Question: Do you think your Google habits — your random, untethered wisps of thoughts manifested as search terms like "unexplained hives" and "Kate Beckinsale single?" — can be bundled together to paint an accurate representation of your morality?
This was the question floating around the periphery of a recent obscenity case, in which a Florida attorney planned to argue that Google records of pornographic searches were an indication of community values.
The trial was set to begin but was settled out of court last month with defendant Clinton Raymond McCowen, who had also been charged with racketeering and prostitution, agreeing to three to five years in prison.
So the viability of a Google defense remains untested, but the psychological implications remain:
Are we what we Google?
Our story begins online, as many lurid things do these days, with the pornographic Web site of McCowen, a Pensacola man who produced X-rated material for Internet purchase.
Our story develops through the creativity and tech-savviness of his lawyer, Lawrence Walters.
Obscenity charges hinge on the vague concept of community standards — whether allegedly obscene material would fall under the public's definition of decency. Walters found traditional barometers (skin flick selection in video stores, etc.) bogus. "What we really do in our bedrooms is much different than what we admit to doing" in public, he says.
Enter Google Trends. It's a Google tool that graphically displays the day's most popular search terms, or lets users compare multiple terms' popularity over time. Theoretically, it's a direct line to our innermost thoughts and desires, and those of our neighbors.
Walters and his team used Google Trends (google.com/trends; hot search today: "nuts toxic to dogs" — presumably macadamias, not nut jobs) to compare several search terms in Pensacola, one of dozens of cities worldwide for which metrics are available, including Tampa. A couple of clicks later, and "we could show that orgies are more popular than apple pie or boating in the Pensacola area," Walters says.
Barely even a contest, really, with the blue "orgy" line on the graph soaring way above the red pie line. The graph doesn't reveal specific numbers, just comparative popularity.
Orgies: more American than apple pie.
Does the fact that more people Googled "pomegranate" than "watermelon" in early 2008 mean more people were eating pomegranates? Or does it mean everyone was researching the wunderfood's antioxidant properties? Maybe people hate pomegranates and everyone was rushing to blog about those weird seeds.
The uncertainties illustrate "the disparity between using the Web as a marketing tool and using it as a research tool," says Gary Price, a librarian and the vice president of innovation for an Internet search firm. Meaning, when someone types in "Peru," the Web surfer might be looking to visit. But the person might just want to find out the country's gross national product. We have no way of knowing.
A Google Trends defense in court assumes that every prurient Googler is interested in visiting Orgyland, rather than learning about its exports from a safe distance.
And safe distance is really Google's biggest sell. Google is where we safely learn about swinging, erotic furries, objectum-sexual (don't ask, just Google) and a whole manner of other subcultures that we don't necessarily plan to partake in, but feel compelled to research nonetheless. Because we can.