For the past few years, Google has released its popular “Zeitgeist” report, in which they leverage their massive amounts of data on users’ search habits and present to us in stark numeric terms the tragedies, triumphs, and fads that sent us scouring the interwebs for more information.
It’s fascinating stuff, no doubt. But after perusing and pondering the results for a while (“Wow, look how searches on the Haiti Earthquake and the BP oil spill tailed off.” “Who the hell is Nicki Minaj, and am I officially not young or hip for not knowing?”), I noticed that Google was using some pretty grandiose language to describe its Zeitgeist study. Here are a couple examples:
“Based on the aggregation of billions of search queries people typed into Google this year, Zeitgeist captures the spirit of 2010.”
“We hope you enjoy this look back to what was on the minds of Americans throughout 2010.”
These statements got the Overthinking it juices flowing. What exactly is a “zeitgeist,” and is Google Zeitgeist really that? If not, then what is it?
Your first instinct may have been to Google “zeitgeist” to get a definition, so I’ll save you the trouble and put one here to help us frame our analysis:
“The defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.” – Oxford American Dictionary
This is where I take Google to task for playing a bit fast and loose with the use of the word “zeitgeist.” To me, Google’s Zeitgeist actually tells us very little about the actual “spirit or mood” of our times. Heck, it barely even shows us the “ideas and beliefs” of our times. It just shows us the stupid crap we’re looking for on the internet, and there’s a pretty large gulf between that stupid crap and anything approaching the spirit or mood of our times.
Chatroulette is not an idea or belief, nor is the iPad. Justin Bieber, for all of his popularity and 6 million followers on Twitter, is a pop singer. Now, are all of these parts of larger societal trends? Sure, one could easily argue that yes, all of them are. Social media, obsession with gadgets, Bieber Fever, etc. And do these larger societal trends help make up the “spirit or mood” of our times–that lofty “Zeitgeist”? Sure they do. But Google doesn’t claim that its search trends are ingredients of social trends that are part of the zeitgiest (with a little z). Google claims that its Zeitgeist (with a big Z) “captures the spirit of 2010.” Google thinks that is search trends ARE the zeitgeist (with a little z). And in doing so, it’s taking an extremely miopic view on the American psyche. According to the world of Google, we are what we search for.
There are so many things that are feeding into the true zeitgeist of the moment that just aren’t represented at all. On the Zeitgeist US page, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, two generation-defining conflicts with incalculable national security implications, are nowhere to be found. “Unemployment” makes the list of top 10 fastest rising news searches, but that’s the sole mention of the economy and the growing sense of malaise around America’s dimming prospects for prosperity.
Now, I’m not complaining that Americans don’t care about these issues (they clearly do, at least about the economy). I’m not even complaining that Americans aren’t using Google (and the internet) enough to learn more about these things. No, I’m really complaining that Google doesn’t have either the self-awareness or humility to consider that the true zeitgeist–the spirit of the times–might not be easily captured by billions of entries into its search box and that its complex algorithms and near-stranglehold on the internet aren’t powerful enough to deduce or display what any moderately well informed citizen could tell you about the state of his/her country.
There is, of course, an alternate reading of Google Zeitgeist, which is that celebrity gossip and gadget-obsessed consumerism actually do represent the spirit of our times far better than my disjointed ramblings about American economic and security anxieties. I refuse to believe that, if for no other reason than that I see signs of that anxiety every day, in real life, in real people, and I know that anxiety runs deep, even if it’s not getting typed into a search box as often as Justin Bieber.
So Google, I have some advice for you: take out your dictionary. Review the definition of zeitgeist. Look into your soul. Look into the American soul. And next year, just call the damn thing “Top Google Search Trends of 2011,” or “Google Bieber Fever Index 2011.” I for one will appreciate your honesty.
[Yikes, I didn’t mean for this to get so preachy at the end, but hey, sometimes it just happens! So what do you think–is the search engine tail wagging the dog? Am I just, like, totally overthinking the definition of “zeitgeist”? What’s your favorite German word that you throw into your everyday speech to make yourself sound smarter? Sound off in the comments!]