Dear Jerxy: The Google Conundrum


Dear Jerxy: I was with a group in Vegas last week and a magician performed Michel Huot’s Sock trick for us. The trick was a success by any standard and got a great reaction, but after he left, two people in my group googled socks magic trick and there in the first link was where you could buy the product. (At least it wasn’t an explanation on youtube…yet).

In today’s post you said that a “benign mystery” is as positive thing in people’s life. How do you reconcile that with the idea that more and more people are trying to destroy the mystery by searching for explanations online?

Searching for Answers About Searching for Answers in SeaTac

Dear Searching: Ok. A couple things here. Magicians, admittedly, had a nice system until about the mid-90s. Secrets were fairly well hidden. Anyone with an interest in magic and a library card could find out the fundamentals of the art, but it took some work to get to the “good stuff.” It was a simpler time. Magicians would write strongly worded letters to the editor in Genii magazine if Mac King taught a magic trick going into the commercial break on a TV special. It was quaint. I can only hope, for their sake, those people died before a time—just 15 years later—when every layperson would have the secret to every magic trick in their pocket.

It’s a completely different world now in magic. That’s easy to forget because everything has changed in that time. Not just magic.

I grew up in the early 90s, jacking off to Redbook magazine because that’s what was in the house. Or searching the scrambled porn channel in hopes of finding a stray titty. Kids today don’t even know what the concept of “scrambled” porn is. They can see any type of porn, any time of day, whenever they want.

We have easy access to everything now. It feels good. But we’re like the guy in the Twilight Zone who thinks having everything he wants is heaven, until he realizes he’s actually in “the other place.”

Okay, I’m working my way around to your question. I just want us firmly rooted in the world we live in. There are those people who say, “If someone tries to figure out your trick it’s because you’re not good/entertaining enough,” or some horsehshit like that. That’s ridiculous. If people in the 1960s had a book in their pocket with all of magic’s secrets in it, they would watch Dai Vernon, they’d ooh and ahh, then they’d think, “I can’t wait to look that up in my book!” This is human nature.

So you show someone a trick and then they google it. This seems to suggest they don’t want to be fooled or they aren’t looking for the feeling of long-term mystery. If so, what’s the point of performing for people?

I’m going to help you reframe this.

There are a couple parts to this…

Part One

The first thing to recognize is that the feeling of mystery is, at first, uncomfortable for people. For someone seeing a trick that offers no Easy Answers, their initial reaction is going to be to try and “figure it out” no matter how charming and delightful you, the trick, and the presentation may be.

What I’ve found is some people don’t realize they want “mystery” until they’ve experienced it. They think the game is: He shows me a trick and I do whatever I can to come up with an explanation for how the trick was done. It’s only once they experience something that feels “truly impossible” that they understand the positives of that.

I have a number of people in my life now who will come to me asking to see a trick and just take the whole thing in like they’re taking a drug. Like they’re mainlining mystery. But they didn’t start off that way. They were just as skeptical and stand-offish about being taken in with a trick as your average audience member. With repeated exposure to strong magic, they saw the benefit of just giving themselves over to the experience and not fighting it. The biggest reason for that is because I became better at making it clear that it was a safe environment. The trick wasn’t meant to be a challenge. So many magicians seem to be getting off on fooling their audience, and then they wonder why people fight being fooled.

There are certainly some people who just can’t stand the feeling of not knowing how something is done and will never give themselves over to a truly mysterious interaction. That’s fine. I may still show them the occasional trick from time to time if they want, I just won’t waste a big immersive presentation on them. I’ll show them some clever card tricks or a quick visual thing. Something they can have their guard up for but still appreciate.

(In the Fall issue of the newsletter for supporters of the site, I will give you some things to say that I’ve found to be strongly coercive in getting people to embrace mystery rather than fight it. I have a few different approaches I take and I’ll write them each out in a way you can adapt for your own use, if you’re so inclined.)

Part Two

The second thing to understand is that a trick doesn’t become a real mystery until people have exhausted their resources to figure it out. And Google is the primary resource people use to figure stuff out. So googling something doesn’t mean they’re anti-mystery. It just means they’re processing the trick. For a trick to have any meaning, people need to process it critically.

Think of it like this: Imagine a guy finds a big diamond just sitting on the street. At least, it looks like a diamond. But if it’s real it must be worth a fortune. So what does he do? He takes it to a jeweler or gemologist to find out if it’s real. That seems logical, right? You wouldn’t say, “Hey, if he wants it to be a real diamond, why is he testing it?” That would be a ridiculous statement. Putting it through the process to see if it’s real is how you assess its value.

Similarly, people will test an impossibility in the same way. If they google bill lemon magic trick they’ll get, literally, eight million results. It doesn’t matter which version of bill in lemon you did. They don’t care about the specific method, they just want to know if what they saw is common and explainable or if it’s something stranger.

In life, I always resort to the idea of turning your weaknesses into strengths. The internet has made what were once closely guarded secrets fairly easily available. And if you pick up a trendy effect from Ellusionist, your trick may be fun and fooling, but it will not withstand 15 seconds of research by a seriously interested spectator.

But you can work around that. You can create your own material. You can search for obscure effects in books and magazines. You can reframe tricks and put them in new contexts. Among other techniques to make your magic less googleable.

Because what happens if they google a trick and find… nothing? Then you’ve turned the power of this machine that has all the answers against them. Now they have to process this, “Not only do I not know how he did that, but I can’t find any evidence that such a thing can even be done. Wait… what exactly did I just see?”