Does what we search for online reflect our fears?
There’s a growing obsession in the UK, it would seem, with ‘hoodies’—young people who wear sports clothing with hoods who maraud in gangs. Michael Caine has just starred in a movie about them (well, a revenge fantasy about them.) This Guardian piece explores the movie-making potential of this phenomenon.
Recently a female documentary film maker was saved from a group of iron bar-wielding “feral girls” by the bike-riding mayor of London (I’ve always wanted to write the headline for the story).
So is this “growing fear” reflected online?
Well, yes, it is.
Here’s what a graph of British people searching for ‘hoodies’ looks like:
As you can see, it’s been a growing interest, more than doubling in the past five years.
But it’s also showing a weird seasonal element. Interest drops off in the summer months, and then rises towards the end of the year. Every year for the past five years, searches have peaked in either December or November. The lowest point each year is June or July.
I don’t know why that is. One guess would be that in the summer attacks tail off. It would be interesting to see if there’s any correlation there with the actual figures on attacks. (Update: Commenters have rightly pointed out that the seasonal interest probably has more to do with online shoppers. Thanks, and sorry for not thinking of this.)
The Guardian piece quotes research by the group Women in Journalism back in March as finding that, among other things, 79% of adults are more wary of teenage boys than they were a year ago, and that the most commonly used descriptions of such boys in the UK press were ‘yobs’ and ‘thugs’ followed by ‘sick’, ‘feral’, ‘hoodies’ and ‘louts’ (PDF version of the report is here.)
Online, however, the trend is clearer: ‘Hoodie’ (light blue) is the preferred search term, and has been since late 2006, replacing the ‘thug’ and ‘scum’ of the mid 2000s:
I don’t know whether this is meaningful, but another word used to describe this perceived underclass of British use is ‘chav’, a term of obscure origin. Compare searches for the words ‘chav’ and ‘hoodie’ and you see this:
Clearly the word ‘chav’ (in red) was most popular—or one that people were hearing but not familiar with, and so needed to look it up—in late 2004. It has been in decline since then and has indeed been overtaken by ‘hoodie’ (in blue):
I don’t know whether this is meaningful or not. Wikipedia cites ‘chav’ as common parlance by 2004 (unfortunately Google’s data does not go further back than that, but the rise in 2004 is clear.)
I tend to believe that Google searches are as revealing as anything else about what people are interested in, or worried about—indeed more so than surveys, because people don’t lie to Google.