Each year, Google puts out lists of top trending searches in the United States, giving readers a tantalizing view into America’s collective id.
Rather than simply show what people searched for the most, these lists highlight the words and phrases people are searching for this year that they weren’t the year before. In effect, these searches speak to our latest fears, desires, and questions — the things we were too embarrassed to ask anyone but Google.
As Google data editor Simon Rogers put it to me last year, “You’re never as honest as you are with your search engine. You get a sense of what people genuinely care about and genuinely want to know — and not just how they’re presenting themselves to the rest of the world.”
The lists are, naturally, all over the place, but a few common themes rose to the top, offering a glimpse of what it was really like to be an American in 2021. This year, our search histories spoke to our interest in alternative assets like cryptocurrencies and NFTs, as well as persistent economic insecurity, evidenced by our questions about when we’d get our stimulus checks and if we’d qualify for student loan forgiveness. The cultural rift between millennials and Gen Z cropped up in queries about what type of hair parts and jeans were in style, as did other social media trends that seemingly appealed to everyone, like how to make TikTok pasta or Squid Game cookies. And finally, in the year when Covid-19 vaccines became widely available, many Americans turned to the search engine to figure out how to be a normal person again, as people once again attended in-person events and had to figure out what pants people wear that aren’t sweatpants.
Economic interest — and insecurity
Depending on your vantage point, 2021 was either the year that cryptocurrency grew up into a viable financial asset, was shown to be a scam, or simply when it became mainstream. It was certainly popular on Google.
Dogecoin was the top trending topic in both the “how to pronounce” and “where to buy” categories (people were, however, more interested in where to buy it than how to say it). The price of ethereum was a top news search. Meme stocks like AMC and GameStop were also newly popular searches in 2021. They were also, incomprehensibly, well-performing on the stock market this year.
Perhaps undergirding this newfound interest in the stock market — and alternative assets as a way to get rich quick — is the persistent economic uncertainty in the US. Trending searches for Mega Millions lottery and stimulus checks suggest regular revenue streams weren’t quite panning out. Trending searches about careers included notably tenuous but flexible jobs, like Amazon sellers and Doordash drivers.
Despite postponing student loan repayments and interest through January 2022, it was common for Americans to ask about student loan forgiveness and cancellation this year. Rising student loan debt has presented a major economic roadblock for many younger Americans, causing everything from delayed homeownership to wealth inequality.
None of the trending searches around finance feel particularly stable, probably because contributing to your 401k is less sexy than the blockchain (but it’s also probably a better financial bet). Sites like TikTok are full of financial advice, but it might be smarter to use them for figuring out what to wear instead of how to build wealth.
Generational divides and TikTok trends
This year, a largely overblown war between millennials and Gen Z played out on social media and in search. The younger group made fun of millennials for doing millennial things like wearing side parts and skinny jeans — and also for not having houses. Some millennials took the criticism way too seriously and didn’t get the joke. Others simply googled whether skinny jeans or bell bottom jeans were in style (both were trending searches).
Rather than reflect anything substantive about millennial style, the melée instead illustrated a rising self-consciousness among millennials who, once the signpost for every boomer complaint, are perhaps losing cultural relevance.
The internet was also full of trends that seemingly spanned generations. Numerous food trends (TikTok pasta), style trends (dark academia), and celebrity trends (Pete Davidson) popped up in Google searches, though it’s unclear how much staying power they have since every day it seems as though something new comes down the TikTok or cultural pipeline.
As Vox’s senior culture correspondent Rebecca Jennings recently told me, virality has become even more ephemeral as the rise and fall of trends is happening faster than ever before. So even though searches for cottagecore, wolf haircuts, and hamantaschen are trending, it’s probably not necessary to figure out what they are.
How to move forward
This was the year that Americans not only acquired a working understanding of vaccines but also a voiced preference in the pharmaceutical companies offering them. “Pfizer or Moderna” was a breakout search, as people stated their allegiance for #TeamPfizer or #TeamModerna with social media posts and even merchandise. These searches held a sense of relief at their core.
In addition to searching for where to get vaccinated, searches for nearby bars, bowling, brunch, and buffets topped the trending “near me” list. These were activities that were virtually unthinkable last year, when the trending searches included finding nearby toilet paper and protests. People also newly Googled what to wear at concerts, bridal showers, and graduations — again, events that were largely nonexistent last year. These trending searches are indicators that we’re trying to remember how to be normal again after living so strangely.
Perhaps the most poignant of the trending search categories to me were searches that started with “how to be.”
It was led by how to be eligible for stimulus checks but beyond that, it pointed to a fundamental insecurity that many of us are facing after nearly two years in relative isolation: “How to be more attractive,” “How to be happy alone,” “How to be happy with yourself,” and “How to be a good kisser” all made the list.
These lists are a fun snapshot of what it’s like to be an American in 2021: awkward, hopeful, and financially and socially uncertain. They’re also a good reminder that many things about how to live can’t be figured out online.
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