they became interested in the frequent inquiries from search engine
users about cultural stereotypes.
Type "why are Americans," and the autocomplete choices include "fat," "stupid" and "patriotic." Substitute "Chinese," and the autocompletes include "skinny," "rude" and "smart." If autocomplete is any indicator, search engine users regularly wonder if Jews are smarter and whether African-Americans are better athletes.
In a statement, Krisztina Radosavljevic-Szilagyi, a Google spokeswoman, wrote: "The search queries that you see as part of autocomplete are a reflection of the search activity of all Web users." She declined to give an interview about autocomplete, but added in her note that Google tried to reflect accurately the diversity of what is on the Internet, whether good or bad.
There are other possibilities for why these questions yield impolitic results.
One is the nature of language. Questions beginning with "is" might be more likely to lend themselves to asking about someone's sexuality than questions beginning with, for example, "where." On Bing, sexual orientation also is a regular topic, with questions beginning with the word "was" (Was J. Edgar Hoover, the former chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, gay?).
Another explanation for the autocomplete patterns could be some meddling by pranksters trying to game the system. That can happen with search engines. Recently, Bettina Wulff, wife of Christian Wulff, a former president of Germany, asked Google to cease suggesting terms like "prostituierte," the German word for prostitute, after her name. Google declined, saying that the terms had been individually typed in many, many times.
The development of the autocomplete feature reflects the insatiable demand for speed among computer users. A reason the search engines offer the service is to cut down on misspellings, so Web pages can be delivered more quickly and accurately.
But another is to help people just feel as though things are moving faster, saving them the time of typing a few extra words. In an experiment several years ago, Google found that people reported more happiness with search, even when the results were delivered a few milliseconds faster, at a rate below what the conscious mind can actually perceive. Since then, Google and Microsoft have spent billions on returning faster searches to impatient computer users.
So what might explain this apparent fascination with people's sexual orientation?
Ritch Savin-Williams, a professor at Cornell University in New York State who studies gay issues, said that the frequency of such inquiries was a symptom of the politicized nature of homosexuality. For instance, he said that people who are gay or who favor gay rights might be looking for allies and like-minded people, while people who oppose such rights might be looking to demonize someone, whether a politician, athlete or actor.
"People are asking because they want something, but that something is not always the same," he said.
Sean Gourley, co-founder and chief technology officer of Quid, a data analysis company, said the autocomplete results underscored the private nature of the conversations people believe they are having with their computers.
"We're not being judged by our computer, or we don't feel like we're being judged," he said, adding, "We tend to ask questions with no sort of barrier."
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