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493 - The United States of Autocomplete

Google any word, and the search engine will suggest a longer phrase, based on the popularity of current searches starting with the same word. 

This so-called autocomplete function (1) is,  like any good advice, in equal parts helpful and annoying. Also, being a clever piece of statistics, it offers a fascinating insight into the mind(s) of the Great Online Public. As this small experiment shows:

In the phrases below, the first two words are mine, the rest are some of the most popular suggestions by autocomplete. 

I want to be a billionaire

I want to die

I have a dream

I have no friends

what is love

can you freeze cheese 

The same principle of random revelation can be applied to geographic terms, which is exactly what this map does. These United States of Autocomplete have been collated simply by typing in the name of each US state, then plotting the autocompleted results on an actual map of the US.

One immediately obvious observation: sports fandom and college life dominate the US of Autocomplete. The blue states, mainly in the South, West and northern Midwest, refer to specific sports (e.g. Alabama football) or specific teams (like the Minnesota Vikings, or Utah Jazz [2]). 

The green states all refer to important educational institutions in each of those states - quite often a State University (as is the case in both Dakotas, Florida, Iowa, Arizona and Pennsylvania). The green states are concentrated in the Southwest, the Mid-Atlantic states and northern Midwest.

Four states, in red, refer to semi-eponymous newspapers. Ironically, one of these newspapers is based on the opposite coast of the state that it autocompletes: the Washington Post's offices are in DC, on the eastern seaboard, nowhere near the state of Washington, in the Pacific Northwest (3).

None of the other states are grouped together by colour, as they present a mixed bag of results. The state of Kentucky is autocompleted to refer to the fast food chain that bears its name, while Maine apparently resonates chiefly as a holiday destination.  Those who feel lucky, play the Illinois Lottery, those who feel rich look for New Hampshire Real Estate, those who feel frisky look for Montana Fishburne (the adult actress, and daughter of Laurence Fishburne).

If you didn't already think that school kids are responsible for most that goes on in the intertubes, then you'll find confirmation of that fact in a few results that are likely subjects for a history paper: the Missouri Compromise, the Louisiana Purchase, the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Oregon Trail.  Nevada Smiths, on the other hand, is a New York City-based sports bar styling itself as "the world's most famous live football venue". More famous, it would seem, than anything else starting with the word 'Nevada'.

North Carolina's autocomplete phrase refers to the state's apparent high density in furniture outlet stores. Showing how time-specific this picture of the United States is, the autocomplete term for California is  'California Prop 19', referring to Proposition 19, a ballot initiative that would have legalized certain aspects of cannabis use in California, had it not been defeated 53% to 46% on November 2nd. 

The Vermont Country Store is an "old-time general store" that is nevertheless also doing brisk business online, apparently.  The two non-contingent states are autocompleted by its airline, and a famous tv series, respectively.

The Autocomplete experiment is addictive (4), and has been repeated for China, the results of which might be a lot less easily recognisable to a western audience. But there are some interesting results. 


Xinjian Goldwind is a science and technology company, and apparently rather sought after. The Tibetan Mastiff, however, is a local breed of dog. There are lots of references to universities named after provinces, and a few even to the provinces themselves (are these more the more boring provinces?) A few culinary references (Sichuan pepper, Hunan chicken) are hardly surprising, although a direct reference to a Virginia restaurant is somewhat unexpected (Fujian Richmond VA menu).

Some provinces reference recent natural disasters (e.g. Shaanxi earthquake, Gansu mudslide), a few list local technological specialisations (Henan Airlines, Zhejiang scooter). Which leaves just a few very intriguing autocompletes. Like the Inner Mongolia UFO (a recent sighting that closed down a local airport), the Hubei Wild Man Research Association (the 'wild man' being the local variant of Bigfoot), Yunnan Baiyao (a Chinese traditional 'superdrug' carried into battle by the Vietcong to stop bleeding), Guangxi clique (a band of warlords in pre-Revolutionary China) and, hilariously Macauly Culkin (the autocomplete suggestion for the former Portuguese territory of Macau).



 Many thanks to all those who sent in the US of Autocomplete map: Kevin Axe, Mike Beidler, Bifyu, Victoria Bitters, Miles Brem, Jared Conrad-Bradshaw, Juan Francisco Lehocky, John O'Brien, and John Thorne. The original context for this map, the data for which was collected on December 3rd between 5.45 and 6.10 pm, is this page on Very Small Array, an excellent infographics website that was the source for an earlier Strange Maps (309). The Chinese map was found here on Shangaiist. It's unclear on which side of the Great Firewall of China its data has been collected.

(1) Not just a Google function, but also of most other search engines, and indeed (down on word-level) of the texting function on most mobile phones, where it is also known as 'predictive texting'.

(2) Before they moved to their present location: New Orleans Jazz.

(3) Other states's autocomplete phrases with origins outside the state itself: Kansas City Chiefs (whose stadium is in Kansas City, Missouri), the Delaware Water Gap (on the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where the Delaware river cuts through the Appalachian mountains), and, arguably, Kentucky Fried Chicken (the Colonel was an Indianan by birth, the first franchised KFC opened in Utah).

(4) Although slightly disappointing for Europe, where the top autocompleted searches all seem to end in 'weather'.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

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The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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//This will actually fire event. Should be called after consent was verifed