Just Google it

I was watching a news-oriented talk show, and one of the guests made a claim about healthcare in this country.  It was a factual claim, and a controversial one, and she made it very authoritatively, but the host did not believe her.  “Come on,” he said.  “That can’t be right.”

“You can Google it yourself!” she told him.  “I’m sure there are people with their iPhones right here in the audience googling it right now.”  The camera didn’t show the studio audience, but I imagined dozens of little screens lighting up and dozens of (tens of dozens?) or fingers rapidly tapping out search terms.

But would those fingers find and those screens show?  Try googling any even somewhat controversial claim (global warming, immigration reform, pick your topic), and you’ll find thousands and thousands of bits of information–some accurate, some objective, some factual, some polemic, some funny, some dishonest–the whole wide range.

“To google” is a verb (and, sure, it includes Bing and all the other search engines), and talk-show guests aren’t the only ones who will tell you to “just google it” (or they may even throw another word in there–like in the page that the picture of Bart Simpson above links to–sorry about that link.  I didn’t choose the language!).  But there’s more than just googling involved.

If Google is the massive collective brain, with all the information of the universe stored in it (and I’m not sure that’s exactly what it is), then it also includes all the junk and garbage that we all keep (maybe longer than we should) in our own individual brains.  Lyrics to songs you used to like in third grade, the best way to unwrap a Tootsie Roll, the hate-letter you wrote to someone who annoyed you on the subway–it’s all there, along with the exact population of Tallahassee, Florida and the military expenditures of Zimbabwe and the complete works of Jane Austen and a very good recipe for paella.

“Google-Fu” (like “Kung-Fu,” right?) is a skill of self-defense and even of attack–it’s the true power today.  Just entering a search term like “global warming” isn’t a skill, it’s not even really something that should be called searching.  And taking that first link on the results page is even less of a skill.  Setting up a search, refining the results.  If your google-fu is truly strong, you can get the real result, the right result, quickly and efficiently.  And you can know the result you’ve got is the best one and be able to explain why.

But how do we teach people these skills? There aren’t google-fu academies, and while some schools (particularly libraries) do their best to help students with these skills, others just try to prevent or limit what students do with that massive collective brain.  It seems that the secrets of searching, of learning how to ask, are too often shared just by word-of-mouth.  Or not shared at all.  Can we change that? Should we?