At a holiday party tonight for Untapped, journalist Sheila Marikar introduced me to Google Trends, a program that could dramatically shake up journalism and politics.
The journalism buzz is that Google already so dominates the information landscape that if it started producing original content, it could a devastating blow to traditional media. The details were lost in a batch of hot cider mixed with George Washington’s favorite liquor, but I surmise it has something to do with Google being able to produce the content it knows its audience is looking for. The audience leading the news. A scary thought.
Moving on to politics, where I’m in more comfortable ground, I took a look at the Google Trends for the 2013 candidates for Mayor of New York City. Watching Bloomberg wheeze around the track is like watching the anchor of your relay team gasping for breath and clutching a cramp in his side, opposing runners passing him left and right. It doesn’t feel premature to look ahead.
Here is a Google Trend of Christine Quinn, Scott Stringer, Bill de Blasio, Ray Kelly and John Liu over the last 12 months. Kelly’s presence helps explain the graph, though his reiteration that he’s not running seemed sufficiently serious for Ed Koch to endorse Quinn.
The trend lines reinforce what we already know- most people don’t give a damn about our local officials one way or another. This is no dig at New Yorkers- a strong majority of Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary voters make up their minds in the final weeks, after more than a year of relentless media attention, advertising and personal visits from would be “leaders of the free world.” The public’s google interest in the local yokels is virtually flatlined at zero, with media mentions running slightly above that. There are spikes, of course, and they provide real political guidance.
Spikes are for big stories, the kind that get into AM New York, that people might chat about in the elevator. For Quinn, google interest levels spike only once, in July, when as New York’s most prominent gay politician she was often highlighted in the gay marriage legislative debate. This a positive story for her, in contrast to overturning term limits and slush funds, the other times media interest spiked (though Google searches remained negligible). For Kelly, the biggest spike came surrounding the raid of Zuccotti Park, not his finest moment. The other major spike this year came from a poll showing him in the lead among potential mayoral hopefuls (wag the dog potential). Stringer and de Blasio barely show up, but poor John Liu takes the cake with the increased attention following his fundraising scandal. For much of New York City (who snoozed through a ho-hum comptroller race), this may be their first taste of Liu.
I wish I could dig deeper into the data- searching by the last few weeks and zooming in on the trend lines, for example. Google is likely working all kinds of magic with such data in a variety of areas, and knows how much it’s worth. But even with these rudimentary tools, we can short-circuit the work of pollsters and see how much the public and media are responding to candidates. We can try a similar exercise with national politics, though as a believer in the need for robust local government, there’s something valiant about trying to break through the clutter and distractions into New Yorkers’ psyche. Unfortunately, the best way to break through these days is to trample civil liberties or surround yourself in scandal.
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