Does Google’s ‘Neighborhood Vibe’ pass the vibe check?

Google’s third annual Search On event, held this past September in San Jose, California, signaled to consumers that Google executives were focusing on keeping up with Silicon Valley’s latest trends, moving towards more “immersive” material. The announcement follows previous moves by the giant tech company, specifically its 2020 introduction of Google Maps’ Live View feature. Live View allows users to utilize their cameras to locate out their geographic position and get directions to their intended destination. With the upcoming updates, users will be able to have Google point them to specific locations such as a restaurant or landmark using augmented reality – a technology that creates a composite view of the real world. The introduction of overlaying graphics and images over live feed seems to come with the influence of Gen Z’s preference for visualization rather than text.

With apps such as TikTok and other video-based apps dominating the market for younger audiences, it comes as no surprise that Google is building its products with Gen Z in mind. The influence of Gen Z is most prevalent with the naming of an upcoming feature to Google Maps: Neighborhood Vibe. Combining artificial intelligence with local knowledge from map users (more than 20 million contributions across the globe), the new Maps feature will allow users unfamiliar with an area to learn about the area’s attractions or locations. The usage of the word ‘vibe’ in the feature’s name refers to a concept known as a “vibe check.” A vibe check, similar to a gut feeling, is the action of determining a distinctive feeling or quality being sensed. The phrase has existed since 2011 but picked up popularity and mainstream media coverage in 2019 via Twitter. With phrases such as “Get a vibe check before you visit,” written by VP and GM of Google Geo, Chris Phillips, the Neighborhood Vibe title is closer to the famous Steve Buscemi meme rather than on top of current internet trends. 

Despite the name coming to the trend late, Google’s new feature has yet to pass the vibe check itself. The utilization of reviews and AI allows for the program to be susceptible to human bias and fake reviews. In 2020 alone, Google claimed to have blocked 55 million fake reviews and 3 million fake business profiles through its fraud monitoring program. Despite the immense number of removals, industry insiders and regulators state this is only the tip of the iceberg, with the number of fake reviews continuing to grow. When reviews are believed to be real, distribution of opinions can be highly polarized, being either extremely positive or negative, lacking a majority of responses at a middle ground. Reviews also run the risk of a larger issue: racial bias. They utilize phrases that show a marked preference in terms of race, drawing higher levels of attention to urban locales where the majority of residents are people of color. The usage of language highlights a digital form of discrimination: discursive redlining. Traditional redlining is illegal today, a historically discriminatory practice used by banks and institutions to mark entire communities by their racial, ethnic, and class characteristics as hazardous or good for investment. Discursive redlining may not have actual lines drawn to deny access to loans or investments from banks, but it still uses discriminatory biases that affect businesses and residents of minority and low-income neighborhoods.  

While Google’s Neighborhood Vibe tool has the potential to further the immersive experience of technology, the “vibe check” uses racially and ethnically biased data to affect how the tech giant’s platform runs.