Thursday, March 05, 2009

Thomas Friedman as Ali G



In the "ice cream glove" sketch (above), Ali G pitches his idea for a device (the ice cream glove) that would solve the main problem with ice cream cones: they drip on your hands as they melt. To prove its revenue potential, Ali G multiplies the number of hits he gets when he googles "ice cream" by the number of hits he gets when he googles "gloves," by his projected unit price per glove, to get a figure on the order of a gazillion pounds.

Now along comes Thomas Friedman with a disturbingly similar methodology for measuring the depth of our economic crisis. In his NY Times column yesterday, Friedman uses the "suggestions" that Google provides when you enter the beginnings of words as an index of the economic zeitgeist. This methodology may sound goofy at first but on close inspection it proves to be downright preposterous.

First, we need to distinguish between Google's customized suggestions and its generic ones. If I type f-e-d into my search bar, I get a list of terms specific to me based on my searches ("Federalist Papers" tops my list), and a separate generic list (here topped by "Fedex"). Friedman is using the generic list as his public opinion barometer, because Google generates these lists based on how other people typically complete these searches. So there is at least something plausible to Friedman's analysis. If the first suggestion when one types s-o-u is "soup kitchen," that's bad economic news.

But in fact none of the top 10 suggestions for s-o-u is even soup-related. When I tried this, Southwest Airlines was first, South Park second, and Soulja Boy third. Worse, Friedman's own results are not even reproducible, at least not by me. I get the same results he gets for m-e-r-e (a list topped by Meredith Whitney), but his other example is a bust. Friedman says that b-a produces a list topped by Bank of America, with Barack Obama coming in third, yet when I tried this my list was topped by Barnes and Noble, with Barack Obama second, and Bank of America online banking eighth.

Furthermore, this whole enterprise is suspect, as another little experiment revealed. I typed p-o-r into my search bar, expecting porn or pornography to top the list but it was nowhere to be found. Perhaps that's because Google does some screening (although no "porn" appeared when I turned off safe searching), but in any event, the list I did get was revealing. In third place was Portugese water dog, no doubt because of the recent announcement of the expected breed of the First Dog. Portal was at number two. Topping the list was Porsche. If the Friedman methodology were useful, that would mean that people are keenly interested in buying expensive sportscars. In fact, we know that Porsche sales, like car sales more generally, have tanked recently. Meanwhile, when I type t-h-o-m-a, the ninth suggestion is Thomas Friedman. Make of that what you will.

Posted by Mike Dorf