History teachers across the country had a mild heart attack during the Grammys when Google tweeted this:
— GoogleTrends (@GoogleTrends) February 16, 2016
The twittersphere was all over that one. How could Americans be so stupid? Not knowing who Alexander Hamilton is! Following the trends, several news organizations wrote blurbs about our collective ignorance. Such as this one at time.com.
they weren’t Googling things like “discount Hamilton tickets” or “who is Lin-Manuel Miranda?” or “who’s that handsome guy in the plum-colored coat?” They were simply Googling, “Who is Alexander Hamilton?”
Looks like we could all use a little brushing up on American history.
Could we? Or could we just use a primer on how Google Trends works? Trends is a fantastic tool from Google, but if you don’t know how to use it, it can leave you thinking that all of America is dumb.
Here’s the graph in question.
What Google Trends does is take the number of searches for a topic divided by all searches. Then they norm the number on a scale of 0 to 100. So you can never really tell how many people are searching for something. You can only compare it proportionally with what people were searching for previously.
In other words, the masses would have no reason to search something like “Who is Alexander Hamilton?” were it not for a major television event. That’s why the trend is flat lined for the six days leading up to the Grammys.
What you can do is compare terms against one another. So what about Time’s assertion that people weren’t searching for tickets or for the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda?
In this version, you see only “Hamilton tickets” goes up to 100. That means that of those three terms, it was the most popular. “Who is Alexander Hamilton” and “Lin Manuel Miranda” score 85 and 84, respectively. That means that if 1,000 people were searching for tickets, 850 were asking about the ten dollar founding father.
Still, that only tells us so much. So let’s add more Grammys stuff in there.
Now we’re getting somewhere. A zillion people are searching for the Grammys, so it is maxed out at 100. Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar were around 20 at the time, which means one-fifth of the number of people searching Grammys were searching those two artists. “Who is Alexander Hamilton” maxed out at 2. 2!
But wait! There’s more!
Adding the “Who is” is kind of stupid. Anyone who knows how to use google knows that you don’t need the interrogative phrase. It’s not Ask Jeeves. You’re not on Jeopardy!
When you take out “Who is”, searches for Alexander Hamilton almost reach 60. So it’s not that everyone wants to learn about this guy for the first time. Maybe we just want more, or we want a quick link to his Wikipedia page.
So why did I go through all this trouble?
I would argue that a spike in searches about Hamilton is not a warning sign that our educational system is failing us. I submit that it is a sign of extraordinary progress.
For the first time in human history, a man, woman, or child who comes across something they don’t know about on TV can type something into a magic rectangle in their hands and learn more. That doesn’t mark the failure of our education system, it marks the success of our technological advancement.
It also proves that we as a species have not lost our strong desire to learn more. We crave that information, which is really the only reason that the internet as it is exists today. If there were no demand for informative content, people wouldn’t be out there supplying it.
Albert Einstein once said he didn’t memorize the speed of sound, because “it is readily available in books.” I’m totally OK with living in a society where we don’t have all the answers, but we have all the tools to discover them.