Tag Archives: Google trends

A letter to my culture interns, Jarvis and Donte

I have never had interns before. In fact, I thought there was something wrong with using them. But I now have two.

I will call them Jarvis Rochford and Donte Cole. (Naturally, I can’t use their real names, so I asked the name generator in Scrivener to make suggestions. It would take me a very long time to come up with something better than Jarvis Rochford. I’m just way behind on my historical romances.)

It occurred to me that there might be people out there who would like to act as virtual interns, to follow along at home, as it were.  So this letter is to you, too.

Dear Jarvis and Donte

While we wait for your internships to begin in earnest, I thought I would suggest a couple of things we can do in the meantime.

When you are reading NYT, WSJ, blogs, aggregators, etc., please listen for that small note of surprise that heralds something that doesn’t quite fit. Something on the page or the screen that has caught you by surprise.

The second step is to ask whether it is something or nothing. It’s nothing if it is a “floater,” as it were, a mote in the eye, an artifact of language or logic, but not something in the world. And it’s also “nothing” (for our purposes) if there is some easy, obvious explanation.

It’s something if on closer scrutiny it resists, defies our categories of explanation. The natural explanation here is to dismiss. If something doesn’t conform to our categories, it can’t be the category’s fault. The datum is wrong.

But of course this is the beginning for insight. What would you have to think to make this something make sense, how would you have to change your explanatory models?

There is lots of stuff pouring around out there. I found this in the WSJ the other day.

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This is what Marc Andreessen calls ‘software eating the world.’ Amazon consuming high street and the mall. An easy explanation then. The thing that struck me was the acceleration. See the data for 2017. The “why” is not mysterious but the “now what?” is. What does the world look like when retail vanishes more and more from the bricks and mortar world? I realize I haven’t really thought about this. I have no obvious answers, no particular way of thinking about the problem. All I (now) know is that it approaches at speed…and I’m not ready.

Retail Reeling is not a perfect example of pure surprise, then. Marc Andreessen put us on notice years ago. But it is a chance to discover that my explanatory models, the sense making apparatus in my head, are not a reliable guide to the world in the works. I’m not ready for what happens to culture and the world once software eats them both.

Here’s something that’s, for me, weirder. I was at a media conference last week. (Thank you, Jacob Groshek for including me in the very interesting Streaming Television and Second Screening Workshop at Boston University.) I came upon a reference to Superwholock.  I checked Google trend to see where it stands in terms of popularity. Gliding gently into obscurity by the look of things.

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Lots of little questions: why was it invented in the first place? Why did it peak several years ago? Why is it now on the decline?

The categories that activate for me when I look at this are chiefly to do with fanfic. This is a fantastically interesting development, and one measure of the extent to which we are shifting from passive media consumption to something more Jenkensian: an inclination to appropriate and reinvent.

But there are more interesting and particular things to mine from the meme. Have a go at it (or any other meme).

That’s always the game here at cultureby.com. What’s happening “out there?” What are the first signals, the earliest indicators that something has changed? What can it tell us about what is happening “in culture.” And what does that tell us about who and what we are becoming as a world and culture (not always the same thing but always interacting ferociously)?

This turns out to be a long note, and with your permission, Jarvis and Donte, I will put it on line at cultureby.com. There may be people who want to act as virtual interns…or real ones for that matter.

“Don’t Peggy Olson me, mother f-ckers”

Peggy_Olson_Wiki

I have been doing ethnographies in London for a couple of weeks.  And the great thing about ethnographies is that things do pour in.

In one interview, the respondent told me about a phrase now poised to serve as a rallying cry in contemporary culture and the corporation.

Here’s the background.

Neko Case, the singer from the Pacific Northwest, was given an award recently.  Playboy congratulated her in a patronizing way and Case let fly.  Someone rebuffed her and Case rebuffed them.

Here it is play by play, tweet by tweet:

Ember

See the fuller context here.

My respondent says she hears the “Don’t Peggy Olson Me” phrase at work more and more.

What a thoroughly contemporary artifact.  A show appears called Mad Men.  It’s an old media contemplation of an age gone by.  It features a character who comes to stand for the status of women in the present day.  An artist used the character’s name as a verb to object to her treatment.  Hey presto, a new media meme is born, and spoken language is a phrase richer.  An issue (feminism) that has lost some of its standing in the public agenda is returned to visibility.  The heat of people’s anger is reregistered, reemphasized.

This is contemporary culture, and its various wheels within wheels spinning as usual ferociously, with meaning skipping from old media to new media and back into the public eye.

One anthropological, the chief culture officer, question is how far will this phrase spread?  At the moment, it is too small to show on Google Trends.  I have asked a couple of people in London to let me know if it reaches them.

But I think we can still use Google Trends as a diffusion monitor.  It is possible when searching a term to subscribe to a weekly report on the term.  In this case, there is no report, but subscribing will, I hope, alert to me if and when the numbers for this phrase get more robust.

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I can’t find a way to draw on an image within WordPress, but see “Subscribe” in bold in the upper-right-hand corner of this clip.

It’s never occurred to me before to treat people as detectors, as trip wires, and ask them to report when they first hear a phrase.  That plus a Google Trend, should help a little to show us how fast this social innovation is traveling.

I would be grateful if readers who’ve heard the phrase would let us know when and where they did.  If you haven’t heard the phrase, it would be great if you could report back when you do.

Trend watch: big weddings in decline?

(Photo by Lyndsey Goddard. See more of her wonderful work here.)

At the VCU Brandcenter last week, Gautam Ramdurai gave a dazzling display of the tools that Google puts at our disposal when it comes to tracking trends.

This weekend I looked at weddings.

By one reckoning, weddings account for $52 billion of expenditure in the US.  And most of it goes to local “mom and pop” operations: florist, caterers, photographers, seamstresses, musicians and planners.  That makes weddings a mighty engine of our local economies.

Here’s what I got from Google Trends:

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These data are interesting because almost no one else seems to be talking about a decline in the industry.  In fact, most of the chatter on line describes a wedding industry that scales ever upward.

There is some small journalistic encouragement for the “decline” argument.  Writing for the NYT, Helaine Olen says,

The lower-key wedding, if still a bit unexpected, is having a moment…

Turning to everything from public parks to the living rooms of friends and family, couples are recreating the traditional wedding one ceremony at a time. […]

The Wedding Report, a market research firm, has been tracking the change, noting that in the last year, couples participating in the company’s surveys have increasingly reported a desire for “fun, romantic, simple, casual and unique weddings.”

Vendors concur.

“The backyard is the new ballroom,” said Amy Kaneko, an events planner in San Francisco.

Stacy Scott, a caterer in Marin County, Calif., added, “I think people are waking up to the insanity that is the wedding market.”

Still, it would be wrong to rush to conclusions.  The Google Trend data is merely suggestive.  (Google searches for these topics may be falling because there is now an “oral culture” shared by friends that supplies the knowledge and contacts needed to stage a wedding.  Hence the decline in searches for “wedding planner.”)  And the New York Times story may merely report the exceptions made vivid by the larger trend.

But let’s say there is a trend here.  Let’s say weddings of the “hang the expense, let it rip, more is always better, nothing less than sumptuous will do” kind are in decline.

There is LOTS to think and say about this trend.  “Big weddings in decline” is a trend that must have many causes and many effects.  (I fear especially for those local economies.)

I will leave it to commenters to dig into the cause or effect of their choice. And, yes, if necessary, to insist that I am delusional and that there is no evidence that the big wedding is in any kind of peril.

Glee as the new American Idol

Is Glee the new American Idol? Could be.  Certainly, Glee has momentum at the moment, and American Idol after a long and spectacular run in the first moments of its decline.  This image, from Google trends, shows Glee over taking American Idol some time in the last quarter…at least as a search term on line.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Glee is the new American Idol.  We may not be correct but we do at least have the opportunity for speculation that would not otherwise occur to us, and with this, we have the opportunity for an early warning.  (The Chief Culture Officer is prepared to be wrong much of the time in order to be "sighted" some of the time.)

Some things don’t seem to change at all.  Both shows seem devoted to the endless recitation of popular culture that is actually not all that popular anymore.  American Idol seems determined to ignore most of what has happened to music since the 1990s.  Glee the same.  (Readers of this blog will know that I take these to be one of several indicators that the "alternative" sensibility of the 1990s is now on the wane.  More evidence?  The decline of Parks and Recreation and Community and of NBC and the now departed Ben Silverman who used to work there.)

But there are some interesting differences.  American Idol devotes itself to intensely personal stories, as kids claw their way to the top.  It’s all terribly authentic. Some of the point of the exercise is to get to know these kids, to root for them, to watch a star being born.   Glee on the other hand is an exercise in flat out artifice.  We don’t get to know the "real" actors beneath the characters and there isn’t very much to get to know about the characters themselves.  This is musical theater, with much more emphasis on the music than the theater.  Indeed, the Glee plot is finally just a device for song and dance delivery. There is some dramatic continuity, some dramatic tension, but its exists for the purposes of cheap sentiment more than character development.  

Indeed, Glee appears designed for modularity.  We can break kids out for song and dance purposes and we can drop celebrities in.  I noticed today that show co-creator Ryan Murphy is suggesting that Susan Boyle appear as a lunch lady.  And with this the possibilities are endless.  Wayne Newton as the janitor can’t be far away.  Just so long as you are recognizable and can burst into song.  And this really is artifice.  Now every actor and character is just a place keeper, a pretext for the infusion of more music.

At their best, the 1990s were a time of unstinting authenticity.  I remember an editor of an alternative music magazine telling me that he couldn’t get photos of the bands he was covering because the bands insisted that a photo would demand that they "pose" and that was precisely the sort of falsehood their music was designed to refuse.  

Pose?   In the era of Glee, it’s "where would you like me?  And what expression should I wear?"  It’s not about authenticity.  It’s about being as emotionally compliant as necessary. Stardom is so precious a capital, we will pay anything for it.  We will endure TMZ coverage and much, much worse.  

By this reckoning, and it’s only a reckoning, American culture is now governed by the rules of musical theater, where kids live for the "one big break," and make any compromise necessary to get there.  This takes us several light years away from the sensibility that came out of the Pacific Northwest in the late 1980s.  Chrystal Bowersox has something of this sensibility, and her victory, if that’s what happens on American Idol, may be last hurrah.  

References

Stack, Tim.  2010.  Susan Boyle to play McKinley High Lunch Lady.  Entertainment Weekly. May 19.  here.