Americans Love Google! Americans Hate Google!

By Megan Garber

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This morning, the Pew Internet and American Life Project released the results of a February survey analyzing Americans' feelings about online privacy. The main takeaway is something of a paradox: The majority of us are uncomfortable with personalized search and targeted ads. At the same, time, though, we're more satisfied than ever with the performance of search engines.

Taken together, the polling shows that there is a great uneasiness about the status quo of data collection on the Internet. And yet, people like using the Internet.

In phone calls with Pew, 65 percent of Internet users said it's generally "a bad thing" if a search engine collects information about individual searches and then uses it to rank someone's search results -- because it may limit the information you get online and what search results you see. Only 29 percent said this practice would generally be "a good thing," because it would offer better and more relevant search returns. Similarly, when the question was framed more personally, 73 percent said they would "not be okay" with being tracked (because it would be an invasion of privacy); only 23 percent said they'd be "okay" with tracking (because it would lead to better and more personalized search results).

Pew found a similar breakdown when the matter was framed around advertising rather than search: 68 percent of those surveyed said they were "not okay" with targeted advertising, because they didn't want their online behavior tracked and analyzed; only 28 percent were okay with it (explaining that it leads to more relevant ads and the like).

And yet: Despite all those high-percentage objections to the idea of being tracked, less than half of the people surveyed -- 38 percent -- said they knew of ways to control the data collected about them.

The disconnect here is striking. On the one hand, "People are confident when they use search. They trust most of the information they're getting. They do not feel like they are getting biased results, and they can usually find what they are looking for," Kristen Purcell, the study's co-author, told me. Searching "feels like a positive online experience for most people," she says; the search experience "is easy to use and invaluable in the way it lets them find the needle in the haystack of online information, instantly."

On the other hand ... there's that 65/68/73 percent. 

It's a psychic disconnect as well as an informational one. "When they are using these tools," Purcell notes, "most people tell us they do not want to worry about where information about that behavior is going and how it is being used."

The beauty of search is its simplicity -- the elegance and ease and modern-day magic of typing a question into a search bar and being rewarded, instantly, with your answers. The product speaks for itself; the process that creates it is mind-bogglingly complex. And more than half of us Americans, Pew's findings make clear, have precious little sense of how that process relates to our online identities. Most of us, as Purcell suggests, don't actually want to have to think about the why and the where and the how of the whole thing. We don't really want to know the magician's tricks.

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Reading through the Pew survey, I kept thinking about, actually, Disney World. Aboveground, the park stretches in a bustling array of curated pleasures; beneath the castles and teacups and funnel cake carts, though, lies a vast network of tunneled corridors and utilidors that allow off-duty staffers ("cast members") to travel from Fantasyland to Tomorrowland without ruining any illusions. The subterranean world of Disney -- sprawling, utlitarian, the inverse of both Fantasy and Tomorrow -- allows wandering vacationers to forget (or, more specifically, to ignore) the fact that magic is, unavoidably, the result of work.

It's similar with search: underground network, surface illusion. Pew's findings, overall, raise a question: How much do we actually want to know about this stuff? Do we truly want to understand the intricacies of data-collection and personalization and all the behind-the-screens work that creates the easy, breezy experience of search ... or would we, on some level, prefer that it remain as magic?


Images: Pew Internet and American Life Project; Flickr/Chris Harrison.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/03/americans-love-google-americans-hate-google/254253/