Saturday, July 14, 2012

What We Care About

If you read the papers online or off, or listen to the news from a network major or minor, you could be forgiven for thinking that the most important thing on the minds of Americans is the race between Obama and Romney. Or the growing crisis in Syria. Then again, perhaps it's the continuing pressure on the Euro, or the increasing belligerence of Iran. After all, those are the stories to which the professionals in  newsrooms are devoting time and manpower, the ones that are gobbling up minutes of airtime and column inches on paper and screen. 

But that's a third party view. It's like when any member of Congress says, "The American people want X." Just where did they hear that? Who are they talking to to get that information? I can't honestly say that in the grocery store or on the train I've heard people discussing trade policy or Medicare reimbursement rates or defense authorization.  

No, if you want to know what people are really thinking about, you need to eavesdrop on their conversations in said store or train, or perhaps even better, look over their shoulders as they tap into their iPhones and iPads and computers. Not as they call up their Facebook pages or their Twitter feeds, but rather the things that puzzle them enough to make them call up a search box and type a few words in the blank space in the middle of the screen. After all, could there be any more direct portal into the collective mind of our fellow countrymen and women than what we all troll the internet about?  

Fortunately, you don't have to invade your neighbors' personal space and actually look over their shoulders. That's because you can you can see what they're doing from the other side, courtesy of Google Trends. Trends is a window into the search engine's workings, one that enables the average user to compare the frequency of one or more search terms to others. For instance, put in "hot dog" and "hamburger," and you will see that over the last 30 days "hamburger" was generally on more minds, save July 4th, perhaps driven by the desire for news of the winner of the annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Competition (If you didn't know, Joey Chestnut captured his sixth consecutive title, and tied his own world record by eating 68 hot dogs in 10 minutes. But that's another column). 

Trends let's you slice and dice the data, looking at locales ("coffee" is a clear favorite over "tea" in the US, while it's the other way around in Hungary, and about even in Singapore), time frames (there's almost always a spike in interest in "peanut butter" over "jelly" in December), even languages ("sofa" eclipses "chair" in Danish, while it's the other way around in English). But perhaps the most intriguing feature is a newly redesigned one, one that focuses less on the historical record and more on the current state-of-mind. 

Called "Hot Searches," it gives a snapshot of the fastest rising search terms updated on an hourly basis. According to a post from the official Google Blog, "an algorithm analyzes millions of searches in the U.S. and determines which queries are being searched much more than usual." And in that light, just what is the thing that is most important, most pressing, most urgent in people's minds? 

God help us, but at the moment I am writing this, it's Katy Perry.  

To be fair, she has a new movie out, with its associated splash of publicity and curiosity. Not long before that, the hottest topic was "Andy Griffith," as word of his death at the age of 86 spread. And shortly after that were a raft of Fourth of July related searches, from "fireworks" to "desserts" to "American flag." Now, a day later, as that's all faded, "Jason Kidd" and "Steve Nash" are leading the way, as we move on to the really important stuff, the makeup of NBA teams for the coming season. Not a presidential candidate, tax policy or social issue in sight. 

Basically, all this confirms what we already know. Our attention span is nill, our interests are pedestrian and our focus lies somewhere between that of a puppy and a baby. It's not pretty but it's true. Speaking for myself, I can say that I'm not so easily dis... oh, look, there's a new Oliver Stone movie out. Think I'll google it.


Marc Wollin of Bedford just typed "bathroom fan" into his search engine. He needs a replacement. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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