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Explaining the Google Second Brain Phenomenon

Date/Time Permalink: 08/09/07 08:44:36 am
Category: General

TechDirt recently posted a use-study of search engines - revealing that many users repeat the same search to navigate their way to a page they've seen before, in lieu of bookmarks. One of the commenters to this story asks, "How could using a search be easier than bookmarking?"

Well... see... I do this. A lot. See, I have upwards of 200 900 (?) bookmarks, all organized and sorted into folders. And what is the result? I can't find a damn thing. For instance, recently I snarfed a bunch of free TrueType fonts from online and went to install them, but forgot the magic spell. I must have at least three sites bookmarked that mention this somewhere, not to mention man pages and HOWTOs, but all that I remember is that it was a simple 3-to-4-step process.

I found it here, by a Google search of something like "Linux install TTF fonts". I already have all the other steps on this page taken care of; I install fonts where the system (xorg.conf) wants them. So steps #13 through #16 on that page are enough for me to get programs like Gimp, Inkscape, and POVray to find them, which is all I care about when it comes to TrueType fonts.

Now, would I bookmark this under "Linux, help", "resources, fonts", "system, admin"? I probably have it in several places, but I never remember where to look. How about I just blog it this time: (Be su, mv TTF fonts to /usr/X11R6/lib/X11/fonts/TTF/, cd there, rm ./fonts.*, run /usr/bin/X11/mkfontscale, /usr/bin/X11/mkfontdir, run fc-cache -fv. Done.) Now, will I remember that I blogged it? I only use this information about as often as I install a new system, which is only on an average of once every 18 months (three/ four computers in the house). I probably have a notepad with this recipe scribbled on it somewhere, too, but what luck do I have finding that?

Come to that, I also have Firefox's bookmark manager, where I can type in keywords and have it find links in my bookmark folder for me. I use that sometimes, too. But that depends on the keywords being in the URL or the page title - I sometimes edit bookmark properties to describe why I saved the particular link. And, finally, I could also write a script, but this is the classic "spend 30 minutes writing a script to solve a 5-minute problem that I only encounter once in a blue moon" scenario. Seriously, using Google to find any of the dozens of sites that will answer my question in one minute is really the fastest, most efficient solution.

I've been doing this for a decade; even back before Linux and Google, I was asking a question when I knew I'd found the answer that way but forgot what it was. The Internet is truly a second brain to many of us. Another scenario is using Wikipedia's search to quickly find some dumb fact which I know that I "know", but can't remember off the top at the moment. As a working writer, I'd be lost without a web browser to pull up all that junk trivia which I then don't need to commit to memory.

Many of us do this all the time, but it might be some time before we've named and cataloged the phenomena. It's a case of "extended knowledge management", aka the "I've written that down somewhere, but don't remember where." factor.

Remember the scene from Pulp Fiction where Lance is tearing through his closet looking for his Little Black Medical Book? If Lance worked in the E.R., he'd have the procedure for delivering a shot of adrenalin to the heart memorized and wouldn't need it. But it's that information that we only use once in a while that frustrates us - we know it's here somewhere, but in the Information Age we're such packrats of facts that we tend to lose the individual item in that big heap. Lance, living in a movie filmed at a time (1994) before Google (1998) or even AskJeeves (1996... thank you, Wikipedia!) would identify.

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∑: Thanks to commenter Anders Hällzon, who gave me the idea to count my bookmarks. A "grep -c http bookmarks.html" returns 944. I stand corrected.

UPDATE 2011 three years later, the theory is now called "the Google Effect" and is identified as a subset of "transactive memory". See, I knew I was on to something...

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