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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

How much Google is too much Google?

Posted By on 07.17.13 at 04:26 PM

Vending machines in the snackroom of Google Japan
  • Vending machines in the snackroom of Google Japan
Let me make this clear at the outset: I am not a Google hater. Far from it. Some of my best friends are googlers, and I myself google often every day. I consult Google Trip Planner before walking to the restroom. I have an annual checkup this Friday with my Google Doc.

One of my favorite writers is Nikolai Gogol, in part because he was of Ukrainian descent, as am I. Gogol is not directly related to Google, but I'm guessing his popularity has soared thanks to Google Typos. Gogol's novel Taras Bulba is exceptional in the original Russian, but even better when you run it through Google Translate. If you google Gogol, you'll get a lot more results than if you Gogol Google.

Despite my fondness for Google, I worry about its power and reach. Today it's Google, Google, everywhere. Rare is the Googleless conversation. Gone are the days when you could entertain a crowd at a party with a slightly varnished tale—some busyGooglebody is sure to quickly discredit it with a search on his phone. I don't know what on Google Earth is getting into us.

It's not enough that we google compulsively to learn about the world. Now academics are searching our Google searches to learn more about us.

On Sunday, the New York Times featured the results of one such study in an op-ed essay. "How Googling Unmasks Child Abuse" maintained that maltreatment of children didn't actually decline during the Great Recession, as had previously been suggested. Based in part on an increase in the number of Google queries such as “Why did my father beat me?” the essay's author, an economist who recently got his PhD from Harvard, concluded that child abuse had increased. The author acknowledged that he's now a Google intern, though he finished his research before he joined the company.

The essay ran in the Sunday Review. In the same section, a history professor reported his findings from a different kind of Google study—a review of a Google database, Ngram, that tabulates word frequency in books. The professor had found growing use of "optimism" and declining use of "pessimism" through the 1930s, which was among the reasons he now thinks that The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939, may not have typified the mood of that generation as much as we believe.

The professor allowed that the database he examined "excludes the dime novels favored by the lower class, and so has a middle-class bias."

All studies should be read with caution, of course, even when they involve Google. In 2010, a post on the website Science 2.0 ran under the headline "Too Much Googling Causes Depression?" The post referred to a study in the journal Psychopathology. I came across it by googling "too much googling."

The study itself linked excessive Internet use—not just googling—with depression. So you can google away without fear of depression, so long as you don't overdo it. And skepticism about what you find is always wise. As they taught me in journalism school, if Google says it loves you, check it out.

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