We're about to finish up a year that included a riveting and historic presidential election and the gravest economic crisis in decades.
And the top search term on Yahoo for 2008: Britney Spears.
Just like in 2007.
And in 2006.
And in 2005.
If the year-end search list is a measure of our collective digital brain, what does it say that our MRI keeps reading "Britney"?
During the past year, the 27-year-old tormented pop star was hospitalized for a psychiatric evaluation, settled child custody with her ex-husband, made a documentary about herself and released a song that quickly became the most downloaded by a female artist.
The Top 10 list wasn't all celebrity gossip. "Barack Obama" was the third-most searched term in 2008. But the rest of the list reads remarkably like the year before, and the year before that.
The second-most searched term was WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment, the pro wrestling league. After Obama, fourth was the teen sensation Miley Cyrus. Fifth was RuneScape, a popular online adventure game. Sixth was the actress Jessica Alba, who also shows up on many "sexiest women" lists, which often goes hand-in-hand with high search appeal. Naruto, a Japanese cartoon, was seventh. Lindsay Lohan and Angelina Jolie, other actresses whose real-life soap operas are more fascinating than their film roles, were eighth and ninth. And American Idol, the eight-year-old reality show that America can't stop watching, was 10th.
Other search engines' top requests are much the same. Google hasn't yet released its year-end "zeitgeist" - German for "spirit of the time" - but last year's was topped by American Idol, YouTube, Spears, the 2007 Cricket World Cup and Chris Benoit, the pro wrestler who killed his wife, his child and himself in a murder-suicide. AOL Search in 2008 was led by American Idol, NASCAR, Spears and the Flat Belly Diet.
The lists would support the argument, in many people's minds, that the Internet has helped fuel a celebrity obsession that's "dumbed down" the culture.
Vera Chan, a senior editor at Yahoo, doesn't dispute the fascination with fame, but thinks the process of the Internet search favors the ubiquitous Spears, who has become practically a brand for celebrity dysfunction. And the pop star hasn't exactly invented the genre: The seductive pairing of fame and fall predates her and the Web by centuries.
"Britney Spears is just a very simple concept to grasp. She's the guilty pleasure of the Internet," Chan said. "Her story, as tawdry as it's been, at some point it's very representative, almost like a morality thing, the whole concept of paparazzi and privacy. People love to knock people down but they also love comeback stories."
The economic meltdown and the election, on the other hand, were splintered among searches for many different subjects, Chan said. Had Sarah Palin been nominated as vice president earlier in the year, the fascinating and polarizing Alaska governor probably would have cracked the top 10 searches as well, Chan said.
Cyrus might have displaced Spears as queen of the search if you also lumped in searches for "Hannah Montana," her alter ago on the Disney Channel show that first brought her to fame, Chan said, but Yahoo considered that two separate searches.
The search engine, which says it gets 550 million visitors a month, does weed out the names of destination Web sites from its list, so it doesn't include people searching for The New York Times online or the Huffington Post blog when they could type in the Web site URL without a search.
The search engines' tracking of the fastest-moving search terms are even more fascinating than the top 10 lists because they present a moving picture of the subjects that roar into and then fade out of our communal consciousness. And because they reflect what people were clicking on, they're an even more accurate gauge of what fascinated the public than the year-end retrospectives that appear on the magazine racks this time of year.
Debbie Clemens (wife of the disgraced pitcher), Ashley Alexandra Dupre (Eliot Spitzer's prostitute), the weddings of Jay Z and Beyonce, and of Mariah Carey, the death of soulful songwriter Isaac Hayes, the emergence of Sarah Palin and Hurricane Ike all sent fingers flying to keyboards and touchpads at various points during 2008. (The fastest gainer of the year on the definition searcher Dictionary.com would warm Tina Fey's heart: "maverick.")
And often the searches reveal great interest in small mysteries that don't grab the headlines, such as the identity of the Paraguayan javelin thrower Leryn Franco. She finished far out of medal contention but became an international obsession in swimsuit photos, and was second behind Michael Phelps in Web searches of Olympians.
The search lists embody the reality that the Internet is both the most public and private of media: You can write a blog that the entire world can read in seconds, but you can also search for things that you wouldn't - or wouldn't want to be seen doing - any other way.
It would be natural to conclude that the searches merely typify a medium dominated by users younger than 30. But people with college educations and higher incomes are also among the heaviest users of the Internet.
"It's part escapism; people can get away from their problems. You can quickly take a detour on your lunch break for five minutes before your meeting," said Heather Dougherty, director of research for Hitwise, a New York-based online measurement company. "When we look at demographics for who's reading celebrity blogs, it's not all young people. The Internet is sort of the dirty little secret that all these people are searching for Britney Spears. They might not admit it, but they want to know about [her] meltdown."
With a new CD out and a launch of her first major concert tour in five years, Spears is likely to be at or near the top of the search charts next year, too. But maybe there's hope that Americans are getting more discerning about what they spend their time examining online.
After all, Paris Hilton, ranked third in 2007, dropped from the top 10 altogether this year.
top 10 yahoo search terms
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