I managed to post excerpts before posting the article – pardon the reverse order this week. The latest column, one that tries to get past the surface of the 2006 trends and look much deeper (even into the long tail of searches), starts below and continues in the extended entry (it’s of course also at MediaPost).
Happy New Year!
2006 Trends: The Year That Wasn’t
By David Berkowitz
The search engines’ lists of the top searches for 2006 signaled a
slow news year. How could a year that felt so fulfilling appear to be
about nothing? To find out, we’ll have to look far deeper than the list
of the search trends that Google, Yahoo, Microsoft’s Live Search, and Lycos released.
These lists of top search terms shouldn’t be revered as infallible
almanacs of human inquiry. They’re filtered, censored, and spun, often
leading to laughable results. They do, however, offer in aggregate a
reflection of the past year, even if the reflection is of the sort
you’d find in a funhouse mirror.
All four search engines’ roundups included top news search queries. If
an anthropologist were to review them, he might conclude that nothing
happened in 2006. Consider Google Zeitgeist, which has no actual 2006
headlines represented in its list. The only one that comes close,
“Hurricane Katrina,” is a story from the year before. It joins Paris
Hilton and Orlando Bloom, who head up the list, along with cancer,
podcasting, bankruptcy, autism, and the 2006 NFL draft. A Google
spokesperson clarified that Zeitgeist’s lists “are not necessarily the
most top searched terms of 2006.” (Google’s full response and other
thoughts on 2006 search trends not included here are posted on my blog.)
The other three engines’ lists are more credible, though they again
signal a year where little happened. Yahoo’s top two searches involve
celebrity deaths (Steve Irwin and Anna Nicole’s son). To Yahoo’s
credit, its list is the only one to mention the Israel-Lebanon war, the
US midterm elections, Fidel Castro’s stroke, Saddam Hussein’s trial,
and that controversial Danish political cartoon. Then again, it was
also the only list mentioning the JonBenet Ramsey murder confession
(fittingly this year, the confessor didn’t even commit the crime; the
real story was that he didn’t do it).
Yahoo also mentioned the North Korea nuclear threat, which appeared on
Microsoft’s list as well. Somehow Lycos’ was the only list that
included Iran. Even the dictators felt more entertaining than menacing,
though perhaps that was just because of how cute Katie Couric made them
sound on the evening news. Saddam hasn’t been in power in years, Kim
Jong Il may or may not have tested nukes, Fidel may or may not be alive
anymore, and Ahmadinejad, the most downright evil this year, came off
as such a tub-thumper that it’s easy to forget he bankrolls terrorists.
Even so, that’s hardly news.
Sadly, not a single list mentioned the Darfur genocide, the resurgence
of interest in AIDS, the advances in microfinancing that won Muhammad
Yunus the Nobel Prize, the philanthropic largesse by the likes of
Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, the debates about immigration, or the
YouTube revolution featured as Time’s Man of the Year (it was such a
slow news year, Time picked an Idea of the Year instead). It was a year
of doing nothing about Iraq, Darfur, North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan,
Katrina, AIDS, Hugo Chavez, peace in Israel, immigration, stem cells,
gay marriage, gas prices, obesity, or Tom Cruise (a top news item on
Microsoft’s list, and a devotee of a non-religion). The news items also
don’t include Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitism, Michael Richards’s racism,
and Borat’s sendup of American anti-Semitism and racism. Also missing:
O.J. Simpson, who was to air a pseudo-confession of a crime he says he
The more I review the top-ten lists, the more I appreciate Yahoo’s
honesty. Its top overall searches overlap almost entirely with its top
celebrity searches. Nine of the top ten celebrities are women, and most
are more famous for their looks or scandals than talent. The
celebrities in spots 1, 5, and 10 on the overall list (Britney, Paris,
Lindsay) all were photographed not wearing underwear, epitomizing a
year where not doing anything was the best way to grab headlines.
Yahoo’s list may not be perfect, but it captures the spirit of a year
where the real news was in absentia and celebrities were more than
happy to fill the void. The stars who tried too hard to be real, like
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie pouring the hearts into Africa, were
shunned by those searching for the superficial news.
For me, it felt like a momentous year, having both met the love of my
life and signed on to the role of a lifetime within weeks of each
other. Maybe that’s the long-tail effect kicking in. En masse, we might
be searching for Britney and MySpace and Steve Irwin. Yet the searches
that matter most to us, like apartment hunting and health questions and
travel plans and birthday presents for loved ones, don’t show up in the
top-ten lists. It reminds me of the moral of The Little Prince:
“L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux,” “What’s important is
invisible to the eyes.” The more the search matters, the less it will
And so, in the year where nothing happened, things happened great and
small for everyone. All searches are local, and personal, and
meaningful, except when we unite in distractions and read about
Britney’s latest antics on an otherwise slow news day.
There’s never a real absence of news. Each one of us fills the void in
our own way, and then searches for help in filling it however we can.
Even if the news is about nothing, a search is always for something.