Why is Utah so weird?


I’m no neurologist, but I know that something suspicious happens to my brain late at night or around 3 p.m. at the office. Productivity plummets and I know I need to get away from the computer, but I can’t seem to turn it off. All I can do is wander further down the Intertube wormhole, clicking link after link.

During one recent such session, I came across a blog about the kinds of things other people ask Google when they, too, are experiencing a brain meltdown.

Why is California so big?

Why is Wyoming so windy?

Why is Oregon so weird?

Asking Google to explain sweeping generalizations is, apparently, a popular pastime of Internet users across America -- and an insight into the stereotypes we have about other states.

Blogger Renee DiResta recently did an experiment of a sort on this phenomenon, which yielded some interesting results. She typed “Why is [State] so” into Google and let the algorithm autocomplete.

The New York resident had just moved to San Francisco and was experiencing some culture shock, “which mostly took the form of me wondering, ‘Why is San Francisco so X?’” she wrote in an email. After getting a few funny results from those searches, she expanded her scope to California and then the entire country. Asking Google, DiResta wrote in her blog, “seemed like an ideal (way) to get at popular assumptions,” she wrote, “since “Why is [State] so X?” presupposes that X is true.”

DiResta then created a cool map where, by hovering your cursor over each state, you can see Google’s best guess for how you might complete the question. The responses vary depending on the most often-searched terms, and could be different for each user.

A sample screenshot from DiResta's interactive map


I conducted my own search and made a bubble chart with Google’s autocompleted answers to better illustrate which terms overlap from state to state. The terms Google pulled up for me were similar to DiResta’s, but not identical.

Some observations: people really want to know about weather. Wind, specifically. Also, Google suggested more autocompleted responses for California than any other state, suggesting the Golden State’s image is more nuanced in the mind of Google users than other Western states. California is also thought of in a more positive light than other states, generating search terms like great and popular.

Contrast that to Arizona, which, with hot, racist, cheap (and crazy, on DiResta’s search) was by far the state with the most negative Google stereotype.

The interesting thing to me about these Google searches is trying to put myself in the headspace of the people asking the questions. What kind of answer might one expect from a question like “Why is Oregon so weird” or “Why is Idaho so conservative?”

 And doesn't everyone already know the answer to “Why is Utah so salty?”

Emily Guerin is an intern at High Country News.

Screenshot courtesy Renee DiResta's blog, No Upside

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