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We Are What We Google: How Search Terms Reflect Our Wealth


From the New York Times comes word of yet another dimension to the inequality of wealth. We are what we Google. Columnist David Leonhardt reports on a comparison between what terms people search for in counties where The Times figures life is easiest and in the counties where it's hardest. And he joins us right here in the main streets of downtown Washington D.C. Hi.

DAVID LEONHARDT: Hi. Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Actually, I assume Washington and the area around it would qualify as a relatively easy place to live.

LEONHARDT: They would. It's County-based analysis and it would qualify as relatively un-mean - place where life was pretty good.

SIEGEL: Places, other parts of the country that are easy?

LEONHARDT: I would say there are maybe two broad areas. One, the Western-Midwest - Iowa, the Dakotas, even into Wyoming. And then the big metropolitan areas of the Northeast and California and the Pacific North-West. Life tends to be hardest in the South-East - in Louisiana, in Arkansas, in Kentucky. And we did these definitions based on six things - income, education, health. What you might expect.

SIEGEL: So before we get to the differences in what people are searching for, what are some things that people search for all over the United States regardless of whether they're in the easy places or the hard places?

LEONHARDT: Well, that's an important distinction. What we're looking for here are differences. So people all over the country search for the Super Bowl. They search for Oprah Winfrey. They search for celebrities - whether it's the Kardashian's or Justin Bieber. What this is picking up are the things that people tend to search for in one place and not in the other kind of places.

SIEGEL: OK. First where life is easiest. What are people searching for that people in the hard places aren't searching for?

LEONHARDT: The thing that really stands out - and this surprised us - were cameras. People spend a lot of time searching for digital cameras in places where life is easy. Now some of that, points out Hal Varian who's the chief economist at Google who helped us with this, is that digital cameras are a piece of technology that had been popular for the entire last decade - which is the span of this study. But people really like their digital cameras. So we hypothesized part of that is they like their life, they like recording their life.

SIEGEL: Want to get a picture of it.

LEONHARDT: Yeah. There are also all kinds of products involved with keeping themselves and their kids healthy - BabyBjorns, baby joggers, baby massage. I didn't confess to know what a foam roller was until I did this exercise. And I Googled it and it turns out it's a piece of exercise equipment that you roll over to stay in good shape.

SIEGEL: So these are the Google search markers for those who are living the life. People where life is hardest in the U.S., what are they searching for?

LEONHARDT: That's more depressing, to be honest about it. You see a lot of stuff about health problems. You see a lot of searches on blood sugar, on diabetics. You see a lot of searches about what might be called the dark side of religion. In the top 10 were anti-christ, the rapture and hell. You see a lot of searches about trying to make money - things about selling Avon, things about getting Social Security checks. And you see a lot of searches about guns - specific kinds of guns. The same way you see specific kinds of exercise equipment in the good place, you see specific kinds of guns in places where life is hard.

SIEGEL: What's implicit here is that where ever you are people are searching. People are Googling all over the place.

LEONHARDT: That's right. And I think this is the kind of analysis that wouldn't have been possible even a decade ago. Because a decade ago in the places where life was harder you wouldn't have had the kind of internet penetration. But now we're up toward 90 percent internet penetration. It really is becoming universal. And so it really is a window into what people are thinking.

SIEGEL: These distinctions are very interesting. Do they contribute to the store of knowledge about American society much, do you think?

LEONHARDT: I think they do in that as you note, some of them are amusing, some are entertaining, some are just about cultural preferences that are fun to look at. But I think the underlying message is important and I think it's sobering - we live in a society where inequality has increased dramatically over the last 40 years. And one of the things you can really tell from this is that life really is a lot harder in some parts of America than another. A lot harder - people are much more likely suffer health problems, they're much more likely to worry about money. And I think what you can see in this is a manifestation of these economic trends in people's everyday lives -how the economic trends of the last 40 years, how the rising inequality - are affecting people's day-to-day thoughts and day-to-day lives.

SIEGEL: David Leonhardt, thanks for talking with us.

LEONHARDT: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: David Leonhard is a New York Times columnist. He writes for the data-driven feature of The Times called The Upshot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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