Ever lie awake at 2AM, self-diagnosing a headache as a brain aneurysm, tracking UFO sightings or questioning your place in the universe? Fear not, friend: you are not alone. Pioneering research into how Google searches can give insights into the human psyche is proving just how much we have in common – from the bizarre to the touching and the horrifying.
Dr Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a former Google data scientist with a PhD in Economics from Harvard, has analysed data that shows what online lurkers get up to in the small hours, and turned it all into a new book. I caught up with him to find out what it all means.
VICE: How do our search habits change late at night?
Dr Seth Stephens-Davidowitz: Late at night there's a lot of anxiety, panic attacks and health concerns. People at 3AM wake up in a cold sweat worried that they have cancer or Parkinson's disease, or that they have ALS or brain tumours. There's also a lot of late night marijuana smoking. Between 2AM and 4AM people ask the big questions, like "What is the meaning of consciousness?", "Does freewill exist?", "Is there life on other planets?" Another thing you see is searches for enlightenment at 3.16AM.
Perhaps one of the reasons for this is cannabis use, because people Google "how to roll a joint" between 1AM and 2AM, so that's one of the things you see. You also see late night horniness – porn is most popular between midnight and 2AM.
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Presumably the data is pretty different depending on what day of the week it is?
Yeah, so at 3AM on Saturday you're more likely to see people are drunk. People make a lot of spelling errors, probably because they're drunk, and they forget their password, because they had a lot to drink on the Friday night, so they forget their passwords and make a lot of spelling mistakes.
Did your research show how gender affects our internet habits in the small hours?
One thing I did see is that Literotica – which is more popular among women – peaks more in the early morning. So maybe we can see women get hornier in the morning, and men get hornier at night. We don't break down the gender of the searches, so we don't really know – on the internet, nobody knows you're a dog.
What about spikes in searches related to taboo topics or illegal behaviour?
This is more disturbing. At 3AM people make searches like "kill Muslims", and these actually predict hate crimes later. These people are probably not the most sane members of society, but they reveal themselves in Google searches, and we can potentially use this information to learn what causes these unstable people to have violent, dangerous thoughts that they sometimes act on.
Do you ever hand any of your research over to security services?
I've talked a little bit about police departments potentially incorporating some of these findings. If there are an unusual amount of searches for "kill Muslims" or "I hate Muslims", then police departments would be wise to put extra security outside of mosques, for example.
"All the lonely people kind of reveal themselves on Google"
Do different nations search for different things at certain times of the day?
One of the things I looked at was lunch breaks around the world. In the United States there are various different things people do – at 12PM on a weekday people catch up on the news. In Japan, people plan for travel. In Belgium, people shop during lunch.
What can the data teach us about the human psyche?
With porn, health concerns and metaphysical questions, I think what is happening is a combination of boredom, anxiety and marijuana smoking in these late night hours. More generally, what's noticeable in this data is the clear patterns that reveal themselves when you're dealing with 200 million people. A lot of people think that their situation is unique and that there's something very particular about them, but when you put them altogether with everyone else you see a large number of people are doing the same thing at the same time, and in some sense people are more predictable than we sometimes think.
So, in a way, some of this research could make us feel less alienated, as it shows we're just one of millions of strangers fretting and pondering in the middle of the night.
Yeah, all the lonely people kind of reveal themselves on Google. What's really exciting is that all of this data is unprecedented. We didn't really know – and some of this is preliminary – previously, let's say, how many people were having a panic attack at 3AM on a given Tuesday evening. But now we can start correlating this with what happens on Tuesday afternoon in New York City that means an unusual amount of people would have panic attacks [in the same city] that Tuesday night. That's a question that really would have been impossible to answer for all of human history, but now it's possible to answer – although I haven't figured that out yet. You'll have to read my follow-up book, I guess.
Thanks very much.
Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, published in May of 2017 by HarperCollins, can be pre-ordered here.