Big data is anywhere; you just have to know where to look. In the book “Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are” the author Seth Stephens-Davidowitz makes that clear.
One incredible source of big data is a website that billions of people use each day: Google. In fact, when typing something into Google’s search bar that “keyword” gets tracked. That big data is then available with a set of tools that anyone can use, to find out interesting facts.
If you’re a journalist that big data can be crucial to understanding human phenomena. Throughout this article, I’m going to answer three sociological questions by looking at the big data coming from three tools provided by Google and how you can use them to do the same.
When pizza wasn’t that popular
Among US favorite food pizza seems to one of the most loved ones. Although it’s hard to imagine one’s life without pizza, there was a time in which American people didn’t even know of the existence of that food. How do I know that?
I looked at how three favorite foods (pizza, hot dog and hamburger) evolved throughout American history through Google Ngram Viewer. That is a database of millions of books scanned by Google from 1800 up to 2008. By typing a word or phrase into Google Ngram Viewer, we can have a clue about anything.
For instance, by typing in “hot dog, hamburger, pizza” I saw how those terms were mentioned throughout the years, which also gives us a clue about their popularity. It also tells us when those words started to be mentioned, which in turn can help us assess in which decade those foods became popular, so here’s the graph with the results:
As you can see there was a time – around the 50s – when hamburger and hot dog were more popular than pizza. Then for some reason, pizza started to become very popular.
What did happen? During the 60s much new food chains were born. Among those, Domino’s Pizza (1960), Pizza Hut (1958) and Little Caesars (1959). Is that casual all those chains were born during those years? Probably not. In fact, during the period 1890-1917 millions of Italians emigrated to the US. Also, during the 80s pizza itself became a sensation featured in Hollywood movies like when John Travolta gulps down two slices of pizza in Saturday Night Fever.
When the Facebook feed makes you unhappy turn to Google autocomplete
Social media like Facebook are powerful tools which work as amplifiers. The most powerful features of Facebook is the newsfeed. Although people seemed not to like it initially and many still criticize it, millions of people each day spend a considerable amount of time. Some estimates tell us that as of 2016 each day we spend as much as fifty minutes of our time on Facebook.
Those numbers are quite staggering. In fact, although fifty minutes might not seem that much, compared say to watch TV. It is also true that those fifty minutes might be spread across the day, and through activities with a consequent disruption in attention and focus.
However, what is most striking about the Facebook feed is the number of happy people you see there. Most pictures show how cool their last trip, adventure, and relationship are. Yet that data is worthless. Now we can prove it by looking at Google big data.
How? On Facebook you barely see people saying their relationship is unhappy, but on Google, we get an entirely different story. You can test this right now by opening Google in incognito mode and typing “my husband” or “my wife” and let Google autocomplete the search. Those suggested searches are the most frequent ones typed by people in their anonymity.
What does this tell us? Even though people on Facebook look happy, when they turn to Google, real issues come to surface.
Therefore, if on Facebook we only see the bright side, on Google, we tell our most intimate secrets (also that a husband or wife might be cheating). Therefore, if you had doubt now big data confirms that. Facebook newsfeed is our daily dose of dopamine and Google our psychologist. What do we trust? Facebook can’t be trusted to see how people really feel and what they think. Google, in this case, can give us a better insight.
Are you the only one that thinks your life sucks?
In some way or another, you feel unique and different from any other person. That makes perfect sense. At the end of that day, you’re the one in your head. Thus, you can see what you think but not what is in others’ people head. Even though knowing what others think is not the cure for unhappiness. At times it can be useful to know you’re not the only one feeling in a certain way. In fact, some days life sucks and you might be so overwhelmed to think if there’s no hope to make it better.
You feel so sad that you don’t feel comfortable sharing it either with your dearest friends as they might judge you. Who could you trust them? The answer is in front of you on that blank page with a small search box. In fact, data from Google shows that those queries are popular.
For instance, I did quick research into Google Keyword Planner and looked at the keyword “my life is perfect” which as of November 2017 was searched 270 times. However, I also looked at “my life sucks” as of November 2017 it was searches 12,100 times: a ratio of 46 to 1 in favor of the latter (my life sucks)!
What does this tell us? On the one hand, the social feed isn’t reliable at all as a source of understanding people’s lives. Second, we hardly manage to admit to ourselves when we’re sad and angry at life, why would we show it on Facebook? However, as soon as we know we’re doing things anonymously that is when we show how we feel about something.
Tools like the keyword planner help you find business opportunity and keywords on which to invest on. But also to understand how people think and feel. In fact, on Google, we’re incentivized, to tell the truth (at least when we search for something) because we know that none is looking at us. Those facts can be useful to dissect social phenomena, but also to drive business decisions.
Today big data can be used to find out what people think and feel beyond what they say they believe and feel. In other words, instead of looking at words we can look at data to see how people behave when none is looking. Rather than being something for nerds, big data is now accessible to anyone with tools like Google autocomplete, Ngram Viewer and the Keyword Planner. The limit is your creativity and what kind of questions you’re trying to answer. If you are a journalist that data can be a golden source for your next piece!
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