The other day, as I entered a Google search into my phone’s browser and was confronted with a list of all the week’s other searches—restaurants that stayed open late, a friend’s new love interest, factoids I’d looked up before chiming in at a work meeting, a health worry, and whether a famous singer was gay—I had the thought that perhaps simply writing down all my daily searches might be a more honest diaristic rendering of my life, both its external activities and internal musings, than any sort of narrative journal. I immediately tweeted that thought. I don’t keep a diary, but I do social-network.
This week, Twitter, Facebook, and Google all released their end-of-year lists, complete with inspirational-music-filled video montages of the year’s top preoccupations and stylish visualizations of the rankings Taken together, it’s a data-driven, populist rebuke to the usual critics’ top-ten lists, which, Jack Shafer grumbles, are both arbitrary and lazy on the part of readers and writers alike. Shafer’s other criticism applies doubly, it would seem to a user-generated list. " [L]ike children and their favorite storybooks, consumers of news love hearing the same stories over and over again, "he writes. "They take comfort in being told what they already know, in listening for subtle variations on a familiar theme during the retelling, of being granted tacit permission to zone out and fall asleep while reading the reprise. They love the brevity. They love not having to concentrate too hard on new information."
After all, who’s really shocked that Hurricane Sandy, Kate Middleton, and the Olympics were the most-googled events in the world? That the places people checked into most via Facebook included theme parks and ballparks? That people loved to append YOLO and SMH to descriptions of their lives? That we searched for and yearned after the iPad3? That the most retweeted tweets involved Barack Obama and Justin Bieber? (I was, however, a bit surprised to discover via Facebook’s end of year list that apparently Americans have all been trying the Cinnamon Challenge.) Dick Clark and Whitney Houston and Trayvon Martin are all people Americans cared about. Yes, we read The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Grey, but The Great Gatsby makes the top ten, too. Madonna and Honey Boo Boo clock in at numbers six and seven on Facebook’s public-figures list, one generation’s shocking material girl passing the torch to the next’s. The lists are predictable and lower-middle-brow and easily mocked, if you want—but they’re also beautiful artifacts of our time, a reminder that as atomized as we get, that even if we’re bowling alone, we’re Facebooking together.
Twitter and Facebook also offer the option for a personalized year-in-review, a digital scrapbook of all the things we’ve decided to make public that got the most reactions from our friends. And while I’d rather see a personalized year-in-review of all the things I’ve Googled, I’d also probably be creeped out by such an easily coallated reminder of all the things I wanted to keep private. So for now, this public notebook of all that moved us enough to pick at the keypad on our phones is enough for me (if I don’t think too hard about how easily mined the data troves are). We might not be proud in fifty years of our obsession with Ms. Boo Boo, and by December we might be ashamed of having tried to eat all that cinnamon so quickly, but as Joan Didion memorably wrote about her own note-jotting, “we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” These lists aren’t our best cultural selves, but they’re our true cultural selves. Nowadays, we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the hashtags we used to use. Besides, #YOLO. Might as well have a record of how we all spent it.