When German philosopher Johann Herder introduced the term "zeitgeist," which literally translates to "spirit of the times," to the world in his 1769 critique, few could have imagined that more than two centuries later it would come to represent everything from Bebo to Borat, Togo to TomKat, Hezbollah to Hurricane Katrina.
Merriam-Webster defines "zeitgeist" as the "intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of our time." This week Google released its own "zeitgeist," an annual tally of the trends of the year, and possibly a generation, based on our searches.
Google's statement on their Web site explains it all: "a year's worth of search speaks to our collective consciousness, and 2006 is no exception."
Instead of simply listing the top 10-searched words of the year, Google broke its study down into six categories: Home, What's Hot, Current Events, Milestones, Entertainment and Sports. So, what is it that Internet users are looking for?
In a year that saw the Internet increase it's grip on our lives, the war in Iraq seesaw between the "war on terror" and "civil war," and the need for sporting events like the Olympics and the soccer World Cup to bring the world together, the top searches, not surprisingly, centered around connection.
More people searched for the Web site Bebo.com than anything else. A social networking site where 22 million users from Internet portals all over the world post pictures and blogs and instant-message one another, Bebo, which didn't even exist in 2005, had an explosive debut year.
It makes sense then that the year's second most popular search was for the largest social networking site in the world -- MySpace.com. One year ago, social networking was just beginning to spread its wings, utilized by tens of millions of people. Today, the site hosts the largest communities on the Web, measured in the hundreds of millions.
Video was the seventh most popular term searched on Google overall in 2006.
That's it. Just the word, "video."
In a year where all you needed was a video camera, a sweet face, and a mysterious screen name (Lonelygirl15) to launch hundreds of newspaper articles and grab the attention of the national media, video took on a whole host of new meanings.
"Broadcast yourself," encourages YouTube.com, the No. 1 site for posting, viewing, and sharing digital media online. YouTube, MySpace, Bebo and AOL have become the leaders of the revolution on how we watch, download, and communicate with each other. Believe it or not, more than 100 million videos are played on YouTube every single day.
Stars in Our Eyes
Along those same voyeuristic lines, people logged on to look up their favorite celebrities. Heiress and party-girl extraordinaire Paris Hilton was the number one Google News search this year. Hot on her heels was British actor and teen heartthrob Orlando Bloom, followed by Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen's popularized character.
Nicole Kidman edged out ex-husband Tom Cruise for the top slot among "Wedding" searches. Former Beatle Paul McCartney's divorce and television producer Aaron Spellings' obituary capped those respective lists.
But outside of pop culture and new technology, Googlers were also searching for the serious and substantial, trying to learn about and understand personal and global issues.
"How to refinance?" was the No. 1 "How To" search. "What is Hezbollah?" topped the "What Is" top searches and "Who is EU?" and "Who is Mohammed?" ranked at Nos. 3 and 8 on the top "Who Is" searches.
Darfur, where genocide has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people, also made the list.
However, what may be most telling are the items, names and newsmakers missing from the list. Iraq did not find itself on the list this year, nor did this November's congressional elections.
Through all of the searches, from death to life, weddings to divorce, scandals to successes, Google's list is more than just a compendium of buzzwords and superfluous searches. This modern day "zeitgeist" gives us a glimpse into what's on our minds, as well as the tips of our fingers, just as Herder intended.