Depending on the situation and circumstances, I can be for or against convenience. As an example, I buy nearly all of my bread from the supermarket, but when I decide to make homemade bread you’ll never find me anywhere near a bread machine, or even an electric mixer for that matter. I do all of my mixing and stuff by hand, and the dough doesn’t even come close to seeing electricity until I finally place it in the oven to bake. When it comes to computers, I may build my own computers instead of buying them off the shelves, but once I have them powered up, I want them to perform their tasks as quickly as possible, and 99% of the time I’ll go for something that helps me save time when I’m on here. When Microsoft introduced its Autocomplete feature to Internet Explorer — the thing that remembers what you typed in text boxes before, and pops it up below the text box after you type the first couple of letters — I was in nerdvana. Not only does this feature save me time, but it also keeps important search strings in mind when I’m on Google, so I don’t have to spend time remembering what combination of keywords got me good information on something I’m researching for a story, or an opinion Website that speaks to my political convictions, or details on any of the thirty-seven people I’m currently cyberstalking.
Lately, though, sometimes I have found this Autocomplete feature disabled by a new technology built into some Websites, a feature that compares what you’re typing to the Website’s own repository of search strings instead of strings you’ve used previously. I first noticed this technology in use at Wikipedia — for some reason only on the sidebars of entry pages and not the homepage — and the biggest Website I know of that uses it right now is YouTube. Strangely, though, this is not my first run-in with this kind of technology; the first time I can remember seeing this in use was in the Sega CD adaptation of Jeopardy! In previous games based off of Jeopardy!, your answers, er, questions had to be entered either by multiple choice, or you had to get the spelling exactly right in order for the computer to recognize your question as correct. That’s probably the biggest advantage of this technology: it stops misspellings before they start. After all, it’s not like there’s a Website out there devoted to YouTube misspellings … oh yeah, right.
Anyway, while I appreciate that value of this new autofill system, I strongly dislike that it removes my ability to recall previously-used search strings. Although my student days may be over (for now), I still conduct a lot of research online. The end results of these research runs may not be tidy twenty-page MLA-formatted papers, but I try to learn as much as I can about everything that crosses my path, and rare is the time when a simple one- or two-word Google search will give me the information I need. Next month will mark fourteen years since I first got real Internet access when I started going to Antioch, and a good part of those fourteen years has been spent developing trial-and-error algorithms to use with search engines to help me find the information I need in the shortest amount of time. Autocomplete lets me keep that search string ready to return to at a moment’s notice if I decide more searching needs to be done at a later date; now, with this new site-based autofill, Internet Explorer’s native Autocomple gets wiped out.
In and of itself, this is a minor inconvenience. What particularly bothers me, especially about YouTube’s autofill, is that the autofill can be used as a kind of front-end passive-aggressive censor. For example, type "sex " into YouTube (with the extra space), and the autofill goes bye-bye. Oh, there are still lots of videos on YouTube having to do with sex, from religious denunciations of our sex-filled culture to instructional and informative videos on safe sex practices to, well, sex, but the YouTube autofill isn’t going to help you narrow down your sex search any. Worse yet, these word filters are used indiscriminately; try doing a search on YouTube for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ seminal album Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and autofill disappears once it gets to sex. Ironically enough, "blood sugar sec magic" shows up in autofill, indicating that Internet end-users have once again returned to the same silly deliberate misspellings of words it used to get around this stuff, started back when Metallica got Napster to pull its tracks off of the music-sharing service. In fact, I’m listening to an MP3 of "Enter Snadman" as I’m typing this right now. No, not really.
I know that what Google is doing with YouTube’s autofill doesn’t count as censorship since the autofill doesn’t actually remove content, but it’s still silly, annoying, and altogether capricious. For example, you know how last week, after Barack Obama gave that speech to 200,000 people in Germany, everyone joked about a charismatic leader riling Germans up with a speech? Well, you would think that YouTube would be a good place to go to find actual videos of Adolf Hitler’s old speeches to compare to Obama’s, since I assume they must all be in the public domain by now. Funny thing, though. If you type "hitler" into YouTube, the autofill once again gives you the silent treatment and disappears before it can help you narrow down your search. Now, I hate neo-Nazis and racists as much as the next sane person, but trying to put even the slightest veil up to prevent people from accessing the words and thoughts of Hitler strikes me as being only a few degrees separated from outright Holocaust denial. The idea behind freedom of speech is that you allow free access to the dumbest and most insane ideas out there, for the implicit purpose of allowing people to see how stupid the people who hold those ideas are.
It’s even more galling that this would happen on YouTube, a Google Website. Never mind the inconsistency of Google not using this same technology to block search results from Google.com; Google is supposed to be the shining beacon of the Internet megasites, the company that has kept the great evil Microsoft as a perennial second banana, the corporation with the short, easy-to-understand philosophy: Don’t be evil. Then again, this is the same company that already agreed to content restrictions on its Chinese Website in order to placate the Chinese government, so maybe this is to be expected. Google is, after all, out to make money, and maybe they stand to make more money by using this word filter in their autofill than by not censoring the autofill and, perhaps, getting accused of abetting searches for hate, violence, and porn. Well, they’d probably only get in trouble for the porn stuff, but that’s America for you.
Sometimes the words that get blocked out by the autofill don’t make any sense at all. For example, one of the people I subscribe to on YouTube is Mark Crilley, who has produced a number of incredible manga-drawing tutorials, demonstrating illustration concepts and techniques in a way that I understand better than anyone has ever explained them to me before. Keep in mind, my Dad did illustration for a living, so he tried to teach me a lot throughout the years. However, type "manga" into YouTube, and the autofill’s word filter shuts you out. What exactly about manga is so bad that Google feels a need to filter it out? Anime works, so why not manga? Does someone at YouTube think "manga" is some of bizarre sex act involving a multi-tentacled monster or something? Well, maybe not, because "tentacle" gets through the autofill filter okay. I’m getting a headache trying to figure all this out, and I just wish I could turn YouTube’s autofill feature off so I could get back to my old search strings. I’d tell YouT
ube what it could do with its autofill, but once you type "stick it up your" in its search box, for some reason the autofill won’t help you narrow it down any further. Go figure.