Yesterday Yahoo put up a post on its search blog titled “Teens Don’t Know Who Osama Bin Laden Is, According to Yahoo! Search Trends.”
The story has been picked up by a long list of other outlets — PC Magazine and Gawker both claimed that “many” teens don’t know who Bin Laden was, while one site went so far as to claim that a “majority” are unaware. BoingBoing hedged its bets, claiming that “a non-insignificant number of teenagers in America do not know who Osama bin Laden is.”
But what did Yahoo’s published data actually show?
Not much, it turns out. According to the blogpost, “who is osama bin laden” was the fifth-most searched question relating to Bin Laden on Sunday, which made it more popular than questions about his height, but more popular than questions about his age. How many people searched that question? Yahoo doesn’t say. Could have been millions, could have been a handful. What it does say is that two thirds of those searching were between the ages of 13 and 17.
As for what this factoid means, I have a few thoughts. First of all, as I’ve suggested above, it doesn’t mean that large numbers of teens were asking this question. Again, we just don’t have any data on that. Also, even the fact that a high proportion of askers were young teens is ambiguous — I’d be inclined to guess that young people are more likely than older people to phrase search queries as questions. If that’s true, then the stat makes teens look comparatively less informed, because it excludes all the fortysomethings who didn’t recognize the name and just searched “osama bin laden” to find out.
I’d also question the assumption that anyone searching on “who is osama bin laden” has no idea who Bin Laden was. A Google search on the question shows that at various times in the last ten years it’s been asked by, among others, BBC News, the PBS Frontline documentary series, and the Canadian Broadcasting Commission.
“Who is Osama Bin Laden,” in other words, can be, and often is, used as a synonym for “Tell me some stuff about Osama Bin Laden.” And “tell me some stuff about Osama Bin Laden” is a perfectly reasonable request for a thirteen-year-old to have made last Sunday night.
Over at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum has pointed out that September 11, 2001 was almost ten years ago, and that for many of the folks in the 13-to-17 age bracket, it’s been a really long time since he was in the news. That’s a good point, and it would be worth pointing out if it had been demonstrated, as Drum suggests, that “a goodly number of teenagers don’t know who Osama bin Laden is.”
That’s the thing, though. It hasn’t.
Update | TechPresident covers much the same ground, with this lovely zinger: “We could just as easily reading the data as ‘Teenagers Eagerly Search Out Information on Current World Events, and Good for Them.’
Second Update | Inspired by Judith Butlertron’s suggestion, I just did Google searches on “who is barack obama” and “barack obama.” Turns out that adding the “who is” skews the results toward third-party, informational sources, and away from DNC/White House promotional materials. So the joke is on Yahoo, and everyone who promoted this meme — if you want to learn more about someone, starting your search with “who is…” appears to be the internet-savvy way to go about it.
Third Update | The ignorance being expressed in these snark stories really is astounding. Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper says, on no evidence at all, that teens “flooded … the internet” with “who is osama bin laden” queries, while Good magazine claims “thousands” asked the question. Good also claims that it’s “the fifth most popular Osama search,” rather than the fifth most popular Osama question, which is a very different thing. Glenn Beck has gotten into the act too, claiming — falsely — that the query “was one of the most popular tweets and searches over the past few days.”
Fourth Update | Oof. Megan McArdle of the Atlantic, the intrepid journalist who uncovered the fake MLK/OBL quote earlier this week, has fallen for the Yahoo crap. Worse yet, she’s titled her blogpost on the story “Youth Culture.”