Ever heard of KaZaA? How about Dragonball? OK, maybe not if you're over 25. But unless you've spent the last several years in a sensory-deprivation tank you know something about Kobe Bryant and Britney Spears, celebrities famous for being both naughty and nice. And of course you're familiar with the IRS, the folks you faithfully write to every spring (we hope).
What do these people and terms have in common? They're among the most popular topics looked for on the Internet in 2003.
Each year the people at Lycos tally up the millions of words people tap into their computers to conduct searches. They do a little screening first, throwing out some things like sex terms, commercial products, and song lyrics. The result is their list of the Top 100 most popular searches - a kind of index of the zeitgeist: what's hot or not, on the way in or out. (Other search engines, such as Google, do similar surveys, but Lycos claims its tallies, which began more than four years ago, were the first.)
So what were the most popular searches this year? Not the file-swapping service Morpheus or tennis-playing pinup Anna Kournikova. These were among the terms that dropped way down. They were so, well, 2002. This year's No. 1 is KaZaA, a descendant of once-famous Napster that lets you download, play, and distribute music, images, and videos on the Net.
KaZaA bumped the top topic of 2002, a popular Japanese animé seen on the Cartoon Network called Dragonball, down to No. 3. Rounding out the Top 10 were Christmas, the NFL, wealthy wild child and reality TV show star Paris Hilton, actress Pamela Anderson, and Brooke Burke, host of the "Wild On" travel series on the "E! Network."
The people who search Lycos may not exactly mirror society in general, concedes Aaron Schatz, who compiles the yearly list. But they are a fair representation of who's on line. That means that they're about equally men and women, under 45, and not low-income. And they're usually searching the Net at work, not at home.
Mr. Schatz writes what he calls "a fun little column" on Web searches every day at 50.lycos.com. "It's a kind of 'America's Top 40' of popular culture," he says. He enjoys seeing how waves of interest surge and crash, and sometimes swirl in fascinating eddies. For example, he says, during the Iraq war Al Jazeera, the Arabic TV network, was a more popular search than "Iraq" (and three times as popular as "sex"!) because it was showing tapes of captured US POWs that US networks were not. The moral: People go to the Web for what they can't get from the mainstream media, he says.
Fads come and go, from diets (Atkins and South Beach are still hot) to celebrities to rock bands, movies, and TV shows. Clay Aiken was unknown in January 2003, but after finishing second to Ruben Studdard in the TV talent competition "American Idol" last summer he became the third-most searched for male on the Internet, behind Kobe Bryant and rapper 50 Cent. Interestingly, Mr. Aiken gets 20 times as many searches as Mr. Studdard, Schatz says, and his fans are not teenage girls, but middle-aged women. In the world of movies, the many searches for actor Orlando Bloom ("The Lord of the Rings") show that he, not Johnny Depp, was the real box-office magnet behind the blockbuster "The Pirates of the Caribbean."
What might be hot in 2004? Movie studio hype ensures that big-budget new flicks like "Troy" (with Brad Pitt), "Harry Potter 3," and "Catwoman" ("it could make Halle Berry an even bigger star," Schatz says) will get plenty of searches. So should the Summer Olympics in Athens, which will create its own new group of athletic darlings. The rock band "Good Charlotte," beloved by teenage girls, may break through to a wider audience. And long before Howard Dean won Al Gore's approval this week he's been looking like the Democratic nominee: Dean has been receiving more searches than the rest of the candidates combined.
Though Schatz has tracked trends for years, he's still amazed by some popular searches, like the growing interest in televised poker games. But his candidate for strangest-yet fad is what Lycos has summed up as "motorcycle customization shows."
You are watching cable hits like "Motorcycle Mania," "Monster Garage," and "American Chopper," aren't you? They are so 2003.