Should we take this seriously? Does this represent our moment? And what do all these lists tell us?
"It's a picture of several big trends," says Steven L. Johnson, assistant professor of management and information systems at the Fox Business School of Temple University. "It's a marketing exercise for Google. It's Big Data, gathered on millions of people making millions of choices. It's user-generated content. It's a snapshot of 2013 - but only that. It doesn't answer the why. It doesn't give us the whole story."
The most searched-for person of 2013, Miley Cyrus, keeps coming up. "Twerking" was the most-searched-for Dance. And the Video Music Awards, at which Cyrus so memorably twerked, was the third-most-searched-for Annual Event. In Celebrity Breakups, her split from Liam Hemsworth was tops. No mistake, she had impact.
Superficial nonsense? Maybe not. "There's a legitimate story behind her," says John Jackson, professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. His new book, Thin Description, studies the different ways people relate to the media around them.
"You can't speak of Miley Cyrus," Jackson says, "apart from the social conversation she started. Remember, at one time, as a Disney star, she was a role model for young women. Now she has turned that on its head. That started a conversation among parents, daughters, teachers. She may not know who she is, but she's definitely trying to say who she's not - an assertion of agency. So there's a legitimate story there, one a lot of people connect with."
So there's a good why behind the headline "Miley Cyrus." Each item on these lists is a picture that tells a story. What can we learn from all these searches, all these lists, all this curiosity? Here are some ideas.
The Web is dominated by people under 40. Yes, many of the things of these lists concern their world of music, films, TV, clothes, dances, and courtship. But it's also a tale of a huge shift in culture - one that is permanent. "They feel most comfortable with the Web," says Johnson. "When they want to know something, they message a friend, tap their mobile phone, or search Google. They grew up with an Internet that was not 'a new thing' but an established part of the world."
Most things are mediated. Most of these searches - for Cyrus, the Philippines, or a recipe for chili - didn't come out of thin air. They were spurred by, and filtered through, other media, ads, and political and PR campaigns. "The headlines we see in the checkout lane at the store or on TV, what we hear on the radio, what our friends are talking about - these plant seeds," says William L. Weaver, associate professor in the school of integrated science, business, and technology at La Salle University. "And when something resonates, we go online to find out more." (Weaver adds he just got done searching for Duck Dynasty. He laughs: "The media wave just broke on me.") "So almost everything on these lists reflects other media."
Almost everything. "It's touching," says Johnson, "that some of the lists reflect something spontaneous." The list titled "How to . . ." is topped by "Tie a tie." Something you used to go to Dad to learn. "How to kiss," something many have learned from practice with friends, or from movies/TV, is at No. 6. Now you can ask a machine.
And the list "Donations" is heartening, with the Philippines, Boston, and the Oklahoma tornado disaster ranking high. "It's comforting to know," says Johnson, "that major news events still bring people together." We learn about these, too, through other media, but our desire to donate - that's up to us.
People expect to stay in touch with major stories in real time. "That expectation is new, with the Internet," says Jackson. The Boston manhunt, following the bombings, was the most watched in history, with local residents posting Vines, Instagram photos, Facebook posts, tweets, and Storify strings. That's a major difference between 2013 and what came before. "We now operate in real time," Johnson says. "Ten minutes ago is too late."
This gives us a sense of intimate connection, illusory or not, with celebrities and other major figures. Many celebs tweet or post all the time, giving a sense of their personal lives that just wasn't available before. Whether silly (the Kardashians) or profound (the announcement of the birth of Prince George of Cambridge), it's related to our search for real-time connection.
There's a story under the surface. "It's too easy to dismiss all this as shallow," Jackson says. We do have to look at our human relations and how we build them; that's always the big question. But a snapshot like the Google Zeitgeist does gesture to a story of people wanting to learn and to connect.
"Remember those time capsules people used to bury?" Johnson says. "This is like that. Years from now, they'll see this snapshot. Then it'll be up to them to follow it up, find out how people really felt about their lives."