An odd little news item this week offers an interesting glimpse into the latest shift in the still-rapid evolution of the Internet.
The occasion was Yahoo!'s announcement of its Top 10 Searches of 2006. On first glance, the list is surprising, then mortifying, then illuminating.
Let me explain:
When I say the first reaction is surprise, I mean that it is very unlikely that you could ever guess in advance what this list looks like.
Yahoo! thoughtfully breaks the list down into 11 categories -- an overall list of Top 10 searches, then 10 vertical categories, ranging from Top 10 sports team searches to a bizarre Top 10 celebrity baby searches to the Top 10 blog searches.
Now, take a second to guess the Top 10 searches of 2006. Ready? Here they are:
1. Britney Spears
4. Jessica Simpson
5. Paris Hilton
6. American Idol
7. Beyonce Knowles
8. Chris Brown
9. Pamela Anderson
10. Lindsay Lohan
Surprised? Even if you were a cynical elitist and assumed that the Web these days was overrun with rednecks, National Enquirer readers, and the booboisie, would you have come up with this list?
Would you have predicted that every name on the Top 10 list would come from pop culture -- no Iraq, no elections, no Super Bowl, no nothing but pop stars, pop tarts and pop institutions?
Even then, would you have put Shakira at No. 3?
Trust me, I've seen that YouTube compilation video, and that girl's got some kind of shimmy, but the No. 3 search topic for the year?
I can believe Britney Spears, that paragon of commando motherhood, at the top of the list. Hilton, Lohan and Simpson I can perhaps understand, and maybe the suddenly aged Beyonce (apparently she just gained seven years, thanks to her leaked birth certificate).
But what is the literally aged Pamela Anderson doing on that list? And who the hell is Chris Brown?
Pop Culture or Just Plain Trash?
So it's one long list of trashy pop stars, with two trashy pop culture institutions thrown in for good measure.
It's all pretty depressing stuff -- and yet another reminder of just how shallow and celebrity-obsessed our culture has become.
The Canadian media are laughing at the list, saying it shows just how stupid Americans really are -- as if their list, which features the same crap plus hockey, makes them models of worldly sophistication.
The vertical lists aren't much more edifying.
Under top news stories, two weird deaths -- Steve Irwin and Anna Nicole Smith's son -- beat out the Iraq War, the fight in Lebanon, and the 2006 elections.
By now it's hard to be shocked, though.
Top 10 celebrity babies? Suri Cruise and Shiloh Jolie-Pitt edged out those two well-tended K-Fed kids, followed by names -- Moses Martin, Grier Hammond Henchy, Dannielynn Hope Marshall Stern -- that if you actually recognize, it probably suggests you need to get a real life.
Top 10 sports teams? The New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys are, predictably, one and two. Unexpectedly, Manchester United is No. 5 and Arsenal FC No. 6, though on reflection they are essentially the Yankees and Cowboys of British soccer.
Interestingly, Real Madrid is No. 9 (I picture millions of housewives secretly eyeballing David Beckham), and there are no NBA teams.
Song lyrics? "Hips Don't Lie," "My Humps" and "Grillz" are No. 1, 2, 3. Big surprise. Did you expect this, of all lists, to be exempt from the lowest common denominator rule?
And if you thought you'd see some demanding lyric from Wilco or the Decemberists on this list -- well dream on.
One more: movies. It's the predictable list -- all of the blockbusters of the year, including "Spider-Man 3," "X-Men 3" and "Pirates of the Caribbean 2" (No. 1,2,3 and all sequels).
But then it gets strange.
No. 4 is "Star Wars." Exactly what is there left to learn about that 20-year-old series? No. 6 is "Transformers." Huh? Then "Saw III" and "The Da Vinci Code." Double huh? And, at No. 9, "Talladega Nights" -- was there some subtlety in that movie I missed that compelled people to search for deep insights into its plot?
Depressing or Illuminating?
OK, so that's all pretty depressing.
We Americans actually live up to some of the worst stereotypes that the world holds about us.
We're a bunch of mouth-breathing, celebrity-soaked, violent rubes -- just like Gwyneth Paltrow and her friends say we are (BTW, if that young lady seriously believes that Brits are the height of worldly sophistication, she needs to get out more). At least that's the depressing impression one gets from a first glance at Yahoo!'s list.
But a closer inspection gives a different impression.
For example, why are these lists so relentlessly lowbrow? On consideration, the reason becomes obvious: The Web is now, at least in the United States, the most democratic of mediums, even outdistancing television as part of the average person's daily life.
That is an incredible accomplishment for a technology that, in general use, is less than two decades old.
As the lists also show, the Web is unmatched by its inclusiveness: witness Top 10 lists that include black and Latin entertainers and their songs, kids' movies, and international sports teams.
Look even closer and you see odd and compelling anomalies that unexpectedly surface out of the pablum.
For example, in the top news stories, the Saddam Hussein trial and the Danish cartoon scandal took No. 9 and No. 10 -- at least a few people are keeping up on their current affairs after all.
On the Top 10 TV show searches, "South Park" unexpectedly shows up at No. 10 after all of these years. I sure didn't see that one coming.
Blog Readers Like Skin, Politics
But most remarkable is the list of Top 10 blog searches.
The first surprise is that seven of the 10 are sleazy Hollywood gossip sites, with Perez Hilton at No. 1 -- didn't it break the Britney crotch shots? -- followed by the Superficial and Pink Is the New Blog.
As you may remember, I wrote about this phenomenon a few weeks ago, but I had no idea it was anything more than a strange little niche business. The joke is on me.
But mixed into this list are three very different sites: the Huffington Post (4), Daily Kos (6) and Little Green Footballs (9).
Boy, I read those blogs, and I never would have guessed. A year ago, the Huffington Post was little more than a vanity site for political essays by bonehead celebrities. Now it appears to be the most popular political blog on the planet. That's the astounding power of the Web.
Kos, an influential leftist site, is a little more understandable. Markos Moulitsas Zuniga is one of the most important people in the Democratic Party these days, and his pronouncements carry a lot of weight in that world.
But Little Green Footballs, which sits on the other side of the political spectrum, concerns itself primarily with Islamofacism and events in the Middle East (along with occasional close-up photos of Charles Johnson's bicycle).
The fact that it is on this list suggests there is a sizable audience out there in cyberspace prepared to look far deeper into the news than celebrity nipple slips and box scores.
So, democracy has come to the Internet.
Once again, let's give it two cheers. … And then add a third for the Web.
That's because, unlike the other media, there is no Gresham's Law of the Internet. Cyberspace is scalable, so stupid and sleazy content will never drive out good, smart and funny content. And that is best the news item of all.
TAD'S TAB -- The Nietzsche Family Circus (http://www.losanjealous.com/nfc/) is a strange and funny site that randomly attaches a Friedrich Nietzsche quote to a classic Family Circus comic panel. Some of these combinations are utterly random, some are very clever, and some actually almost work together. And, as weird as it sounds, it is also quite addictive.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michael S. Malone, once called the Boswell of Silicon Valley, is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News, as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is best-known as the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the ABCNEWS.com "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.