What does the internet think?

This is a fascinating little application that uses Microsoft’s Bing search service to analyze perception of phrases based on the context they occur in across the interwebs. It sounds pretty fascinating, but any amount of testing will immediately reveal seemingly contradictory results like "the Internet hates Hitler, but loves Adolf Hitler" or "the Internet dislikes marijuana, but loves weed."

So is whatdoestheinternetthink.net laughably broken? Far from it! This results are actually exactly what you’d expect, and it’s pretty clear why they happen. What these two apparent errors are an example of is what my LING 201 professor called “unspeak,” a phenomenon where words that ostensibly refer to the same thing have radically different connotations. The canonical example is the war over abortion in the United States, where the two opposing positions generally describe themselves as “pro-choice” and “pro-life,” rather than “pro-abortion” and “anti-abortion.” Using the former terms is an inherently argumentative act, since those words encapsulate a particular worldview within them — you’ll note that people who are pro-abortion often call people who are anti-abortion “anti-choice” or (the term I prefer) “forced-birthers,” casting opposition to abortion as an attack on reproductive freedom. (Which of course it is.)

There’s something slightly different going on with “weed” and “marijuana” - neither term was invented for propaganda purposes, but because of the difference in the sort of people the two words tend to be used by, the synonyms gained different connotations, much like “homosexual” and “gay” in the United States. “Marijuana” tends to be used more frequently by people opposed to its legalization, much like “homosexual” has become a snarl-word for homophobes, and “weed” tends to be used more frequently by people who aren’t opposed to weed, much like LGBTQ folks and our allies usually prefer “gay.”* So what whatdoestheinternetthink.net is telling us is actually completely accurate, but for the results to be useful and to make sense we have to look at them at a semantic level, not a referent level.

The same factor explains why the internet prefers “Adolf Hitler” to “Barack Obama.” Hitler’s name has become engrained in the English language as the canonical example of pure evil, so everybody knows that when you say “Hitler,” you mean Adolf, not his anti-Nazi nephew William Patrick Hitler. So when we’re talking about examples of pure evil, we don’t bother to say his full name. But, as anybody who has had the misfortune of seeing neo-Nazis screeds in YouTube comments can attest, when horrible pseudo-people want to praise the genocidal fascist fuckwad for being a genocidal fascist fuckwad, they do actually use his full name pretty often. So the reason that “Adolf Hitler” is more popular than “Hitler” is just that “people” who like Hitler use his first name more than actual human beings do. You can also get a very important lesson in statistics from this example: “Adolf Hitler” may be mostly positive where it does show up, but it shows up a lot less often than “Hitler”, meaning the Internet’s overall perception of Hitler is the same as the average non-complete monster’s: utter revulsion.

And while “Obama” and “Barack Obama” are both very negative, probably because of memetic pollution by right-wingers who enjoy using Obama’s own name as a snarl word, “Barack” has a stunning 91% popularity, owing almost certainly to the tendency of active Democrats to refer to their president affectionately by his first name, as some of my relatives do.

So while whatdoestheinternetthink.net isn’t that useful for figuring out what the internet thinks (although it’s dead on when it comes to cats and 4chan), it could be very useful to linguists charting the development of the English language, or other languages if it ever bothers to index them.

* Of course, this is complicated by the fact that homophobes and idiot teenagers have since repurposed “gay” as an all-purpose slur.


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