The Missing Hit and the Open Web

If it doesn’t appear in Google’s search results, does it really exist? — Me

Somewhat recently, I listened to the podcast “The Case of the Missing Hit”. I’m trying not to be hyperbolic here, but it might be the best, most entertaining podcast I’ve ever listened to—which honestly isn’t saying much as I don’t consume nearly as many podcasts as I believe is deemed culturally kosher in 2020.

The episode got quite a bit of traction online, so it’s possible you’ve already heard it. If you have’t, you should go listen to it before you read the rest of this post. I don’t want to spoil it for you.

Ok, did you listen to it?

Don’t go any further until you have.

Ok, done?

Ok good. Allow me to roughly summarize the story.

This guy, Tyler, gets a song stuck in his head. Eventually he’s able to formulate enough of the lyrics to search for the song online, but no luck. However, in some guitar forums online he does find someone under the username “Piezoman” from Trinidad and Tobago searching for an answer to the same question: what is this song stuck in my head? This Piezoman had posted some of the same lyrics Tyler had been searching for and, even more crucially, they had posted a video playing music from the same song stuck in Tyler’s head. In Tyler’s words:

this guy on the forum had posted this question, that basically was like, “this song was in my head but I can't find it anywhere on Google.” And then on, on this forum post, he lists some of the lyrics and they're the same. Like the lyrics are similar enough that they are definitely from the same song that I am remembering. And he even went as far as to play the sort of intro, like the first two measures of the intro, on his guitar and posted it on YouTube.

With this, Tyler is convinced the song must be real. It’s not just in his head. So he spends days trying to remember and recreate the song, both lyrically and musically. Eventually he recreates the song enough to use music discovery tools, like Soundhound, to try and figure out what it is:

So Tyler’s next step [to discovering the song] had then been to take the song he made and then tried to plug it into this app called Soundhound. Soundhound is like Shazam except, the idea with Soundhound is supposedly you just sing a melody into the app and it’s supposed to be able to recognize the song.

No dice. From there, the podcast goes down this absolutely amazing rabbit hole. Tyler reaches out to the hosts of the podcast who help him in his search to try and discover this song that’s stuck in his head. They eventually team up with several musicians—who also don’t recognize the song—to recreate the song from Tyler’s memory. Eventually they extract the song from Tyler’s brain and record it to play for others. But nobody can recognize it. They go as high as some renown folks in the music industry, even the former lead singer of The Bare Naked Ladies (as the song has a very Bare Naked Ladies familiarity about it) but nothing. Nobody can recognize the song.

Eventually, these experts who weigh in on the case of this “song forgotten by the internet” begin to question: what’s more likely, that the internet and the experts can’t recognize this song, or that this guy is “remembering” something that doesn’t exist? Tyler’s very sanity is called into question.

But then there’s always that nagging question of: what about that one other random internet stranger from Trinidad and Tobago who knew some of the lyrics and a few cords from the same song Tyler remembered? Surely this wasn’t just something in Tyler’s brain...right?

So what happened? Here’s the host of the podcast:

in his original post...Piezoman actually mentions posting questions about the song on Facebook. And so I was like “Oh, I should try to find that Facebook post.” Cuz the whole time I’d been searching for the song, Tyler had been searching for the song, everybody had been searching for the song, we’d been searching the song on Google. Nobody had looked on Facebook. So I start plugging lyrics into Facebook, and I get a hit...

I found this other post from a guy in the Philippines who’d posted the entire lyrics to the song like everything Tyler remembered—the verse, the chorus, actually a little bit more—and this guy, at the bottom of his post, helpfully identified the singer.

That name led them to the first person who they played the song for who actually recognized it: Evan Scott Olson, the author of the song.

It’s a fascinating story that shows you all this effort that was made to elicit the song from memory, recreate it in a band, play it for renown music industry folks, all in the hopes of finding out what the real song was because Google, Soundhound, etc., didn’t know what it was. And in the end, all of that effort could’ve been avoided if the original scope of the online search had included content from the “walled garden” that is Facebook (granted this amazingly entertaining story couldn’t have been told without this walled garden, so I guess that’s one good side effect, right?)

It’s all a good reminder that, however edge case it might seem, Google is not the internet. Google, and other search engines, benefit us by crawling the open web. But, however unfortunate, there’s a lot of the world’s knowledge accessible only on proprietary platforms, often behind some form of login credentials. This is what makes ideas like POSSE so powerful: you can ensure your content lives in the open for a very long time and whatever you create, write, play, publish, or produce has a much slimmer chance of disappearing from the internet.

Moral of the story: the song wasn’t missing from the internet, it was missing from Google. Granted, none of this was the point of the podcast. But when I found out they’d done all that work, supposing the song didn’t exist because they couldn’t find it on “the internet”, only to discover they’d defined “the internet” as Google and Soundhound, I couldn’t help but write this blog post and yell out “walled gardens! Closed systems!”