Monday, September 17, 2012

The Bacon Number Search

Every now and then, you have to tackle something, not because you're very interested in it, but because it's popular. And so we come to Google's "bacon number" search.

Last Thursday, the website of a certain Washington newspaper was at the front of a minor flood of articles and public attention to some tech/cinema news.  Some google devs added a new shortcut to Google's search function: just type the words "bacon number" and the name of a celebrity, and you'll basically get the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon answer for that celebrity.

Do you not know what Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon is? Wow, unless you're foreign, I'm shocked. Well, let's do this quickly: this starts almost 20 years ago (no joke), when K-Bake did an interview. In it, he said that he'd either (a) worked with everyone in Hollywood or (b) worked with so many people, that he had worked with everyone in Hollywood by proxy. Mr. Bacon was proven right.

Within months, an online newsthread debuted a game inspired by the comment. When played by two people: I name an actor, and then you tell me which actors and movies connect Bacon to the actor I named. So, an answer sounds like, "Alan Arkin starred with X in Y, who starred with Z in A, who starred with Kevin Bacon in B."

Easy-peasy. Even in the 90's, you'd seldom need 5 actors to connect any actor with Mr. Bacon; I kid you not, he's that prolific. And honestly, he's a fine actor - I've never had reason to be disappointed that he was starring in a film.

This was, of course, the 5th name I tried.

And guess what? This silly little challenge of movie knowledge became widely-known by (I'm guessing) at least 1997. I'm amazed that something so popular was created this way. It's a timeless tribute to the power of nerds; this story is almost an urban legend.

Of course, nothing's perfect. In this case, Google uses its own system to determine how close Kevin Bacon is to any one person - if that info isn't in Google's system, then you don't get a good result. Google doesn't use the same data pool as IMDb. IMDb has a pretty complete CV for every movie and every actor; Google's system is more about tracking what celebrities have done, in the news and such (creepy, right?).

And, also of course, it's that Washington Post article that found flaws in Google's database. Specifically, folks like Hillary Clinton and Obama are included, but Senator Patrick Leahy isn't - though he was featured for about a full minute of The Dark Knight, when Joker drops Rachel off a building. He's "the old guy who stands up/talks back to Heath Ledger." No offense intended, you'll recognize him more quickly that way...

That same Senator also appeared in The Dark Knight Rises, as a board member of Wayne Enterprises, so it's impossible to write off his absence. Again, the flaws lie in Google's use of its own system - it's not that such deep, philosophical questions can't be answered. & I'm proud that IMDb's still the only way to fly.

A co-worker told me about the bacon number search first (thanks, Nater!). He was persistent, and when I caved, I was surprised: turns out Kevin and Obama have been in the same film! But when I first heard the news, I laughed: Google paid tribute to something while basically spoiling it; that's what instant answers do to this game. At the same time, I was also aware that Google had just made a 90's fad popular again.

How many folks out there can just will something back to life?

At first, I was skeptical about this news, too - but I soon realized that everything's a big deal if it's done by the reigning king of internet searches. There's something that's even funnier about this all: there are already sites that do what Google does now. Yes, that's right, the top site in the field is called the Oracle of Bacon, which shows that some people are geniuses at naming things.

There's also Find the Bacon, Six Degrees of Lois Weinberg, and others. A lot of these have been around for a while. If you want to play the game, you don't need Google's search engine - but it's interesting to look at the results of searches for people like Minka Kelly, Tricia Helfer, Paul Newman, and Johnny Depp. It's just disappointing that the answer is so often "2."

It's... interesting that Google should spend a little time to develop something that's a complete throwback to the mid/late-90's. It's a cute form of self-promotion. On second thought, it's also in line with the company's general strategy: free stuff that people find handy gets them to use your service, while you earn data and traffic. This time out, it's a move that positions them to creep onto IMDb's turf...

Interesting enough for me to have to write about it, yes, but I doubt that I'll be thinking about the bacon # search in the weeks (or years) to come. Those kinds of games are fun to play with your friends, not by yourself. And I've got lots of work to do, and many more interesting things to show and tell you. I'll see you all in class tomorrow, with a brand new Question post.

Half a Film Student


  1. I spent an hour doing this the other day. I don't think I got past 3. I even did it with Bollywood actors :O

    1. Oh bless you, you smart woman, I wanted to try foreign actors for a spell, too, but Bollywood is a perfect choice! What do we have to do to get a 5?

      I was proud that I searched for his own #, and that Google planned for it.


Chime in!