Google’s autocomplete function sure is handy — but it definitely isn’t doing much for Hamilton’s image.
If you head over to Google.ca and type in the phrase, “Why is Hamilton so...,” the search engine kicks in and feeds you a few automatic options:
Not exactly the most helpful or positive phrases, are they? But according to Google, they’re representative of how people search online and representative of content from websites all over the internet.
Google predicts and displays options in the search bar for you to choose from as a reflection of the search activity of other users and the content on web pages the company indexes. You might also see suggestions from searches you’ve done in the past.
“All of the predicted queries that are shown in the drop-down list have been typed previously by Google users or appear on the web,” reads the Google explainer on autocomplete.
That means that according to Google, all those phrases about Hamilton have been typed into the search engine by a real person, and pop up on other websites and blogs. In a way, it’s an overarching commentary on how the city is perceived online.
So what does that say about the state of the city's image? And how much of that is the result of other people's perceptions compared to the way Hamiltonians see themselves?
By contrast, Toronto’s autocomplete is decidedly sunnier (depending on where you fall on expensive):
But Winnipeg isn’t so lucky:
Each city has it's own group of autocompletes on Google. The negative sentiment that Hamilton is seemingly carrying online doesn’t sit well with Graham Crawford — one of Hamilton’s most unabashed boosters.
Crawford was raised in Hamilton, before moving to Toronto in 1980 where he became the owner of a management consulting firm. He retired in 2005 and came back to the city, where he dove headlong into neighbourhood and heritage issues. He also opened a storefront museum called HIStory and HERitage on James Street North.
Negative perceptions about Hamilton have persisted for decades, he told CBC Hamilton, even in the city's heyday.
“That feeling has been here for generations,” he said. “I’ve heard them all before, but I don’t believe them.”
Even when Hamilton was a booming industrial city in the 60s and 70s, those feelings were ingrained deeply in people who were looking at the city from the outside in, he says. At school in Toronto, he felt looked down upon sometimes when people found out where he was from.
“But I love this place and I love the people in it,” he said. “To me, it’s not dirty or cheap.”
Great stories in 'real' media: mayor
Crawford often uses the internet and specifically social media to draw attention to causes he feels are important within the city sphere — like opposing a casino in downtown Hamilton.
'That little world of the internet and tweets and comments…it is what it is. You don’t tend to find busy industrious people making comments like that.' - Hamilton Mayor Bob Bratina
But not everyone sees that as a worthy pursuit. In his latest state of the city address, Mayor Bob Bratina pointed to "negativity" online as one of the things that is holding the city back – and he says Twitter and online comments sections are part of that problem. These kinds of Google results are just more of the same thing, Bratina told CBC Hamilton.
“I think it’s more reflective of the people who participate in those kinds of discussions,” he said.
“We’ve had great stories in the real media,” he said, pointing to stories about Hamilton in publications like the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star.
“That little world of the internet and tweets and comments…it is what it is,” he said. “You don’t tend to find busy industrious people making comments like that.”
Bratina says he's intensely proud to be from Hamilton, and that the city is getting to where it needs to be step by step, exposure by exposure – pointing to the new stadium, downtown growth and McMaster’s new downtown medical centre as indications of just that.
Construction leading growth
Construction is leading Hamilton’s economic growth, according to a report from economists and business leaders on the state of the city's economy.
An economic outlook compiled by Credit 1 Credit Union and both the Ontario and Hamilton chambers of commerce points to both the Pan Am stadium and McMaster’s new downtown campus as major economic drivers in 2013.
The city also issued more than a billion dollars worth of building permits in 2013, a trend that immigration from the GTA will continue to fuel this year, staffers say.
If anything, the reputation that precedes Hamilton is often spread by people who have never even set foot in the city, Crawford says. “But I don’t care about a person’s opinion if they’re never going to come here anyway — if they’re not going to bring their family, their money or themselves.”
It only matters if reputation prevents businesses from setting up shop here, he says, “and that is precisely what Economic Development is trying to fight against.”
Any negativity, be it by word of mouth or online, will just continue to fuel the collective feistiness for which Hamiltonians have become known, he says.
“We love ourselves, and we always will,” he said.
“Even if you don’t.”