This week we learned that 'Janet Jackson' was the most searched-for term on Google in 2005. Somehow we can't believe that this was the result of her recent musical output and instead just a rather pathetic mass desire to see *that* nipple.
It doesn't show Internet users in a very flattering light. What sort of sad bastard searches for a brief glimpse of Ms Jackson's lone nipple? Quite apart from the fact that the exposed nipple was probably a publicity stunt, it was hard to avoid in countless other media, and obscured by a bit of jewellery anyway. And if you were sad enough to search the Internet for a blink-and-you-miss-it nipple sighting, why bother with Janet Jackson? It's not exactly difficult to find nipples on the Internet, and if nipples are your thing why not be really adventurous and find some real nipples attached to a real person?
Janet Jackson's nipple may seem like a small thing, but the question it poses is this: has the Internet dream gone the way of so many other dreams, and simply perished?
Back in the heady days of the mid-1990s, people had great hopes for the Internet. Quite apart from making more or less everything else obsolete, it would be the greatest repository of knowledge in human history. One of the loftier ideas floated about the Internet was that it would allow ordinary people to express their views freely and circumvent traditional media, which too often are biased, have their own agenda, or just give the government's line on issues in return for 'access'. It would, in short, enable us to find The Truth.
So what did we use the Internet for in 2005? According to Google, the top 10 search terms were:
1: Janet Jackson
2: Hurricane Katrina
4: Xbox 360
5: Brad Pitt
6: Michael Jackson
7: American Idol
8: Britney Spears
9: Angelina Jolie
10: Harry Potter
Obviously any 'most popular' list is going to be dominated by well-known people and events, rather than, say, 'nuclear fission' or 'Immanuel Kant', but the sheer triviality of the top 10 is slightly depressing.
Five of the 10 search terms are the most obvious celebrities imaginable. The list also includes searches for a reality TV show designed to create more celebrities, a fictional boy wizard and a computer games console. It doesn't exactly suggest that Internet users have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. The only non-trivial searches were for Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami. Even so, you get the suspicion that many of the searches were the result of a desire to see corpses, or alligators, or, best of all, *giant* alligators eating corpses.
Google also reported that there had been a massive upsurge in the number of blogs, prompting commentators to claim that ordinary people were reporting the news. As the BBC put it: 'One feature of the London bombings and many of the other catastrophes that befell the world in 2005 was the use made of web journals or blogs and picture storing sites to give insight into events as they unfolded.'
The only problem with getting your news from blogs is that only a tiny minority, like the Baghdad Blogger, have any real insight, and are hideously difficult to find because of the vast quantities of rubbish that any Google search produces. The rest tend to be pointless regurgitations of what everyone knows anyway, with inane commentary and the peculiar solipsism of the blogger, e.g.
'The London bombings made me sad. I think they were a bad thing. Why do people want to hurt other people? I don't know. I saw it on the news after I had just got back from buying some patio furniture. My friend Helen said there was an offer at B&Q and sure enough I got a table, four chairs and a recliner for just £49.95. So at least something good happened that day.'
Of course, lots of people are using the Internet for worthwhile, non-trivial things. But Google's survey doesn't give you great faith in human nature. In the top 10, for example, search terms that are conspicuously absent are things like 'Iraq', 'George Bush' or 'news'. The ongoing fixation with dull celebrities and self-centred blogs confirms everything you might have suspected about the Internet - that it's a vast grazing pasture for the trivial-minded.
Oh well. At least there's still the telly.