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Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg

The search for love

By Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg
February 14, 2010

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WHEN HARRY met Sally, they spent an entire movie arguing about whether men and women could be friends. Today, they’d probably just fire up a web browser and type their question into the search box. Indeed, search engines aren’t just tools for finding directions, medical advice, or phone numbers. They can be our closest confidantes.

A clue to this new relationship can be found in the way that popular search engines autocomplete queries. Type “who’’ and you see the search “who is my congressman’’ vying with “who is Lady Gaga.’’

For Valentine’s Day, we typed searches into a search engine to see what love birds have on their minds. Then, using software we designed to turn data into an image that tells a story, we created pictures of the results. The diagrams below compare different questions to shed light on age-old dilemmas such as when to propose, to more modern issues like whether to call or text. In these images, the size of the arrows and words reflect how many pages on the Web answer each question.

Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg are research scientists at I.B.M.’s Center for Social Software.

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