This year's Facebook, Twitter and Google trends have reaffirmed my faith in humans

It's the time of year for lists and round-ups, but what do they say about society?

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The Independent Online

It's the end of December and a top ten time of year, for social media especially. Twitter, Facebook and Google have gobbled up our typings and spat out the year’s top trending topics, right into the salivating jaws of the traffic-hungry webberati. But this year's lists have restored my faith in humankind.

At first look, these social media round-ups are so random and obvious as to be meaningless. Of course Mandela's death 'trended': just as he had a huge influence in, life, so his passing was felt worldwide. But what does Paul Walker have in common with Syria? Or Pope Francis with Thatcher? Finding a common thread tells us a lot about how people are using social media.

Grief has really been the top trend this year, with Margaret Thatcher, Mandela, Cory Monteith and Paul Walker making every list. It is not surprising that these names reappear. Grief can be intensely private, but a community remembering together be both an outlet and a way of celebrating the life of a person who has died. The most retweeted tweet of the year was Lea Michele, who used the microblogging site to thank everyone for their love and remember her boyfriend and co-star Cory Monteith after his sudden death. Every retweet of that post was a recognition of her pain and loss and a little wordless offer of support. This reflective relationship between death and the internet is reflected in Google searches too. People want to raid the internet's elephantine memory to find out Mandela's history, to know what made Thatcher's policies so controversial, and to see old pictures of Paul Walker. Especially now there will be no more photos. The healing power of social media isn't often discussed but if you look how heavily people use Facebook to share their grief after they've lost someone, whether it's a family member or a world leader, it shows how sharing online can be a source of comfort.

It's also fairly remarkable that Pope Francis was the most talked-about topic on Facebook. Although some point to dwindling congregations as evidence that society is being stripped of its spirituality, social media suggests something entirely different. The Pope’s message has found an audience online, for atheists and catholics alike. This is even more remarkable considering how many internet communities are sceptical of religion. Yet positivity generally spreads further than negativity. People want to share things that have made them feel good - they want to make other people feel good. Much of what the Pope has said and done this year has struck a universal note.

I’d also like to think empathy has led many of the top terms this year. Typhoon Haiyan was one of the most talked about topics on Facebook along with the Boston Marathon. Syria led the international trends on Twitter. These events, heavy with human suffering, have struck a chord with many. People do take the mick out of ‘Facebook likes’ offering nothing to real victims, but before aid comes to the desire to help and there have been strong charity appeals for both Syria and victims of the Typhoon on social media. Another reason to keep talking about these events on social media is that it shows the traditional media that this topic has an audience. Keeping these events in the news keeps them top of mind, and can help those suffering to get the support they need.

What has really buoyed my soul about this year’s trends though is the Google ‘what is’ and ‘how to’ searches. It may have seemed like everybody was talking about twerking, but actually nobody knew what the hell it was: this year’s top search was ‘what is twerking’. The other searches that revealed our moronic bent were the people googling Google. It seems lots of people were too embarrassed to ask their mates what ‘Yolo’ meant, putting that in the top ten. The other searches that made me chuckle included ‘what is zumba’ and ‘what is spooning’. It was also curious that people thought Google might have the answer to the meaning of life. 

Of course, these more spiritual searches sit side-by-side with people looking for Breaking Bad, talking about the Harlem Shake and gawping at Miley Cyrus. But looking past our deeply flawed, banal and gossipy tendencies, this year’s trends have reaffirmed for me that essentially, we want to be nice humans.