Study finds even time travellers aren't using Google+ (or Twitter, or Facebook, or Bing)

How would we know if time travellers have visited our time period? By looking for tweets, of course.

In the early years of the last decade there was a trend of people posting on internet forums claiming to be time travellers from the future. The most famous of these was John Titor, a name used by someone through 2000 and 2001, claiming that they were visiting from the year 2036.

Titor’s predictions ranged from the geopolitical to the scientific. He would share scans of the schematics for his time machine - installed inside a 1967 Chevrolet Corvette, no less - and claimed that 2004 would see a worldwide nuclear war that would reduce the United States to civil war.

We can be pretty sure Titor wasn’t a time traveller. His claim that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics was correct (and that, therefore, if something doesn’t happen in one timeline, it has to have happened in at least one other) is a convenient get-out clause for his incorrect predictions, many of which reflect the major events and scandals of the time like mad cow disease. He completely misses 9/11 and the war on terror, too, which is a pretty big omission.

How, though, can we be sure that there wasn’t a real John Titor out there, leaving a trail of predictive crumbs on some small message board in a corner of the web?

Physicists Robert Nemiroff and Teresa Wilson from Michigan Technological University have a neat paper called, suitably enough, “Searching the Internet for evidence of time travelers”, and it proposes three methods for seeking out evidence of of time travellers on the web. Spoiler: they don’t find anything. But it’s still an interesting idea to consider.

In August 2013, Nemiroff and Wilson searched for posts made between January 2006 and September 2013 that mentioned either or both of two terms: “Pope Francis” and “Comet ISON”. These were chosen because they’re very unique terms - Jorge Mario Bergoglio is the first pope to take the name Francis, and Comet ISON is the only comet to have that particular name - and are therefore unlikely to have been mentioned by chance before they were coined (in March 2013 and September 2012, respectively).

There were three ways to see if anyone had let slip those terms before they should have. The first was a simple search using Google, Bing, Google+, Facebook, and Twitter, and it actually turned up a result - a blog post where someone talked about a future “Pope Francis”. “Butbut upon close inspection and consideration,” the authors wrote, “that blog post was deemed overtly speculative and not prescient.”

Second was to dig into what people had been searching for on search engines like Google during that time period. “A time traveller might have been trying to collect historical information that did not survive into the future, or might have searched for a prescient term because they erroneously thought that a given event had already occurred, or searched to see whether a given event was yet to occur,” Nemiroff and Wilson write. Google Trends doesn’t show anything for either search term, and neither Bing nor Yahoo! offer that kind of detail.

The researchers even get access to Nasa’s Astronomy Picture of the Day website stats, and have a dig around to see if anyone ended up landing on the homepage thanks to searching for Comet ISON. Still nothing.

The third (and final) method was interactive, asking time travellers to go back in time and reveal themselves by tweeting or emailing one of two phrases - #ICanChangeThePast2 or #ICannotChangeThePast2 - on or before August 2013. The two phrases were chosen because neither hashtag had ever been used before this study, and the researchers hoped that any time traveller who obliged would clear up a fundamental question about how time travel works.

But, of course, they did a search for the hashtags before revealing the request in September 2013, and inevitably nobody seemed to have travelled back in time to tweet or email.

What can we conclude from this? “Although the negative results reported here may indicate that time travelers from the future are not among us and cannot communicate with us over the modern day Internet,” the researchers write, “they are by no means proof.” There are all kinds of reasons why there might not be evidence left behind by time travellers, from the physical impossibility of changing the past to them simply being very good at covering their tracks. It wasn’t a comprehensive search either - all we know is that time travellers don’t use Twitter or Google Plus if they come back.

“This search might be considered the most sensitive and comprehensive search yet for time travel from the future,” the researchers write. The truth may be out there, but requires further investigation.

It's a clock, flying through time. (Image: Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Azeem Ward
Show Hide image

Living the Meme: What happened to Azeem Ward and his flute?

In the first of a new series investigating what happens to people after they become memes, we speak to Azeem Ward, whose flute recital went viral in 2015.

The Sixties had Woodstock. The Nineties had Lollapalooza. The Tens – and, if we’re being honest, just a single year of them – had Azeem's Senior Flute Recital.

If you were inactive on the internet between 12 and 16 May 2015, you’ll be forgiven for not knowing who Azeem Ward is. After setting up a Facebook page for his end of year flute performance, the University of California student was inundated with over 100,000 RSVPs from the United Kindom, along with multiple requests to fly to England and play (for no apparent reason) Darude’s “Sandstorm” in Nando’s. After international news coverage, Ward – as all memes inevitably do – appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! to discuss his newfound fame. On 16 May, he had to turn hordes of people away from the 500 seat recital hall, and over 55,000 individuals tuned into a livestream of the event. Then, Ward disappeared. Not from social media, and not from the world, but from the internet’s collective consciousness.

Search interest in "Azeem Ward" over time

“I’d say no,” answers Ward, when I ask him whether, one and a half years later, he still receives any special attention or has any fan interactions. “I’m just regular Azeem now, and I’m okay with that. Regular me is a more focussed person that is not reacting to things that are happening around me.”

Ward is Skyping me from his home in Iowa, where he is getting his master’s degree in flute performance. He spends his time composing flute beatbox songs, learning how to produce music, and teaching a class on flute fundamentals at the university. “A lot of [the students] here in Iowa know what happened but they don’t go like: ‘Oh my God! It’s Azeem!’. It’s just like, ‘Hey, what’s up man? I saw that one thing about you on Jimmy Kimmel’.”  

The original Facebook event page

Ward regained his anonymity when he moved to Iowa, as many of his fellow undergraduate students in California recognised him because he was on the local news. “But the whole viral thing was a UK thing,” he explains, “It wasn’t really around the whole US.”

An Azeem meme

Four months after his famed flute recital, Ward did come to the UK and toured the country to perform as part of various university freshers’ weeks. “That was a crazy time,” he says, “I was over there for five weeks and played 22 shows in 12 different cities, all the way from London to Scotland.” His concerts were popular, though most people came to take a selfie or ask about how the recital happened, and only a few wanted to talk to him about music. Still, Ward profited from the events. “We did make some pretty good money," he says, admitting he earnt around $5,000. 

Despite clearly enjoying this time, Ward seems unfazed that his viral fame is now over. His only regrets, he says, are that he didn’t make any connections in the music business while in the UK, and that he didn’t have any social media accounts set up before he went viral, so there was nowhere for people to go to listen to his music. “When you go viral people hold onto that rather than taking you seriously as a musician,” he says. “Sometimes it annoyed me but sometimes I realised that I wouldn’t be there in the first place if it wasn’t for going viral.”

Azeem now, photo courtesy of Azeem Ward

So what advice would Ward give to the next person who finds themselves, unwittingly, the object of the internet’s affection?

“I'd say don't lose sight of what you've already been doing in your life, like keep your focus. I'd say that sometimes in your head you're like ‘Oh man, I have to do this now’, but you've just got to stay focussed on your goals. When you have your own path and you go viral you have a lot of people asking you to do all these different things. It was pretty intense – I’m not used to having a lot of people look at me and my actions, so I was pretty anxious at first. In the end I realised that I came to do what I came to do, and I had to go do it.”

Although Ward doesn’t miss being internet-famous, it is clear that going viral had an impact on him. He recalls the peak of the madness with telling clarity, sharing specific details such as "256 people” clicked attending in "four hours", and “then 512”, before 12,000 people RSVP’d overnight. Mostly, however, he seems very grounded, though he acknowledges it was “out of control” and “really crazy”.

Perhaps Ward feels this way because he received little in the way of negativity or hate. He fondly discusses memes that were created and art that was drawn about him, and the support of his family and friends. “Even though there were a lot of silly things going on, I managed to make it positive for the school,” he says. “I had no haters. Everyone was like ‘Damn, Azeem. Good job, man’.”

One day, Ward hopes to come back to London, although he is wary of returning. Not because of his viral fame, nor the number of selfies he might have to take with Nando's customers, but because of Brexit. Our conversation, like all post-June conversations, turns swiftly to the topic, and Ward asks me about the economy. “I was thinking about trying to do a doctorate over in London, but if things aren't going to be so good in a few years...” 

Ward admits he wouldn’t be bothered if he never went viral again. “When I think of something going viral, I think it has a point in time where there’s so much interest and then it goes away. I’d like to produce material and the attention to keep going up.” So do you want to be famous, I ask? “Do I really want to be famous?” he ponders. “Being famous is okay, I guess. But I want to be is respected and appreciated.”

To listen to Azeem’s music visit or Like his Facebook page.

To suggest an interviewee for Living the Meme, reach out to Amelia on Twitter.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.