June 28, 2008

The Most Obscene Town In America?

I meant to mention this earlier but forgot until I saw this great post at SAI.  If you haven't seen it, this story in the NYT about an ongoing obscenity trial in Pensacola, FL provides the backdrop:
Judges and jurors who must decide whether sexually explicit material is obscene are asked to use a local yardstick: does the material violate community standards?

That is often a tricky question because there is no simple, concrete way to gauge a community’s tastes and values.

The Internet may be changing that. In a novel approach, the defense in an obscenity trial in Florida plans to use publicly accessible Google search data to try to persuade jurors that their neighbors have broader interests than they might have thought.

In the trial of a pornographic Web site operator, the defense plans to show that residents of Pensacola are more likely to use Google to search for terms like “orgy” than for “apple pie” or “watermelon.” The publicly accessible data is vague in that it does not specify how many people are searching for the terms, just their relative popularity over time. But the defense lawyer, Lawrence Walters, is arguing that the evidence is sufficient to demonstrate that interest in the sexual subjects exceeds that of more mainstream topics — and that by extension, the sexual material distributed by his client is not outside the norm.
SAI decided to go one step further and try to find where a defendant would have the best chance of being acquitted - i.e., which city is the most obscene.  Here's the rubric they came up with:
We used George Carlin's (R.I.P.) "Seven Dirty Words" as obscenity proxies, and looked up each of them on Google Trends. We restricted the results to the United States, and noted the top 10 cities querying each of the seven words. Top scores went to cities that showed up on multiple lists; to break ties, we assigned weight values depending on a city's rank on individual lists. Note that Google weights its own results to account for population: The cities listed above showed the greatest percentage of searchers looking for dirty words, not the greatest number of people.
I'm sure there are all kinds of problems in that logic but still pretty clever.  Here is their top ten:
The 10 American Cities Most Likely To Search For Obscene Material

1.  Louisville, KY
2.  Rochester, NY
3.  Philadelphia, PA
4.  Newark, NJ
5.  Los Angeles, CA
6.  Irvine, CA
7.  Pittsburgh, PA
8.  Las Vegas, NV
9.  Albany, NY
10.  Orlando, FL
Louisville?  Who knew.  Must be all those seminarians.

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