Growing up, my brothers and I always made fun of one particular phrase my parents and relatives used: Latest.
The definition was pretty much literal—hip, cool, trendy. But its grammatical applications I questioned.
“Her saris are always different, for each occasion,” would say my mother. “She is the latest.”
“Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was too good. Ek dam latest,” would say my cousin, piling Indian-ism upon Indian-ism.
Now, the folks at Google have given us a global equivalent and new moniker for the intangible idea behind latest: zeitgeist. (Fittingly, the word that means “spirit of the times” and exudes a certain robust universality comes from the German.)
Last week, the search engine giant that made its brand a household verb released its top 10 lists of fastest growing searches worldwide. This year marked the first that India got its very own Google Zeitgeist.
By the looks of it, we are obsessed with Mahatma Gandhi and Sania Mirza, technology and Aishwarya Rai. We love our Orkut and holidays in Kerala.
But after browsing with interest the lists, divided by terms, celebrities, athletes, politicians and places, I somehow felt the latest zeitgeist really doesn’t represent the pulse of this nation. It does not capture the tier II cities or the dichotomies of New India that everyone has become obsessed with understanding lately. Every other day, I field an entrepreneur’s phone call asking for help making sense of it all (free consulting, basically). I politely decline, citing a conflict of interest as a journalist.
But the lists, coupled with the end-of-year impulse to assess progress and make projections, spurred me to delve a little deeper. I bypassed the aggregated data that makes up the Zeitgeist and looked into what we are searching for day to day, using a tool known as Google Trends, unveiled in May 2006. Google Trends essentially neatly organizes which nations search for what and which are the most popular searched terms on a given day or week.
Take, for example, the week ended 21 November: four of the 10 top trends were related to teachers recruitment board exams. One trend was a website for government staff selection, while another related to the common admission test (CAT). Another was the National Institute of Industrial Engineering.
For comparison’s sake, on the same day, the US top trends included the high-profile murder of a woman, road conditions in Iowa and how long a turkey should be cooked in the oven. (It was the day before Thanksgiving.)
The key difference, of course, is that ours is an aspirational economy. Theirs is already there. (Whether you actually want to be cooking turkeys and obsessed with the weather is another thing altogether).
On Christmas Day, Google Trends shows that the Americans wanted to know about a tiger killing a tourist at the San Francisco Zoo, the retailers and restaurants open on Christmas, and sales for the next day.
In India, we too got into the holiday spirit, asking about Christmas and New Year SMS-es and how many reindeer Santa Claus has. But we also wanted to know about the Railways Recruitment Board in Ranchi and how best to file our taxes.
The day-to-day trends strike me because they conjure an image of hordes of youth in cyber cafes hungry for opportunity, watching the clock to ensure they don’t go a minute over an hour. I picture people who still see jobs at railways and public sector undertakings as safe bets, who might not realize the possibilities that await in a private sector craving talent as it never has before.
I asked Vinay Goel, head of products for Google India, what he made of the difference. He cautioned that the Zeitgeist is intentionally aggregated and summarizes year-long trends and search terms, not the most popular day in and day out. He also notes a distinction in content sought in India and the US.
“Where is the local electrician, plumber?” he asks. “The local electrician here has never been on the Internet. …What I see happening now is a lot of people are trying to get a lot of that basic local information. …The US folks don’t necessarily use Google as much as a navigational tool.”
While he meant navigation in the technical sense, it’s an apt metaphor for what a search engine still means an India—not to bake a turkey or chance upon some grisly photos of victims of violence—but a road map for life. Really, it is an apt metaphor for the India that still is.
This economy is often framed as one facing an acute talent shortage. Google Trends tell us we need to rethink this notion. Clearly, a large segment of the population is attempting to leverage technology to gain access. For all who gripe about the dearth of talented candidates, it is a reminder that we must meet the Googlers halfway, perhaps help them become the latest, too.
Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org