Voice

The State of the Union, By Google Autocomplete

A snapshot of the nation’s anxious, online soul.

No one expects the State of the Union address to offer any big surprises. It's not supposed to be clever or elegant, or full of great laugh lines. It's not even supposed to be interesting. Mostly, it's supposed to be reassuring: it's the president's primary annual opportunity to answer our questions, allay our anxieties, and soothe our national soul.

So what were Americans wondering about, in the hours preceding the president's speech?

No need to refer to polls or focus groups: Who needs CNN pollsters when we have Google Autocomplete? (For those unfamiliar: When you start typing something into Google's search box, Autocomplete is that dropdown that tries to save you a few vital milliseconds by filling in the search terms it predicts you'll want to use next. It does this by instantly combing through millions of other recent user searches that begin with the same letters or words you just typed, to see what words all the other Googlers most frequently add.)

NSA, eat your heart out! You can keep tabs on our phone and email metadata all you want, but only Google sees into our national soul.

As a pre-SOTU experiment, I decided to try typing the first words of various plausible SOTU-related Google searches, specially tailored for the foreign policy-minded. Below (in italics) are some of the open-ended search strings I entered, followed by the AutoComplete results, in the order given by Google.* [Note: some technical details and disclaimers are at the end of this column.] From the trivial to the profound, here's what Google says our inquiring minds really wanted to know on the eve of the big speech:

Is President Obama
a mason?
being impeached?
left handed?
exempt from obama care?
a socialist?
a good president?
a liar?
a lawyer? 

Is the Democratic party...
liberal?
an interest group?
capitalized?
in trouble? 

Is the Republican party...
dying?
racist?
finished?
imploding?

Why does America...
use Fahrenheit?
hate Cuba?
celebrate Halloween?
borrow money?
police the world?
go to war?
support Israel?
hate Iran?

Why is America...
in debt?
so fat?
called America?
so great?
so violent?
so powerful?
so stupid?

Why can't America...
make more money?
print more money?
be Sweden?
get out of debt?
have universal health care?
be more like Europe?
beat the Taliban?
ban guns?

Will the United States...
fall like Rome?
ever be invaded?
ever break up?
survive until 2025?
last forever?
have a revolution?
have a purge?
default?
be debt free?

Will the economy...
collapse?
ever get better?
crash?
ever improve?
recover?
really collapse?

Will the middle class...
survive?
disappear?
ever recover?
be saved?
come back?

Will the U.S...
Go to war with China?
Collapse?
Go to war?
Go into a depression?

Is the Iraq war...
over?
really over?
just?
a declared war?
still going on?

Is Iraq...
in Asia?
in Africa?
a country?
a democracy?
a failed state?
in the Middle East?
in Europe?

Is the war in Afghanistan...
over?
still going on?
justified?
a just war?
ever going to end?

Is Afghanistan...
in the Middle East?
a country?
in Central Asia?
in South Asia?
authoritarian?
safe?
a third world country?
in Africa?
a desert?

Will China...
collapse?
own America?
surpass the U.S.?
Attack Japan?

Will Russia...
join the EU?
become a superpower?
invade America?
invade Ukraine?

Will Europe...
become Islamic?
become Muslim?
burn in hell?
survive?

Is al Qaeda...
Real?
still a threat?
dead?
in Syria?
in Iraq?
a gang?
an NGO?
a cult?

Are drone strikes...
legal?
effective?
ethical?
war crimes?

Judging from Google AutoComplete, the nation needs a lot of reassurance this year (and a good world atlas). We're dubious about our leaders and uneasy about our future, both domestically and internationally. We're tired of war and worried about imperial overreach and decline. We're scared, and we're not convinced that things will get better any time soon.

So, did President Obama's State of the Union speech reassure anyone? We'll see. (Feel free to check Autocomplete today and let me know in the comments.) But regardless of whether he's won anyone over, the final words in the president's speech suggest that Obama, like Autocomplete, can sense the nation's malaise. "America has never come easy," he reminded us:

"Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged.... The America we want for our kids -- a rising America where honest work is plentiful and communities are strong; where prosperity is widely shared and opportunity for all lets us go as far as our dreams and toil will take us -- none of it is easy.... [Yet] I know it's within our reach. Believe it."

But here in America, we never take anything on faith, and we never stop searching for answers. The State of the Union speech may be over, but you can bet we'll keep on asking Google the big questions, and Google will keep on showing us our reflection in the mirror.

Want to know the true State of the Union? Type "why" into Google's search box, wait a fraction of a millisecond, and you'll get some version of this poignant found poem:

The State of the Union, 2014:**

Why is the sky blue?
Why do cats purr, and --
Why do we yawn?***

Oh, why did I get married!
And why do we dream?
Why am I so tired?

Why is the government shut down?
Why do men cheat?
Why...

Why am I always tired?

*Some notes and disclaimers:

1) No, I don't know what algorithm Google uses to generate Autocomplete results.
2) Before entering these search terms, I logged out of all my Google accounts and disabled location services, so Google wouldn't tailor the results based on my own previous searches or my precise geographical location. That said, Google has numerous country-specific and language-specific search sites (e.g., you can use google.co.uk to prioritize British search results, or you can "recherche Google" at google.fr). I used Google.com, but I don't know whether Autocomplete still prioritizes searches made within the United States or aggregates all Google.com English-language searches.
3) When Autocomplete offered several virtually identical suggestions (e.g., multiple forms or spellings of the same word), I listed these as one result.
4) These results are just a snapshot: Google won't specify the time period relied on by Autocomplete. (Does it only suggest the queries most frequently made within the last hour? Day? Month?
5) As more users search, Autocomplete results can and will change. YMMV.
6) Google is by far the most popular search engine in the United States, with an estimated two-thirds of the U.S. "search market"; Bing and Yahoo lag far behind. However, the demographics of Google differ somewhat from those of Bing and Yahoo, so those sites may get different "typical" search strings.

** This poem was "found" via Google Autocomplete at approximately 11p.m. on Jan. 28, 2014.

*** After a speech lasting more than an hour, who wouldn't yawn?

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

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