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Saturday, April 23, 2011

The United States of Autocomplete

At the end of last year, the Boston Globe Brainiac Blog pointed to map of the United States created by Dorothy Gambrell of the Very Small Array blog. Dorothy created the map, entitled "The United States of Autocomplete," by replacing the name of each state with the first autocomplete suggestion from its associated Google search:

Original image from the Very Small Array blog
Some of the results are rather amusing. On the map, New Jersey is labeled "New Jersey Transit" and Missouri "Missouri Compromise." Vermont, where I grew up, is labeled "Vermont Country Store," a fitting alteration for a state dotted by mom and pop establishments.

Today, the map might look quite different than it did when Dorothy created it in December 2010, and tomorrow it is likely to appear different still. The hidden algorithm that drives Google's autocomplete function is obviously dynamic—the search term "Japan" today completes with "tsunami," "earthquake" and "nuclear," which I can't imagine it did two months ago. The algorithm is also likely personalized for individual users, so long as they are signed into their Google accounts. Of course, because Google keeps its search and autocomplete algorithms secret—a reasonable move to protect its intellectual property—the public may never know for certain why the autocomplete function works they way it does.

As a teacher, who sees his students use Google searches routinely, I wonder the extent to which autocomplete suggestions—let alone search results—serve as de facto regulators of information for students who are not aware of the limitations of autocomplete. For example, here are the autocomplete suggestions for "obama" and "nazi:"

Many high school students could, I imagine, easily make sense of the autocomplete suggestions, recognizing that "obama birth certificate" reflects a contemporary political controversy and that "nazi zombies" has nothing to do with World War II. The suggestions may, however, lead younger students astray, urging them, however slightly, to associate ideas incorrectly. Teaching students to be savvy web users—to help them develop a healthy skepticism about all of the information they come across online and off—should be an important goal in classrooms everywhere.

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