When Will The World End? Is Neil Armstrong Muslim? Was George Washington Gay?

Apparently the most popular internet search question we have about celebrities is whether or not they are gay. Even, or perhaps especially, the Pope. Via the New York Times:

There are the questions you ask friends, family and close confidants. And then there are the questions you ask the Internet.

Search engines have long provided clues to the topics people look up. But now sites like Google and Bing are showing the precise questions that are most frequently asked, giving everyone a chance to peer virtually over one another’s shoulders at private curiosities. And they are revealing interesting patterns.

Frequently asked questions include: When will the world end? Is Neil Armstrong Muslim? Was George Washington gay?

The questions come from a feature that Google calls “autocomplete” and Microsoft calls “autosuggest.” These anticipate what you are likely to ask based on questions that other people have asked. Simply type a question starting with a word like “is” or “was,” and search engines will start filling in the rest.

People who study online behavior also say the autocomplete feature reveals broader patterns, including indications that the questions people ask of search engines often veer into the sensitive and politically incorrect.

“Your search engine is your best friend, and you talk to it about everything, even things you might not talk about to your real best friends,” said Danny Sullivan, editor in chief of Search Engine Land, a Web site that covers the search industry. “It’s a way that search engines reflect society.”

One category of question comes up with puzzling frequency in autocomplete: whether a certain person is gay.

Is Elton John gay? Is Paul Ryan gay? Is Michael Bloomberg gay? The question pops up often, too, when starting searches about George Clooney, the Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, the actress Ellen Page, Genghis Khan, several cartoon characters and even the pope.

This line of questioning is so commonplace that a simple query on Google beginning with “is” can result in autocomplete predicting that you are about to ask, Is Frank Ocean gay? Do the same with Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, and it often fills out the question, Is Robin Roberts gay? Though these questions do not pop up every time, they do appear with surprising frequency…

[continues the New York Times]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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3 Comments on "When Will The World End? Is Neil Armstrong Muslim? Was George Washington Gay?"

  1. Type a pretty actress’s name into Google, and chances are one of the autocomplete selections will be “feet.”

  2. Question: Is Bing the search engine gay? Answer: Only those who use it.

    The example searches aren’t worded in the form of a question, only. They are worded in the form of our expectations, our contrived conspiracies. Of what we hope the answer will be. Like a Magic 8 ball. Like everyone on a opinion news site or bulletin board.
    I am a big fan of thinking about shallow, silly things. The internet has given everyone a magic 8 ball allowing us to make those things important enough to ask about. Over & over again. Looks like there is such a thing as a stupid question. Nice to know we’re all paranoid about nothing together.

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