"I reckon pounding questions into our computers is the rule rather than exception." Even for dogs. Photo: Peter Cade
Google Analytics, for the uninitiated, is a nifty tool that keeps track of traffic to websites -- once you install it, you can see statistics including how many people are visiting your site, where they are located, and what methods they use to find the site. For important, serious websites, it’s a key way to analyse things like popular content and the effectiveness of ad campaigns. On my little blog, it’s an entertaining way to track global concerns about British men -- and, in particular, their romantic proclivities and foibles.
You see, about five years ago, when I briefly had a column in an ‘upscale’ men’s magazine (I was young, the pages were glossy, they illustrated the column with a picture of a woman who was supposed to be me but who actually looked like Gisele Bundchen, which was kind of insulting), my editor commissioned me to write a piece which ran under the provocative title: ‘British men: why I love them, even though they’re crap.’ In the piece, I waxed lyrically about various classic British male stereotypes -- they have a dry sense of humour! They don’t talk about their feelings! -- and after it was published in print I put it up on my blog, as I do with most of my writing, to live in internet perpetuity.
Little did I know what a service I would be doing to people around the world who find British men perplexing, troubling and challenging. For ever since then, whenever I check in on my Google Analytics, I find that internet users across the globe have been asking Google difficult questions about British men and finding their way to my website. Questions like: ‘how do you know if a British man likes you?’, ‘how do you know where you stand with a British man?’, ‘how to make a British man fall for you?’ and, perhaps the most poignant question of all: ‘how do you make love to a British man?’ (Something to do with Marmite, I’ve heard.)
The real significance of this is not that my website has become a destination for everyone who’s ever experienced a curious romantic moment with a man called Nigel - sadly, the article doesn’t actually give much real insight into the British male psyche, except revealing their affinity for puns. But what is interesting is how it is a little bit of evidence of the extent to which we now regard Google as a source of answers to the questions closest to our hearts: that every day, instead of directing our most pressing and embarrassing queries to friends, acquaintances, real-life experts, we direct our browsers to a search engine. It’s not just the British male-loving contingent: I reckon that pounding questions relevant to one’s love life into a keyboard is the rule rather than the exception.
I was’t brought up in a religion, so I’ve never known how it feels to believe in an omniscient higher power. But I do wonder whether our inclination to turn to a search engine when it comes to answering life’s difficult questions is simply a digital version of asking for divine guidance. It seems notable that it appears natural to want to believe that there is something that is bigger than ourselves that has all of the answers -- even if it’s the combined knowledge of everyone in the world , compressed into bits of data, rather than one all-knowing deity.
There are two clear advantages for asking the internet for advice about our personal lives. First, there’s the avoidance of embarrassment: turning to the web means that we don’t have to contend with the mortification of admitting our most humiliating preoccupations to people we actually know, who might judge us in a way that our computers never will. But second, I suspect, is the perception that the internet will tell us the truth: unlike a friend, the internet won’t ever adjust its response to spare our feelings or to accommodate its own beliefs and opinions..
In this respect, it feels like a surer route to the truth. But will we find it? Because on reflecting on the existential things that I’ve asked the internet over the years in lieu of seeking advice from a friend, I’ve noticed a trend: for the most part, they’re all questions I essentially know the answers to already - but they’re answers that I want to avoid. Which is to say, for example, that if you’re reduced to asking the internet whether someone you are interested in having a relationship with fancies you ... well, sadly enough, you likely should confront the fact that if he did, you wouldn’t need to use a search engine to detect it. Though goodness knows it will always be fun to try.