The story in your searches

A reflection on the plague year, as told through the things I Googled

Happy Wednesday, friends.

… and welcome to the midweek special edition! None of you unsubscribed after the last one, so I figured we might as well keep doing this.

Last week I spoke with Google’s data editor, Simon Rogers, for a story involving search data that should (!) publish Friday. The story is light and fun and concerns pandemic foods, so … we mostly talked about bread recipes.

At one point, however, Simon made an offhand comment about search data that struck me as sort of profound: Search trends don’t just reflect interest or zeitgeist, he said, but also gaps in people’s knowledge. We turn to Google with our dumbest, most mundane questions. (I Google synonyms and antonyms at least 10 times a day.) But sometimes the things we wish to know, and don’t know yet, are deeply ominous or shameful or just … heavy.

If you want to better understand what I’m talking about, try pulling up your Google Activity for the past 12 months. (Yes, I know — smarter/savvier people than I will have this feature turned off.) I spent some time this week going through my own searches, and essentially found the pandemic journal I forgot to keep. These ones, for instance, are all from March 2020.

Reading through these searches now, I’m reminded how much my experience and understanding of Covid-19 changed. And I’m *alarmed* by the stunning number of times I Googled “Covid-19 symptom” + whatever minor upset ailed me that day.

But there’s also a story here, right? You can see a narrative arc in these searches. Or at least I can, since I lived them.

As always, please let me know what you think of this special edition — you can hit “reply” or ping me on Twitter. And if this kind of thing interests you, check out the interview Vox did with Simon last May. See you Friday!

— Caitlin1

April 2020

May 2020

Summer 2020

Fall & Winter 2020

Winter 2021


FYI, the header icon in this post is by Dayanarra Pantig at Noun Project. It is amazingly difficult to find free icons online in the year of our Lord 2021, so I’m very grateful to them!