As the largest, most-used search engine in the world, with a global market share of about 90 percent, Google has no shortage of data. In turn, this means they have no shortage of data/information about us (our likes, dislikes, activities, current interests), as you well know based your own internet experience. This wealth of knowledge, however, does not mean that Google is infallible. Like every other organization, it is not immune to mistakes, and it can still misread the market.
In October, Google Maps rolled out a test for a new tool, a calorie counting feature on its iOS Maps app (shown below). This extension would show users how many calories they would burn if they decided to walk to their destination rather than drive. The app would then convert those calories into the equivalent number of mini cupcakes: “This walk burns around 313 Calories — that’s almost 3 mini cupcakes,’ reads a message within the app’s walking directions.”
While the creators were likely trying to promote a healthy lifestyle, their test ignited extensive controversy as shown below.
“NO, @googlemaps, I want directions. I don’t want your perpetuation of f— ing diet culture. You have 1 job. Just, no,” wrote Twitter user Spoopy gal.
As CNN Tech points out, calorie counter features are not necessarily new. Apps, like CityMapper, already show how many calories walking from Point A to Point B would burn. This app, however, does not have as many users as Google Maps and does not include a cupcake comparison. With the widespread fitness craze today, calorie counters exist on many technologies. They are standard to devices such as the iPhone, Fitbit, and Nike Fuel Band, among others. And for some, this test feature was not a problem…
Many sources agree, however, that this feature was not rolled out appropriately for a few reasons. To begin, the calorie counting feature was never publically announced. As it was experimental, it merely appeared on the Google Maps app for some, but not all, iOS users. For those who viewed it as an aid for healthy living, it was a pleasant surprise. For others, the app was an upsetting discovery, something they believe should require you to “opt-in.” In addition, it was unclear or difficult to turn the feature off, further angering users who were not enthused.
Secondly, as demonstrated above, many people took offense, specifically, to the way the app translated calories into the number of mini-cupcakes burned. Social media sources, like Twitter, exploded with comments linking the pink pastry icon to fat shaming as well as a trigger for the estimated 30 million Americans alone who struggle with eating disorders. Those familiar with the illness pointed out “that compulsive calorie counting is a warning sign of some disorders such as anorexia. Others said the feature made them feel unfairly judged or shamed.” According to Jennifer J. Thomas, co-director of the Eating Disorders Clinical and Research Program at Massachusetts General, “It implies that foods like cupcakes need to be burned off instead of being part of a balanced diet.”
The test feature was also controversial based on its mysterious measurements for both the caloric content of mini-cupcakes and the number of calories burned by walking. While mini-cupcakes from various sources can range from 97 to 200 calories, Google had decided that its cupcakes were 110 calories. The app further claimed the “average person” burned 90 calories per mile, without describing who the “average” person was or how they determined it. Most people with knowledge of anatomy or physiology understand that “the number of calories one burns while walking can differ extensively depending on how fast he or she is walking and how much he or she weighs.” Without knowing this information, it seems presumptuous for Google to make those calculations or decide who the “average” candidate is.
In the face of so much backlash, Google quickly shut down the feature. While some people on Twitter accused Google of giving in to political correctness, I believe this was the best move for the company. In Google’s defense, there is no way to ensure that they never insult or upset anyone. As a global business, they serve billions of people of varying ethnicities, religions, backgrounds, and lifestyles. They can, however, do as much research as possible before releasing new products and act rapidly when they realize they have made a mistake.
In the recent past, calorie counting has undergone extensive debate. Laws in some states (and across some national chains) require restaurants to post calorie measurements on their menus and displays, in an effort to reduce obesity levels in America. Though this practice is intended to encourage Americans to eat more thoughtfully, it can also become a point of obsession” to those with eating disorders, according to experts. As Stephanie Zerwas, a clinical director of the Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders points out “those with eating disorders might instead fixate on the number, a dangerous mindset that counselors try to minimize.” I will admit that the negative implications of such a feature were not apparent to me immediately. When a friend had mentioned this issue, it just seemed like a silly/simple way to illustrate calories to the average joe. After just a bit of reading, however, I had uncovered my own subconscious bias, similar to what certain Google employees have probably found. Now, it is easy to see how this use of data is dangerous. While incentivizing people to walk is not a bad thing, I don’t believe Google chose the right method to do it.
Zerwas explains: “We’ve gotten into this habit of thinking about our bodies and the foods we take in and how much activity we do as this mathematical equation, and it’s really not. The more we have technology that promotes that view, the more people who may develop eating disorders might be triggered into that pathway.” Although data can be incredibly useful when it provides insights that can help us, we must remain wary. Science can become unscientific, and the information is not always accurate. This supports the idea that diversity of thought in any organization is key. We will probably never know the truth about who/how this feature was developed. It is likely, however, that Google would have benefited from greater diversity in thought before releasing this test to the public. In her interview with the New York Times, Dr. Zerwas provides a good alternative to the Cupcake comparison. Rather than telling you how many calories you would burn or informing you about the number of cupcakes you should/shouldn’t eat if you walk, Google could use its knowledge of weather in your area to suggest walking on days that are nice or comfortable. “Let’s encourage it because it’s fun, it feels good, it helps you think and you can enjoy the gorgeous weather,” she said. I cannot agree more. What are your thoughts?