Baidu's suggested search feature is very revealing.
Show Hide image

What Baidu’s search autofill reveals about the soul of the average Chinese web surfer

“What do I do if I'm ugly?”, and other questions.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Bored at work? Type “why is” into Google, and up pops a list of the most common user questions beginning with that phrase, such as “why is the sky blue” and “why is my poop green”. Then try “what is”, “how do you”, “how to pronounce”, and so on, and before you know it you’ll be face deep in the greatest parlour game/time-suck of the early twenty-first century. After Google Suggest debuted in 2008, it quickly became a handy tool for armchair psychologists looking to analyse our collective psyche. Among its revelations: we cheat on the New York Times crossword, we don’t know how to pronounce “gif”, and we mainly use the internet to find song lyrics. Google Suggest tunnels into the far recesses of the soul, revealing humanity at its most innocent (“why am I me”), ugly (“I am extremely terrified of Chinese people”), and bizarre (“I like to tape my thumbs to my hands to see what it would be like to be a dinosaur”).

Baidu, the Chinese search engine, has a similar feature. Foreign Policy recently used it to develop a map of China by regional stereotype, while others have mined it to learn what Chinese think of foreigners from various nations. But that’s just a start. There’s a lot more Baidu can tell us about China’s search engine users, from their hopes and fears to their obsessions and consumer preferences. As I played around with the tool this week, a portrait of the average Baidu user started to emerge: a broke, sexually frustrated guy/girl who wants to become a teacher, buy a car, marry, and have a son (or, better yet, twins), if only he/she can get this damned wifi router to work.

Indeed, China has many problems, but the biggest headache plaguing Baidu users seems to be how to get wireless. Type in “怎么”, or “how”, and four of the top ten suggestions involve the setting up of routers and cracking of passwords. (For simplicity, the searches below are all translated from Mandarin.) Rivalling wifi for subject of greatest concern is pregnancy. “How do I make sure I have a son?” users ask, reflecting a common desire in China, especially under the government’s one-child policy. Women also want to know how to “get pregnant quickly” and have “dragon-phoenix twins”, or twins of opposite genders. Otherwise, users are most concerned with how to “buy stocks”, “apply eye-liner”, “download videos”, “reduce belly fat”, “repair a kidney”, and “catch pheasants”, slang for soliciting prostitutes.

Sex questions are popular – understandably so, given the relative dearth of sex education in China. (Plus, asking the internet is less awkward than asking your teacher or mom.) The top “why” question among Googlers may be “why is the sky blue”, but Baidu users have a different primary concern: “why is my semen yellow?” Runners up include “why do I ejaculate so quickly?” and “why don’t I have any semen?” They also pose questions they might be too shy to ask their partners, such as, “why do girls go to the bathroom after sex?” You may have noticed these are all dude questions. It’s hard to say whether that’s because Chinese men have a disproportionately large number of sexual hang-ups, or because Baidu users are disproportionately male, or because China itself is disproportionately male. Evidence points to the latter two explanations: if you type in “I’m looking for”, “a wife” makes the list of top suggestions, but “a husband” does not.

Physical appearance is another perennial source of anxiety. Men search for ways to “grow taller” and “cure baldness”, while women ask how to “make my skin white”, “make my legs thinner”, and “make my face thinner”. “Am I handsome?” is the most common search about users’ appearance, followed by “I’m ugly”, “I’m very ugly”, and “what do I do if I’m ugly?” Insult to injury, the search results page is populated with photos of beautiful celebrities.

Baidu also catalogs the hopes and dreams of its users. The search term “my dream is” reveals the most-sought profession to be teacher, followed by doctor, designer, police officer, scientist, painter, astronaut, and soldier, in that order. And whatever their job, Baidu-ers want the trappings of a middle class lifestyle. The most common phrase that starts with “I want to buy” is “I want to buy a car.” A close second: “I want to buy a car but I have no money, what do I do?” After that, users are most interested in purchasing a phone, a house, a pigeon, and a gun.

Baidu users appear to be hopeless media addicts. A big chunk of search suggestions turn out to be titles of songs, movies, and TV shows, many of which users can stream online. Type in “I am”, and the suggestion box fills with variations on the talent show title I Am a Singer. Type “who”, and you are directed to the dating show Who Can Be One in a Hundred?, the talk show Who’s Talking?, the video game Who’s the Mole?, the movie Unexpected Love (its Chinese title translates as Who Says We Can’t Love?), the movie Who Is the Real Hero?, and the novel Who Didn’t Have an Aimless Youth? Baidu also suggests that users might be looking for the recent ad campaign “Who Can Represent KFC?” According to a spokesman for Baidu, there is no commercial element in the suggested search terms.

Politically sensitive terms do appear to be manipulated. Enter the word “Tiananmen” and you’ll see a short list of suggestions: “Tiananmen Square”, “Tiananmen photos”, “Tiananmen flag raising times”, and “I Love Beijing’s Tiananmen”, the title of a song from 1970. The terms “1988” and “1990” yield searches related to the lunar calendars of those years, but if you want to know when Spring Festival began in 1989, you’re out of luck. Likewise, “六四,” or “6/4,” shorthand for the massacre of 4 June, 1989, produces no suggestions, while 六三 (“6/3”) and 六五 (“6/5”) reveal plenty. Chinese users appear to be turning to Google for answers to these sensitive questions instead. Type the Mandarin word for “why” into Google.com.hk, and the fourth most common search is “Why suppress Falun Gong?” Enter the word for “how” and suggestion number six is “How do I get over the Great Firewall?”

Baidu also tells us which phrases Chinese people want to say in other languages. If you type “How do you say in English,” you learn that the phrase most commonly searched for is 加油 or “add oil”, the Mandarin equivalent of “Go! Go!” Other terms that urgently require translation into English: “Shut up”, “wife”, “pollution”, “resume”, “brassiere”, and “milk powder”. The phrase that Chinese people most want to say in Japanese and Korean? “I love you”.

Some Baidu questions would only make sense to Chinese speakers. For example, a lot of users search for “why is there no northern melon?” In Chinese, pumpkin is “southern melon”, watermelon is “western melon”, and white gourd is “winter melon”, which is a homophone for “eastern melon”. There is, in fact, a “northern melon”, but it’s a lot less common than the others. Other searchers want to know “why is there no western capital?” for a similar reason, as Beijing is the “northern capital”, Nanjing is the “southern capital”, and Tokyo is the “eastern capital”.

But overall, Baidu users have a lot of the same questions and interests as Google users. The top suggestion on Google/Baidu for “I’m feeling”/”我感觉”is “I’m feeling blue”/“我感觉很难过.” Users of both search engines complain about their computers and demand to know what’s happening to their bodies. “Why does my hand sometimes tremble?” Baidu-ers ask, perhaps indicating one too many Baidu searches. In the end, most queries fall into the category of broad human experience. For example, what greater testament to our unity as a species than the fact that when you type “my balls”/“我的蛋” into Google/Baidu, the #1 suggestion is the same: “hurt”/“好疼”.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Getty
Show Hide image

Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.