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Calling Bull on "Teenagers Don't Know Who Osama Bin Laden Is" Search Stories

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, May 4 2011

Yahoo's Search folks are pushing out a story under the banner of "Teens Don’t Know Who Osama Bin Laden Is," and it's getting picked up widely, a confirmation of the assumption that American kids these days are dummies when it comes to the wider world.

Maybe they are. But that's not a story being told by this search data. To start, Yahoo isn't reporting how many total searches for "Who is Osama Bin Laden?" they're seeing on the backend. Have there been 6,000 such searches? Six million? Sixty million? No matter the aggregate, the fact that 2/3rds of total searches for "Who is Osama Bin Laden" are coming from people between the ages of 13 and 17 means seems entirely logical, given that they were younger than the rest of the population when the 2001 attacks occured. It also suggests that an equally valid way of spinning the data is "Terrifying Number of Adults Don't Know Who Osama Bin Laden Is!" (Here's the Yahoo data that is forming the basis for these stories.)

And for another thing, reading the data so literally misunderstands how people use search. "Who is Osama Bin Laden?" isn't necessarily an admission that you don't have the foggiest clue who the guy is. It's just one of the ways that people have learned to interact with the search box -- typing in a generalized question that the know will lead to a corpus of digital information they're really interested in. We could just as easily reading the data as "Teenagers Eagerly Search Out Information on Current World Events, and Good for Them."

On the bright side, those curious teens will likely find their way to a detailed and amply footnoted Wikipedia entry on the Al Qaeda leader, including a lengthy sub-entry called "The Death of Osama bin Laden" that is keeping track of the revisions to the story of his killing.

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