April 18, 2014

Can Interenet Trends Represent Society?

There’s an interesting case going on in Florida right now that centers on obscenity. The problem with any obscenity laws is figuring out what exactly is obscene. The definition can vary greatly from one location to another, and many lawyers and judges base their decision upon the local community.

Typically, attorneys use any information about what’s available locally to defend their clients. Such “evidence” can include local porn shops, strip clubs, selection of magazines offered at grocery stores, and mail order statistics (if they can be obtained.)

In this case though, the attorney is using a new tool: Google Trends. If you haven’t played with Google Trends it’s a really neat tool. You simply type in some words, and it tells you their relative search popularity. The relevant part here is that you can search by locale.

That’s exactly what this lawyer is doing. He used Google Trends to show that Pensacola Florida searches more for “orgy” than they do “apple pie” and “watermelon” combined.

In fact, if he wanted to really shock the jury he should do some searches on truly obscene terms. For example, Orlando Florida has the most searches in the US for “child porn” and “sex with animals” (strangely enough, this is where Disney world is.) Tampa ranks 3rd for “transsexuals.” The state of Florida ranks 5th for “porn DVD.”

Clearly there’s a lot of obscene shit being searched for in Florida.

But is Google Trends data an accurate depiction of society?

The whole time I’ve been writing this I’ve been picturing my old freshman psychology teacher screaming about correlation and causation – and she’s right.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that internet data is a direct representation of society in this case – at least now how the lawyer is applying it. Of course more people search for orgy than apple pie, because they’re not afraid of discussing apple pie in public.

The nature of the internet is that it appears private. I can search for anything in the comfort of my own home without fear of being judged – at least that’s the thought driving many people. People who are ashamed to go out shopping for a “big black dildo” can simply have Amazon ship it to them overnight in a nondescript box.

Due to the nature of the internet, there’s more obscenity there. It’s not just the nature of the internet though, it’s the nature of people – as the article states. The biggest problem with this case is going to be that many jurors will publicly condemn something as obscene before going home and engaging in that same behavior behind closed doors. It’s like voting against the children or the soldiers.

So can Google Trends be a valid indicator?

Yes, but not in the way the above attorney is using it. There’s going to be more searches for obscene stuff than non obscene stuff on the internet no matter what community you live it. But it’s the difference between communities that can truly prove helpful.

If he can show that the people of his county search for more obscene material than the people in a neighboring state or county, he might be able to make his case – especially if the neighboring state or county has laws that allow whatever his client is being accused of.

If what he’s on trial for is legal in Georgia, and Florida searches for more obscene stuff than Georgia, then he’s got a case. If anything, it’ll certainly be an interesting case to follow.

About Ryan Jones

Ryan Jones is an SEO from Detroit. By day he works as a manager of SEO & Analytics at SapientNitro where his team performs SEO for Fortune500 clients. By night he's either playing hockey or attempting to take over the world with his own websites - which he would have already succeeded in doing had it not been for those meddling kids and their dog. The views expressed here have not been paid for and belong only to Ryan, not any of his employers or clients. Follow Ryan on Twitter at: @RyanJones, add him on Google+ or visit his personal website: www.RyanMJones.com