Monday, March 15, 2010

Search and search again

I came across an article in the NYT quite by accident today. In it, the auto suggest feature of search engines was briefly discussed, and the random eloquence that might emerge from the everyday questions we ask online.

To explain, this is the feature now present on most search engines, that suggests as you type, possible questions you might be intending to ask. Which questions it prompts us with are determined by their frequency, drawn from innumerable search enquiries humanity makes every second online.

There have been a number of articles about this feature, and the sometimes strange reflection of humanity it seems to offer. As I search in Google for 'how to leave' for example, the results that are suggested are:

Once you start to pay attention to these prompts, drawn from the questions WE are asking ... they can become quite absorbing.

The Many Eyes project has explored our fascination with this data in spectacular fashion, by building tools that allow us to view this information visually. In 2009 they released 'Web Seer', a visualisation tool for web suggestions.

Here are the Web Seer results for my question, and an appropriate alternate enquiry. Simply by introducing two questions that can be compared, the information gains a fascinating new depth.

Now think about this product in terms of story, our stories. The Web Seer results for my questions alone are beautiful, heartbreaking and above all, honest. There is a bare truth about this data that is difficult to turn away from.

How we understand our stories, how we see and interpret the life around us is changing.

Our stories remain the same, and it is simply the retelling that changes, but the way in which we tell them, and the opportunities to explore them are moving dramatically into new territory every day.