures etc.

  • Brendan– I’d say we’re even now. (I do what I can to get on the air.)

    Anyways, I did have a thought I wanted to get on the air. John discussed the genesis of the PageRank algorithm, the essence of which, each link is a vote. There are certainly problems with that, and thus the expectations are that Google will eventually address that with “TrustRank,” which is a trademark they recently filed.

    Eszter Hargittai couldn’t be on this evening (David Brake had suggested her). Here’s an article in Distributed Systems Online where we were both interviewed, discussing search engines and such.

  • To be fair, there were over 100 searches of my name that

    got to my website in the last 8 months, and no other jerks, but they did include The Death of Garfunkel, Garfunkel in the world’s wealthiest. But enough about me…

    James asks How long is it before Google teams with a Skype clone and archives all of our audio phone conversations? Well, that’s a heckuva a lot of transcription to handle, and current technology doesn’t handle it. And consumers just wouldn’t use that service. I don’t think they would. On the other hand, heavily regulated business might. Then again, many already do, Google or no Google. Remember the Enron jerks who exclaimed “burn baby burn!” watching the California forest fires, which would drive up the demand for energy and benefit Enron? That phone conversation was eventually found in the company archives, and played in court as well as on cable TV.

    I actually need to listen to the first half-hour before I can comment more.

  • gmachine_24

    As far as I know, Internet is a proper noun… right? So it’s capital “I.” Same as in World Wide Web……….

  • Agreed it seems far off today Jon, but then again, I imagine today’s web was almost unimaginable 50 years ago – Vannevar Bush being a rare exception.

    The British Computer Society have even discussed “Memories for Life” research as a “Grand Challenge in Computing”. (use Google to find the academic paper. 🙂

    As the cost of storage approaches zero, as speech recognition improves, why would we not archive our phone conversations? Consumers already allow google to index the contents of their emails in return for free email service. Would they allow not google to index their phone conversations in return for free phone calls?

  • Great topic! I’ve been looking at the search strings that bring people to my website for about 6 months now, from the lens of a librarian (which is what I am). I’m looking for how people construct their searches, but also how people seem to be concieving of that search box. Sometimes it’s clearly being understood as a database query, but other times it looks more like whispering a question to that girl who sits next to you in English class, complete with conversational syntax. I’m looking forward to this show, since I’ve been considering publishing some thoughts on search strings in the professional literature for librarians, and I’m sure your show will help me focus and reconsider some thoughts on the matter.

  • And, I meant to say, I’m downloading the show right now. 😛 Love your work, folks! You rock!

  • JFH

    Another ambivalent google user.

    To be honest I simply can not understand all of the talk about the commercial applicability of search, highly targeted direct-mail, and the nefarious big-brother implications.

    The ads that appear alongside most searches or in association with other sites that use google ads are almost never (to the extent that I even notice them) on target with my interests/needs/wants/or proto-desires. in fact they are transparently inappropriate for me.

    Similarly, the thought that everything is online is absurd. Perhaps, I know the particularly unfamous, but there are many people I know that are essentially unGoogleable or at least are barely visible through a Google search.

    All this said, it is unquestionable that the Google system is revolutionary in information terms and thus economically and politically as well. The simple ability to access a tremendous amount of information at low cost (digital divide notwithstanding) and near instantaneously is the beggining of a tremendous shift in a means to power. E.g. the bumper-sticker philosophical thought Information is Power.

    Coupled with nascent communication technology VOIP and social networks (that have thus far failed but will one day succeed) will be the trrue beginnings of a coming political revolution.

    One last thought, borrowed from a friend at usurious rates, Google ads are aesthetic/design-wise a tremendous blight on humanity and its cousin the all-powerful web. Discuss.

  • bid

    GWEI – Google Will Eat Itself

    We generate money by serving Google text advertisments on our Websites. With this money we automatically buy Google shares. We buy Google via their own advertisment! Google eats itself – but in the end “we” own it!

    By establishing this model we deconstruct the new global advertisment mechanisms by rendering them into a surreal click-based economic model.

    After this process we hand over the common ownership of “our” Google Shares to the GTTP Ltd. [Google To The People Public Company] which distributes them back to the users (clickers) / public.

    Chaos Project Documentation

    Apply for GTTP Ltd. Shares

    A bit more in detail

    One of Google’s main revenue generators is the “Adsense”* program: It places hundreds of thousands of little Google text-ads on websites around the world.

    Now we have set up such Adsense-Accounts for our hidden Web-Sites. Each time someone visits one of our Web-Sites he/she triggers a pervert hidden tool that masks itself as a human with a unique IP address and clicks on one of our Google text-ads. For each click we receive a micropaiment from Google.

    Our Backend-Tool: Important is to fix the ratio between pageviews and advertisment-clicks to max. 3%. As long as we stay underneath, we will never get into Googles Fraud-Radar.

    Google pays us monthly by check. Each time we collected enough money, we buy the next Google share [NASDAQ: GOOG, currently trade at around 300 USD] – we own 32/thirtytwo Google Shares.

    GWEI – Google Will Eat Itself is to show-case and unveil a total monopoly of information [search-engine & added services], a weakness of the new global advertisment system and the renaissance of the “new economic bubble” – reality is, Google is currently valued more than all Swiss Banks together (sic).

    Chaos Project Documentation

    Apply for GTTP Ltd. Shares

  • bid

    last good link