Taken together, the sum total of your Google search history tells an intimate story not only about who you are, but what you want and what you fear.
“Someone once said that what you look for is way more telling than information about yourself,” the philosopher Luciano Floridi told the Telegraph earlier this year. “This is something Google and other search engines understood a long time ago.”
That’s what makes Google’s annual year in search, which the site released early this morning, so incredibly interesting. On one hand, the report recaps — as it always does — the year in global news: millions of searches for ISIS, Ebola, Robin Williams, the World Cup. But more interesting than these searches, I think, are the quieter glimpses of our collective, unseen id: The things we all think about or confide to Google, but that we’d never voice elsewhere. Things like “how to get rid of stretch marks,” “how to travel alone,” and “what to wear on a first date” — all of which ranked among Google’s most popular search terms this year.
Whereas Facebook or Twitter or every other network that produces these end-of-year “reviews” can only consider the material we broadcast consciously — that we want to incorporate into our public identities — Google has a more intimate look. It knows not who we say we are, but who we are actually.
Google is, incidentally, not the only site with this eerie omnipotence: Any time you share personal information with a Web site, even in an apparently throwaway capacity, you give that site a data point that it can collate into a larger picture of who you are. OkCupid, one of the more data-forward sites in the online dating space, has made a big to-do of publishing reports based on users’ browsing data, which would seem to indicate unconscious biases and habits that many people aren’t aware of, themselves.
Likewise any site running any kind of personalization algorithm: As Amazon.com or Netflix or Facebook log your behavior on their sites and suggest new shoes or movies or posts you might like, they’re essentially drawing conclusions about who you are and what you care about. In all likelihood, those conclusions will differ from the ones you have about yourself — and by all accounts, they’ll be more truthful. (No matter what heights of culture or sophistication you pretend to publicly, there is no denying the unflinching, pretension-puncturing honesty of the Netflix recommended-movie queue. My top recommendation, as of this writing, is Disney’s “The Emperor’s New Groove.”)
In the aggregate, of course, these “revelations” aren’t, always: The fact that the world’s women worry about stretch marks, for instance, should surprise no one who’s ever perused the magazine rack in the grocery store check-out aisle. And still, there’s so much quiet pathos wrapped up in that little Internet query, repeated millions of times across millions of browsers.
“Future generations will be able to trace our interests as a society,” Floridi said, “just by looking at what we were looking for.”