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An Unusual Paradox

Rhiannon Martin explores the hilarity and despair of Google’s top trends

In 2016, the British public’s ‘how to’ Google searches sought to achieve happiness and humor, and enhance kissing and flirting abilities. However, despite a valiant effort to learn how to ‘go live on Facebook’ and ‘make slime’, all searches pale in comparison to a 5-year veteran: how to lose weight.

The internet is often credited as the instigator and facilitator of this infatuation with weight loss. Yet the author, like US data scientist Seth Stevens-Davidowitz, views Google’s search engine as a data store of untainted and honest human curiosity. That we take steps to keep it untainted is essential, despite potential critique. Using our search data, we can learn how successfully we engage with and shape the weight loss outcomes in Great Britain.

Colin Strong, author of Humanizing Big Data, has addressed the ability of businesses to ‘datafy’ consumer emotions, coining it the ‘emotification’ of consumer behaviour. As individuals put their questions to the cloud, businesses ‘scrape’ the internet to build portfolios of consumer sentiment and can forecast with increasing accuracy the trends of consumer culture. Amongst them, is the two billion pound British diet industry, which thrives on understanding and exploiting human sentiment and concern.

Tapping into raw human emotion is not easy. Social desirability bias plagues social media and interviews – yet an online, un-administrated and isolated search bar allows us to ask the questions we would never do anywhere else. The emotification of google searches, Davidowitz explains, just might be ‘the most important dataset ever collected on the human psyche’.

The Direction of the Data
Often the data found on people’s emotional curiosities are disturbing. Type ‘how to lose weight?’ and Google provides approximately 128,000,000 answers. Add ‘fast’ and you get 22% of that return; but add ‘healthily’ and this falls to 1.1%. With the exception of the NHS, nine of the top ten results are links to popular news and magazine articles each reporting rapid, visible results. This serves to frustrate medical professionals, whilst kicking Google’s 200+ algorithmic defense mechanism into overdrive.

One notable point of contention is Google’s autocomplete suggestions. With ‘how to lose weight’, you are suggested to consider doing so ‘in 7 days’ and ‘without exercise’. Behavioral researcher Robert Epstein is adamant that search offerings can manipulate the preferences of searchers, particularly the vulnerable. In his study of bias detection in search rankings and the 2016 US presidential election, Epstein demonstrates the ability of candidate favoring autosuggestions to shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by up to 80% in some demographics.

With negative suggestions getting more selections by users of search engines, it is a worrying possibility that weight loss business activities could manipulate autocomplete options, convince consumers to adopt them as their own thoughts, and sell ‘solutions’ to the insecurities they plant. Fortunately, autosuggestions are programmed, and can be programmed differently. This option must be considered, for the sake of our unbiased data.

The Muslim Athlete
The ‘untainted’ data we get from search engines also affords us many interesting insights into public perception of certain events and speeches. Politicians, corporate candidates and influencers can learn what works – and often what does not – by looking at our google trends. For example, following the San Bernardino mass shooting, President Obama attempted to reassure an enraged American nation by challenging them to consider Muslim Americans as ‘our sports heroes and, yes, they are our men and women in uniform’. Since 2013, the top Google noun searched with ‘Muslim’ had been ‘terrorist’, but following this speech it became ‘athlete’ and ‘soldier’.

Further, Davidowitz argues that search data teaches us the detriment of lecturing the insecure and angry, but exemplifies the success of evoking curiosity and proposing new alternative imagery. This lesson is making waves in the weight loss industry. 2016 became the year of body positivity with Ashley Graham, the first plus-size model to appear on Vogue and Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues, and media mogul Oprah Winfrey resurrecting the Weight Watchers Brand.

Google was created so individuals can learn about their world, not so researchers could learn about the individual. Nevertheless, providing we can keep our data free from bias, Google provides us with some of the most truthful – if sometimes disturbing – insights into human preoccupation. With these insights, we may learn how to successfully communicate messages inspiring positive thoughts and actions, and watch them as they ripple across the keyboards of society.

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