Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Google, like a reassuring hand on my shoulder (or an in-house support group)

As a journalist, I rely heavily on Google all throughout my working day. Until yesterday, I never thought of Google as fulfilling an emotional need for me, merely a practical one. But yesterday I acknowledged something that I was gradually coming to realize about Google: the feature by which it autofills search terms after you’ve typed a few letters can sometimes be irritating (for example, if you’re researching the movie “Paris, Texas” and the autofill feature’s first guess is Paris Hilton and second is Paris France) and can sometimes be convenient, such as when you’re not sure how to spell General Shalikashvili and up pops the name after just a few letters.

But the other thing it can be is reassuring, because sometimes I imagine I’m the only person searching on a particular term describing a particular problem I’m having, and then when auto-fill supplies the term for me after just the first few letters, it’s like a kindly hand on my shoulder, saying “Don’t worry, Nancy. You’re not the only one.” Whether I’m searching on the term ‘Seven-year-old bedwetter,’ ‘How to remove dried papier mache splatters from a carpet,’ or ‘Strategies for teaching a dog not to chase goslings,’ wise old Google has seen this problem before. I type in terms feeling like I’m dealing with an unheard-of challenge or concern, and up pop the very words I intended, reassuring me that many others before me have made this same search.

Over the weekend, my 7-year-old was listening to my iPod in the car and suddenly announced that there was a problem: the iPod screen was locked. It was classic Ronald Reagan “Mistakes were made” use of the passive voice; I knew full well the screen had not been locked when Holly started listening to it, and now it was, so it was pretty clear to me whom the subject of that sentence would be if we were to change it from the blameless passive to the active voice in which it rightfully belonged.

Later, once we were out of the car, I tried all the four-number combinations I’ve ever used for any password, but to no avail. I had no memory of ever selecting a password code for my iPod, and none of the usual ones I might use were working. So then I tried every code that seemed like it might be a logical factory default: 0-0-0-0, 1-1-1-1, 1-2-3-4. None of those worked either. Moreover, it was a holiday weekend and I was away from home, so I didn’t have my owner’s manual.

But while I was running, I had a thought. If the information did indeed exist in the owner’s manual or anywhere else in published form, I might be able to find it with a Google search. So later in the day I sat down at my computer. “iPod default p –“ I typed. “iPod default password” came up on the search window immediately. “Exactly!” I crowed. “That’s just what I want!”

But then I grew curious. Just how specific could I be and still find that the Google search algorithm had seen my term enough times before to bring it up? “Unlock iP –“ I typed, and “Unlock iPod screen” came up. Amazing! But why stop there? “Accidentally locked my I” I wrote. “Accidentally locked my iPod screen” guessed Google. Why yes!

I went all out with the next one. “My kid accidentally locked my” I typed. “My kid accidentally locked my iPod screen,” the search term popped up. This was amazing. Until now, I’d thought I was the only parent dumb enough to let this happen, but it turns out it happens all over America, according to Google. Maybe even all over the world! (Well, I guess Google wouldn’t know about China. But a whole lot of other places.)

Google led me quickly to the answer to my problem: there is no factory-installed default password, but to unlock an iPod you just sync it to iTunes via your computer and it unlocks itself. I tried it and found instant success. Locked no more! Great news!

But in a way, what was even better news was the bigger picture. What Google reminded me was that I am almost never the only one with a particular problem. It’s something I rediscover regularly, whether the issue is family discord, stress over paying my property taxes, or a child who should have long outgrown temper tantrums but hasn’t. “Me too!” friends say as soon as I find the courage to unburden myself. “I have that problem too!”

It always makes me feel better, and of course, this acknowledgment is a lot older than Google. Presumably that’s how support groups started. Google isn’t exactly a support group, but I do love how whenever I type in a search term I discover I’m not alone. Someone else has searched for the same answer before me. Intellectually, I should know that. We are never as unique as we think we are, and although when writing poetry that may not be such a satisfying realization, when confronting problems it can be a wonderful feeling to note. Google just makes it all the easier to keep that important fact in mind. You are not alone. There are millions of people out there with your problem, and some of them have even already posted the answer on a help forum for you.

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