Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Intersection of News and Vocabulary

Try this link to a video I found on the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary website. It talks about the leading word searches that were made at Merriam-Webster's site in the week following Michael Jackson's death.  Its fascinating on several levels. First, its mildly interesting as a trivial factoid to anyone who pays attention to popular culture. I guess that's most of us , for better or for worse. Second, it illustrates what kind of insights can be gleaned about what's on the public's mind from examining data from various websites.  Third, of course, is the potential this data mining has to be exploited by third parties.

Now I am not a privacy zealot, but I would not be too quick to criticize those who regard this topic with far greater concern than I do.  Think of what Amazon knows about you based on your book purchases or even just your browsing.  They know, for instance, that I'm interested in money, markets, and politics, especially conservative politics.  They know I fix my own cars (three Haynes Manual purchases in recent months.)  They might guess I'm a gun owner.  They also know I'm frugal.  I buy used books to stretch my book buying dollars.  They probably suspect a lot of other things about me demographically speaking based upon how much I spend, and the number of books I buy compared to other customers. 

Lots of websites collect user information, most of it presumably not individually identifiable.  YouTube knows which videos are the most popular.  With so much political content there now, how might pollsters handicap a political contest like, for instance, today's governors races, if they had access to this information.  And of course, the big daddy of them all is how much the government might know about the population in general, and more concerning, about you in particular, if it had access to this data. (And its my guess they do.)

Try Googling your name, and see what kind of information about you is freely available in the public domain.  For some of you, it will be a lot more than for others.  There's not much about me out there, but it wouldn't take someone long to find out I'm a dentist.  With just a bit more diligence, they'd find out I do crossword puzzles (on-line results for the North American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.)  They'd also know that I'm not nearly as good at it as a lot of my peers.  Then, of course, there's this blog.  As I said, I'm not a privacy zealot.  You don't need to be a detective to find out what's on my mind.  Just ask me.  And even if you don't ask, I'll tell you anyway about 4-5 times every week.  So stop by often for the latest update on what's ramblin' through my mind.