Thomas Sutcliffe: The weird world of the news searches

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The Independent Online

As the year draws to its close,it's clear that the competition for most morale-lowering news report of the previous 12 months has been a hot one. Global warming, the war in Iraq and the crisis in Darfur have all done their bit - with Korean nuclear tests and Lebanon adding to the sense that long-range optimism may be a symptom of certifiable mental illness, rather than a viable way of looking at the world. But, although I know it doesn't really compete with any of these genuine crises, I couldn't help but feel sandbagged by the revelation, just before the contest closed, that Paris Hilton had topped the list of Google news searches for 2006.

In fact I didn't actually believe it the first time I read it. Surely there would be some qualifying detail further down pointing out that this reflected the figures only for news searches on over-privileged party girls. But no. Paris went head-to-head - if you'll forgive the term - with the most urgent issues of 2006 and came out on top. Strikingly the only entry in the top 10 that actually related to a specific news event was Hurricane Katrina, which came an unimpressive fifth after searches on Orlando Bloom, cancer and podcasting. If - as Google implies - this is a snapshot of the internet-connected zeitgeist, then the world is more frivolously dim-witted than we ever suspected.

That's a sizeable "if" of course. Perhaps all those millions of Paris Hilton searches were typed in by web-users who had just laid down the Allgemeine Zeitung or The Wall Street Journal and wanted a brief respite from serious issues. Or perhaps Google News is only only used by those in pursuit of high-level gossip. There is some reassurance in the listings for the top 10 searches which began with the words "What is", on which "What is Hezbollah?" takes the pole position - suggesting a community eager to instruct itself about world affairs.

Unfortunately this sense is undermined by the fact that the following nine queries under this heading relate to pharmaceutical drugs, so it's entirely possible that all those searchers thought that the Shia Islamist militant group was actually a proprietory defence against bird flu. "Who is Hezbollah?|" also turns up as second in the "Who is ..." top 10, just after "Who is Borat", which only confirms the general cluelessness of searchers.

I fear that the obvious implication of Paris Hilton's podium position is the true one. People care far less about matters that might affect their lives (or those of others) than about the doings of an over-privileged celebrity.

Oddly this turns out not to be a pathology of advanced capitalist society. Check out Google Trends on Paris Hilton and you discover that the internet users of Guatamala, South Africa and Venezuela were more likely, per head of population, to Google her than other countries. Of course these searches are hardly likely to be initiated in the barrios and favelas, but even so it seems counter-intuitive. And depressing. If Google's figures are correct (and they do come with a precautionary note), the internet users of Venezuela were more interested in Paris Hilton in 2006 than in their own President Hugo Chavez.

There's not a lot to be done about this, of course, and in the grander scheme of things it weighs nothing against far harsher proofs of the world's disarray. But I would suggest that until Paris Hilton drops down the league table, the far more serious problems the world faces are less likely to be solved.

Silent movie subtitles

I got quite excited when I read that Mel Gibson's Apocalypto had topped the box office charts on its opening weekend in America. This isn't because I'm a fan, but because Apocalypto is filmed entirely in a Mayan dialect, with the dialogue being subtitled. Surely, I thought, if a multiplex hit can have subtitles, then the BBC might reconsider its prejudice against the device.

Unfortunately a viewing of Apocalypto, left, has dented this hope, because it has a plot of such elementary simplicity (hero is abducted at point Y, taken to point X, where he escapes and runs all the way back to Y again) that the subtitles turn out to be pretty much redundant.

Far from rehabilitating the foreign-language film, Gibson is well on his way to re-inventing the silent.

* One of my most reliable annual treats - the reading of Alan Bennett's journal in The London Review of Books - is marred this year by the discovery that I have helped to make him glum. The entry for 2 September records him listening to Saturday Review, the arts discussion programme I present for Radio Four. At one point, a guest reviewing Mark Haddon's novel A Spot of Bother accuses the author of "Alan Bennett tweeness".

"I hope for some mild objection from one of the other participants but none is forthcoming," writes Bennett.

I can only say that at the time I was more preoccupied with the specific charge against Haddon rather than the implicit one against Bennett. But I still feel a little guilty not to have sprung to his defence. So, almost four months too late, let me rebut the remark. A brilliant observer of tweeness, perhaps, but never guilty of tweeness himself.