Sunday, December 18, 2011


So, my Fordham University Introduction to New Media student Stephanie Diller shared this video with our class via our email discussion list.  It's called Zeitgeist 2011: Year In Review, posted by Google (who owns YouTube), and it's a fascinating look at this year's events, not an unusual sort of thing to see in the mainstream media at the end of the year, but it also incorporates a healthy amount of Google self-promotion.  Here, take a look at it:

The only explanation provided by the write-up on YouTube is the following:

See how the World Searched with Google's 2011 Zeitgeist:

And if you head on over to Google Zeitgeist 2011,  you'll find the following headline:  Zeitgeist 2011: How the World Searched.  So, the idea is that the most popular terms that were put into the Google search engine over the past year are a reflection of our collective state of mind, our mutual concerns, interests, obsessions. That we are what we search for, our quests and questions constituting the spirit of our time (zeit is German for time and tide, geist for spirit and ghost).

It's Google as popular culture, the folklore of postindustrial society.  And following the headline, Google tells us:

What mattered in 2011? Zeitgeist sorted billions of Google searches to capture the year's 10 fastest-rising global queries and the rest of the spirit of 2011.

So what are the top 10 search items that mattered?  Well, here they are:

  1. Rebecca Black
  2. Google Plus
  3. Ryan Dunn
  4. Casey Anthony
  5. Battlefield 3
  6. iPhone 5
  7. Adele
  8. TEPCO
  9. Steve Jobs
  10. iPad 2 

So, let's go over this, shall we? First of all, I have to admit that I'm behind the times and not in keeping with the spirit, especially of the teen variety, because I had no idea who in the hell Rebecca Black is.   But I've been informed that she is a 13-year-old girl who likes to sing, and whose YouTube music video went viral earlier this year, albeit not in a good way because it was held up to ridicule.  Going back to the 1980s, I've argued that every new medium creates a new kind of hero, and the celebrity is a new kind of hero created by the electronic media, but this takes the phenomenon one step beyond.

I also must confess that I didn't recognize the name, Ryan Dunn, but I learned that he was one of the loonies associated with the Jackass movies, and he died in a drunk driving accident earlier this year.  Casey Anthony is a name I recognize, as belonging to the mother of the murdered child, Caylee Anthony, and whom many believe to be responsible for the death of her child, although she was tried and acquitted in court this year.  Adele is a British singing sensation, but I didn't know that either, I must admit.  And of course I know who Steve Jobs is, and wrote several posts about him here on Blog Time Passing after he passed away (Steve Jobs, Media Ecologist, Jobs, Disney, and the Future of Apple, Steve Jobs Was One of Us, and A Ram's-Eye View on Steve Jobs)

As for the non-human search items, well, Google Plus I know, hey, I'm on Google Plus--check me out if you care to.  Battlefield 3 I heard about, it's a videogame.  When I was in Toronto for the big McLuhan fest last month, several of us were walking back from dinner one night and saw a large crowd of people waiting in line outside of a store, many dressed in costumes, especially strange military garb, some of it futuristic.  We thought maybe it was some Occupy Wall Street-like phenomenon, but no, they were waiting in line for the midnight release of Battlefield 3.

Two of the top ten items are Apple products, one the iPhone, although as it turns out, the new release was not the iPhone5, but rather the iPhone4S, but everyone thought it was going to be the iPhone5, and speculation about it was massive.  And then there's the iPad 2.  The other item on the list, TEPCO, is not one that I would recognize under that name, or the way it's also listed by Google, as 東京 電力, but of course I am familiar with the topic of the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, which was damaged by the earthquake.

So, what are we to make of all this? That we are a celebrity-obsessed culture? Sure, nothing new there. That we, through the use of electronic media, are trivializing serious matters and amusing ourselves to death? Again, yes indeed, but nothing startling there.

What is important to keep in mind here is that this is a very skewed view of the American and global psyche.  After all, we don't search for things we already know about, and the things that we already know a lot about are probably the things that are most important to us.  So sure, people are going to go to Google when some unknown name is suddenly coming up all over the place in social media posts.  And they'll use Google to find a video folks are talking about online if they don't have the link handy.  That's why Rebecca Black, Ryan Dunn, and Adele drew more queries than Steve Jobs.  After all, we already know a great deal about Jobs, not to mention the fact that his passing was covered by the news media to a great extent.

And folks who are online tend to be tech-oriented, so they'll search for information about new media products that have not yet been released.  It's all rumor and speculation, hence the iPhone5 that existed only in people's imaginations.  And for that matter, the same would be true in regard to the Fukushima nuclear reactors, as there was a distinct dearth of information on how serious the breach was and how much radiation was released.  This point about how rumor rises up to fill the void was made back in 1966 in a classic study on the subject by Tamotsu Shibutani, entitled Improvised News: A Sociological Study of Rumor, which harkens back to the experience of the Japanese internment camps of World War Two.  It's a great study on the social construction of reality, that highlights how the presence and absence of facts makes a difference in the degree to which reality may be a complete fabrication.

And this brings me to the conclusion I draw from all this.  Google's lists of top search terms are not so much a reflection of the zeitgeist as they are a mirror of our collective curiosity, a product of the ambiguity that exists in our mediascape, and a measure of our ignorance.  Google is our gaze into the void, making manifest the ominous comment from the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:  When you stare into the abyss the abyss stares back at you.

Google is the abyss staring back at you.  Try not to blink.

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