My So-Called Zeitgeist

January 19th, 2012 by Search Influence Alumni

Google released their annual “Year-End Zeitgeist” last month, a look back at the most popular search terms of 2011. The corporation defines zeitgeist as “the spirit of the times.” Despite the self-aggrandizing name, the Google Zeitgeist paints a mostly trivial picture of the past year.

I hardly know what zeitgeist means. I do know the term lends itself to pretension. It is probably more accurately defined here as the “general cultural, intellectual, ethical, spiritual, or political climate … along with the general ambiance, morals, [and] sociocultural direction” of a particular time. Though I hardly know what any of that means either, it sounds measurably less romantic and nebulous than the “spirit of the times.”

At any rate, the so-called zeitgeist of 2011 revealed itself rather dryly through “the aggregation of billions of queries people typed into Google search.” Instead of ranking the most popular queries by quantity, Google murkily curated the “fastest rising” searches.

Surprisingly, Google+ was the second fastest rising search of the year. Fair or not, Google+ users have been likened to tumbleweeds passing through a ghost town. That’s good for 2nd most zeitgeisty in the zeitgeist rankings? Smells like heimvorteil (home field advantage).

Home cooked algorithms aside, Google+ was nonetheless outdone. Rebecca Black was the “fastest rising” search of 2011. The spectacularly untalented teenager reached the pinnacle of online celebrity because of our culture’s virtually endless capacity for schadenfreude and shit flinging – which actually might be the “spirit of the times.”

The rest of the top 10 fastest rising searches uniformly consisted of death, entertainment, and technology – occasionally intertwined (Battlefield 3, at #5). More or less, these are timeless anxieties, curiosities, and preoccupations. This guy (Steve Jobs, #9) died, and that guy (Ryan Dunn, #3) died. This thing (the iPad2, #10) and that thing (the iPhone 5, #6) will make life easier.

Just how much can the most popular search terms reveal about our culture as a whole? I would think a lot; but the evidence points to something more marginal.

The truth is, search engines are inherently commercial – which says a lot for internet marketing, if not much about our erstwhile spirit. For the most part, people use Google to find breaking news or things to buy. Accordingly, the “Zeitgeist” results are minimally insightful, no matter what Google calls them. It requires some major leaps, bounds, and assumptions to glean anything about our “general cultural, intellectual, ethical, spiritual, or political climate” from Ryan Dunn dying in a car accident.

For example, New Orleans has a very clear-cut identity. Looking at the fastest rising searches and terms in the area last year, what stands out about the city? New Orleanians really want the iPhone 5 and some pizza. I guess that bodes well for the iPhone app. The spirit of the city is nowhere to be seen, though.

 While Safesearch is apparently on when amassing the numbers, by trumpeting the year-end peek at search results as our “Zeitgeist,” there is no lack of wanking on Google’s part. Perhaps next year they should title their findings “bedeutungkitsch.”