Google’s Secret Superpower: Crowdsourcing Idiocy

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The internet is awesome. We all get that. And Google? Pretty cool way to categorize all the world’s information–from the most vital to the most mundane.

But for all the talk about the Internet of Things and social networks and total information awareness and other such big words for gestalt benchmarks in the collection and categorization of all the world’s cat videos, reviews of taco trucks and places to buy Estelle Getty sex dolls, I think the most impressive thing that Google can now do is crowdsource idiocy–to gather and make available not just correct information but also stuff that people get totally and completely wrong.

An example: Forever ago, my dad bought a CD of Irish-y Christmas music. I could vaguely recall listening to it when I was a young man, home for the holidays or whatever. Here and there, snatches of old tunes would come to me and I’d think to myself, “Man, I’d really like to get a copy of that for myself.”

A normal person? They’d just ask their dad about the CD. Hope he remembered just the one in question and be able to provide a name. But I am…contrary. So instead, I tried to find it myself.

Here’s what I remembered about it:

  • I knew the Chieftains were the primary artists involved.
  • I knew that there were a whole lot of other musicians playing with the Chieftains.
  • I knew there was a drummy bit that stuck with me–someone going nuts on the bodhran with some spoken-word Irishness going on over it.
  • I knew there was a whole lot of stuff in the middle tracks that I didn’t like much because it was weepy and annoying.
  • I knew there was some totally anachronistic old Hollywood actor involved in one of the songs (turned out to be Burgess Meredith, but I didn’t know that at the time).
  • I knew that the song I liked the most was performed by the Chieftains and the Pogues.

The problem with that list? One of the things I “knew” was completely wrong. And it was with that wrong piece of information that I began my search.

The song I was thinking of was “St. Stephen’s Day Murders” (because, yeah, that’s just the kind of cheerful, holiday-loving motherfucker I am), and for some reason I’d gotten it in my head that Shane McGowan was singing over all the nice twiddling away on flutes and pipes by the Chieftains. I couldn’t recall any of the lyrics with enough specificity to do a search that way so, instead, I just plugged “Chieftains Pogues Christmas Song” into the little Google box and away I went.

It took me less than a minute to find both the song and the CD I was thinking of. The CD came first (Bells of Dublin, on a Rolling Stone list of 40 essential Christmas albums, which came in as the 4th hit on Google because the write-up mentions “Fairytale of New York” which is actually by the Pogues and is, hands down, the greatest Christmas song of all time).

To find the song, I had to go a little further down the list until I found some other knucklehead who’d made the same mistake as me–in hearing a song sung by Elvis Costello and for some reason thinking it was McGowan doing the warbling. But still, less than a minute before I found it. How? Crowdsourcing idiocy.

I did the same thing once with the song “Paper Planes” by M.I.A. Heard a bit of it once while out shopping somewhere and recalled only the sound of a cash register, gunshots and some misheard lyrics. Had it on my phone before I’d even left the mall. Finding some actor by misremembering what movie he had a small part in? It’s a guarantee that someone else out there has misremembered it exactly like you have. And written a blog post about it. A restaurant that you SWEAR was on 3rd Street and only have the wrong name? You are not alone.

Getting correct information is an important end-goal when interacting with any data retrieval system. But any sufficiently complicated, comprehensive and publicly-curated system will also have in it a significant percentage of incorrect information believed to be correct by some number of users. And being able to use incorrect (or incomplete) information to find correct information is a vital function.

That’s why I love Google. It coddles the dumbass in me. And, occasionally, even makes me less stupid in the process.

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