When Google Isn’t The Answer

For most people, Google is their home on the internet. While the ubiquitous search engine is indeed powerful, there are other ways to tap into the rich vein of knowledge the internet has to offer. In this article, Steve shares his life-shaping experience with one online community.

For many people these days, Google is the ‘home page’ of the internet—the jump-off point for everything. In many cases, with good reason. I’m a software engineer myself and I’m still astounded week to week at Google’s apparent psychic powers to know what exactly I’m looking for. In truth it’s a two-way relationship. Just as billions of users are ‘training’ Google’s algorithms—constantly fine-tuning its accuracy based on everyone’s clicks and queries—Google is subtly and constantly training me to use it in better ways. My job requires me to use Google all day—finding examples of code, documentation, specific answers to quirky error messages I may receive. Because of this practice and experience, I have come to be pretty good at knowing exactly what terms to punch in to get the results I want.

However, in my job I’m mostly looking for facts. Even if I’m after a relatively complicated solution to some specific software engineering roadblock I’ve run into that day, I’m still presenting a narrow, direct problem to Google. A search engine can easily find me the chemical symbol for gold, a range of online stores where I can buy t-shirts, and neatly present me with a gallery of pictures of Melbourne’s city skyline, but what happens when I want to learn how best to invest my savings, or even achieve happiness in life?

Posing an open-ended question to Google can often do more to cloud an issue than to clarify it. With a simple search one can be confronted with a deluge of information, many from less-than-trustworthy sources out to make a buck or push an agenda. The ‘instant-gratification’ mechanism of search-engine results does little to engage, inspire or encourage when it comes to broader subjects. There must be something else.

Posing an open-ended question to Google can often do more to cloud an issue than to clarify it.

Over the years I’ve come to find that there are other parts of the internet that can help in unravelling the dizzying amount of information online. Sites that I can visit in order to begin making sense of a complex topic that lies beyond simple fact-finding. I’ve also come to find that these unlikely places can often carry a human bonus—trust, community and shared motivation to achieve goals. Maybe more people online would benefit from having a go-to place that helps its users discover and make sense of common interests through the active sharing of ideas. Perhaps we all need a home on the Internet.

Something Awful is an American-based humour web site that began in 1999. Its primary claim to fame is its humorous, often Photoshopped images and satirical articles written in the site’s signature crude or politically incorrect tone. The site had the market cornered on humorous viral Internet ‘memes’ before the idea of a ‘meme’ itself caught on.

Users called themselves ‘goons’. The name comes from an email sent by an irate webmaster to Something Awful’s owner complaining that he had sent his ‘goons’ after him. As is typical of the community culture, the email was posted publicly for ridicule. For a few years from 2005, I was a card-carrying goon. Many of the site’s users and participants were like me—they talked about college, online games and their favourite bands. In some ways it felt like these American college students were my real university peers as we’d discuss all manner of topics that mattered to us. In a way, the Something Awful Forums became my home on the Internet.

These days the viral Internet humour centre of power has moved on to other sites, but to a 20-year-old in 2005, Something Awful was simply where ‘the funny’ was and this kept me hooked.

Beneath Something Awful’s hilariously smart-arsed front page were the discussion forums. This is actually where a lot of the amusing memes would be conjured before they were unleashed onto the wider world. My first memory of a meme was ‘All Your Base Are Belong To Us’, an amusing mis-translation from an old Japanese video game of the early 90s.

This particular phrase found itself stamped onto all kinds of images created by visitors to Something Awful before quickly escaping to the world wide web. I came to appreciate the viral power of memes when it was common for a time to witness online gamers proclaiming ‘All Your Base Are Belong To Us’ as they were about to frag their opponents.

The brilliance of the Something Awful Forums didn’t lie simply in their ability to set the tone for viral internet humour, nor is that what kept me coming back—that particular sub-forum was viewable by the public and perused by casual users wanting to get a cutting edge look at what their friends and family would be emailing around in six months time.

Sheltered away from this—inaccessible from the outside—were the eighteen or so other private sub-forums relating to all manner of topics. Accessing these forums required membership: To have a forums account, one must pay $10 via credit card to Something Awful. This was the brilliant part. Ten dollars is not a huge price to pay, but was, and largely still remains unheard of for a popular Internet discussion forum. It’s this exclusivity that created a very distinct culture under the surface of the comedy site.

The $10-by-credit-card model, or ’10bux’ as it was shouted on the forums, did much to create a friendly and informed atmosphere of discussion and knowledge sharing. In the early-to-mid 2000s, before your mother and boss were social networking on Facebook, much of the internet’s discussion was the domain of the angry 12 to 15 year old. Something Awful was a sanctuary from this—for the most part, the credit card payment excluded anyone under eighteen (one could still give membership to a minor as a gift).

Furthermore, the very fact that one had to be comfortable with paying a one-time fee to access an internet forum filtered out many casual, less enthusiastic users of the Internet. ($10?! omg wtf!? The net is FREE, forums are FREE, I am NOT paying ur outrageous fee!) Even more striking was that users could be banned for violations of a number of listed rules. Some of these rules helped defend the friendly culture—no nonconstructive criticism or name-calling, for example. Some were frivolous and silly (there was a special ‘BAN ME’ icon one could attach to a new forum thread post that resulted in an immediate ‘auto-ban’). This was in keeping with the community’s appealing tough-love style of self governance. All bannable rule violations subsequently led to the requirement of another ‘10bux’ to reactivate the account. This was absolutely preposterous to many, but still left a paid membership base in 2005 of over 70,000 users.

The Something Awful Forums presented me with a tool of great potential—a source I trusted, geared towards people like me.

The private sub-forums used by these members spanned topics far wider than the generation of irreverent humour. I spent hours engaging in discussions on a range of topics. Recommendations from members helped me discover the music, television and computer games I love. (The forums were also a very popular place to trade the music, tv and computer games I love. This area however was shut down around the time I joined in 2005 as it was attracting those who only wanted to illegally share and not participate in friendly discussion).

I should also acknowledge that it was to Something Awful that I owe much of my career as a software engineer. The technology sub-forum’s endorsement of the Python language and Django web-framework has shaped my career in astounding ways that are in full force even today.

The Something Awful Forums presented me with a tool of great potential—a source I trusted, geared towards people like me. It’s a truism that there’s never been more information available any time, anywhere, than right now on the Internet. But it occurred to me around this time that perhaps our habit of reflexively reaching for Google and wading through the subsequent tangle of results is a factor keeping us from effectively getting the really valuable information we seek. If so, maybe we mightn’t all be doomed to use the Internet to find out the capital of Portugal, ogle some breasts and then call people Hitler. Perhaps I could use the Something Awful Forums, as my trusted home on the Internet, to find a clear source of information on a complex issue plaguing the lives of many, including myself—getting healthy.

I looked in the mirror one day and realised that I was getting fatter. I was turning from someone who was often ‘a little overweight’ to something else and much like the US budget deficit I was genuinely clueless at how to stop my steady expansion. I had started a new, casual job in IT at this time while at university and seeing many out of shape co-workers 5 and 10 years older than myself gave me a window into what my future would likely be. Suddenly I had some motivation to try and prevent that from happening.

Having made myself at home on Something Awful, I entered its health and fashion forum ‘Watch and Weight’ for the first time. At the top of the page were a few introductory ‘FAQ’ posts written by forum members that were known to be knowledgeable and helpful. I was impressed to see that one of these people trained professional athletes in America. Most of the people however were nerds like me—beanpoles or fatties who had decided to make an effort to better themselves, fighting complacency and the trajectory they appeared doomed to be on.

“Twenty-two, male, engineering student looking to get fit”.

“20 year old nerd who has dropped 20 pounds so far!”.

If these people were looking for answers and posting here, then so could I.

The FAQs on eating and exercising were lengthy for a forum post but could easily be read in one sitting. The tone of the articles was classic Something Awful—crude, profane and pulling no punches. Advice in the key of “listen you fat and/or weak bastard, here’s what is important right now and here’s how you get going”— it was music to my ears. These were people like me giving advice for people like me. People who were aware that I was overwhelmed by the amount of (mis)information out there. Who would get hung, drawn and quartered (well, banned and information removed) if members so much smelled a paid endorsement or vested interest. The ability to easily ask questions and share progress with other people proved useful and fun. People weighed in, asking for clarifications and providing their own opinions that were then discussed further. Compared to a guide book, this was much more interactive and engaging.

I spent two months lurking the “Watch and Weight” forum almost every day. Seeing photos of physical transformations by people my age and body type. It genuinely felt like we were all in this together, something I couldn’t find by spending an hour sifting through Google search results. By keeping up with discussions, I had important points drilled into my head and found myself becoming aware of some of the more complex and finer points of health. I began to feel wiser.

Eventually I bit the bullet and signed up at a gym for a year. To those close to me it seemed like a crazy whim. I started learning and even memorising the number of calories in my favourite foods and their rough composition of fat/protein/carbohydrates, staying within certain self-imposed limits every day. This was my new regime, and I had faith that this new life-experiment would succeed.

I posted some information and pictures of my transformation as the months passed. Encouraging words from people I’d never met on the other side of the world kept me focused. I soon became ‘healthy’ looking, then ‘fit’. People in my life remarked upon this and asked how I did it—I told them I ate less and moved more. Fundamentally this is all you need to believe in, but in reality, as most adults in Western society know, being healthy is a constant battle of will. Of course, I knew of this simple rule long before I moved my mouse pointer in the direction of a health advice forum. But by now I had felt it too. Education and positive reinforcement via a trusted source was the difference between parroting a phrase and actually feeling wise enough to live it.

I was able to draw on my ‘home’ to find all the information I needed on getting healthy. Even better, I was able to find motivation from other users and the constant back-and-forth of questions, clarifications and reports of progress. I wondered how this may stack up against using a search engine as the jump-off point for getting healthy. In these heady online days of shady Nigerian Princes and magic remedies, how might someone less internet-savvy seek an answer to the same question I had? To explore this, I invented Jim.

My imaginary friend Jim gets up in the morning and catches himself in the mirror. Perhaps he’s a bit overweight and it only appears to be getting worse. Or maybe he’s a skinny beanpole and no matter what Jim seems to eat, he’s still Flat Stanley. Either way, Jim suspects he hasn’t been ‘living healthily’. Perhaps he should eat better, move a bit more, maybe lift a heavy thing or two. Seems like a straightforward suggestion. “Eat less, move more.”

Jim wants information, so Google seems like a great start. (Any other search engine, such as Microsoft’s Bing would technically work here too but Jim is a real imaginary person, remember, so he uses Google.)
Search engines, Jim knows, are powered by keywords. Jim (who is Australian like myself and thus automatically gets redirected to enters ‘Getting Healthy’ into Google and peruses the first set of results.

The top Google search results for ‘getting healthy’

Good! The first result’s title is ‘Get Healthy’. And it’s an Australian site too! This seems perfect. Jim clicks the page. Picture of vegetables. Picture of a glass of water. Guaranteed healthy things. Picture of someone walking a dog. Excellent.

Jim glances up at the header. ‘Information and Coaching Service’ and a phone number. Oh dear. This looks like something you have to pay for. ‘A NSW Health Initiative’. Okay that’s odd. So maybe it’s not an expensive coaching service, but a New South Wales government initiative. But Jim doesn’t live in the state of New South Wales. Is this even available to him then? Furthermore, at this stage he’s just dipping his toe in. He wants to find out what ‘getting healthy’ entails. Calling a phone number and possibly being accosted into signing up for some service to help with this seems like a heavy-handed way to start. Shaking his head a little, Jim reaches for the ‘back’ button.

The second result looks to be the exact same site as the first result, so that’s no help.

A skim down the top results reveals a rather nice-looking page by the American Heart Association. Smiling people and many links to all kinds of aspects of health including eating right, exercise, determining if you’re a decent weight and the health factors that result from being overweight and obese. All the information is expressed in pounds, feet, inches, calories. Oh yeah, America didn’t get the memo on the metric system. This makes life annoying. Next.

‘Good Housekeeping: 100 ways to get healthy’. American, so in pounds again. Spews forth chunks of information into your face. 100 ways to get healthy? That sounds like an overwhelming amount. A quick browse reveals tips such as cooking pasta al dente, doing exercises that target your “deep transverse ab muscles”, drinking ginger tea and “speaking your true feelings”. How on earth does Jim separate the crucial tips from the trivial? Next.

A site run by a doctor in alternative medicine. He’s spruiking a set of essential oils that ‘reverse the aging process… no really!’. He raises an interesting question. Jim wonders if he can really be healthy without ingesting oils he’s heard of that have certain omegas (like fish oil). Either way, this site seems less like a ticket to Haven of Health and more of one to Fraud Fjord.

The next result looks like some kind of error page. ‘Proxy Error’.

Excluding duplicates, Jim has now perused the top five results for a google search on ‘getting healthy’.

Perhaps pizza looks like a better option after all. Jim orders pizza and is slightly more disheartened in the supposed power of the Internet. He also dies of heart failure at 62. No, not really.

But Jim’s Google search (and mine in real-life) raises an interesting question—how is it that a seemingly simple query can set loose a swarm of bewildering questions and confusing ‘facts’? Disheartening.

Eat better? Does that mean adding a banana or two to Jim’s daily regimen? Cutting out all carbs from his diet? Adding more carbs perhaps? Finding foods with antioxidants in them and binging on them for a couple of months to see what happens?

How about exercising a bit? Should Jim start running in the park until he finds himself puffed? Perhaps that takes 2 minutes at first—does that mean he should stop, go home and try again the next day? Isn’t he wrecking his joints by running outdoors? Does he need to do some push-ups on the floor of his home to ‘get strong’ or perhaps lift those dangerous-looking weights like Arnold did? But how many times a day? How many days a week? How heavy? And when can Jim expect to see results? Can he really lose fat off his gut and gain it on his pecs at the same time like the advertisements say?

How is anyone supposed to know what’s important and fundamental to the question (for instance, calorie counting, cardio a few times a week) and what’s arguably in the ‘intermediate’ or ‘advanced’ category (eg. 4-day weight lifting split workouts aimed at maximum hypertrophy, or getting an appropriate amount of anti-oxidants every day). Is the flashy-looking site with the smiling healthy people on it trying to sell you special powershakes, a subscription to a diet program, a set of videos or a set of pills that turn you into Christian Bale or Megan Gale overnight?

There just seems to be too much involved in ‘being healthy’. How can people possibly incorporate all of these aspects into a life-changing total plan that is remotely achievable? Maybe Jim should just stop thinking about it and reach for the ice cream.

Conversely, my own experience with the Something Awful Forums was much more rewarding. Perusing an online forum is in no way the single path to success, but it has worked very effectively for me in the past and continues to prove itself invaluable to this day. A humour site may seem like an unlikely place to discover valuable life information, but that may be the most compelling part about my experience. Using a community I trusted helped me build up valuable knowledge in a way that a neutral source such as a search engine wasn’t able to. I found that a home on the internet can provide a comfortable starting point in the pursuit of wisdom and even become a powerful motivator over time.

These days I don’t tend to visit the Something Awful Forums. As the Internet is constantly changing, so too are the popularity and nature of its communities. I’ve since moved home to newer, greater, greener pastures along with many other Something Awful goons but the premise is the same. If I want to find out what year Helsinki hosted the Olympics, or the way to resolve ‘Fatal Error Message #56’ in my job then Google surely holds my answer. But for information on vast, rich topics such as physical health, there’s no place like ‘home’. ◾

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