Britney Spears and Kevin Federline
Britney Spears and Kevin Federline (Photo: J. Merritt/FilmMagic)

Today marks the 15th anniversary of Google Trends, and to mark the occasion, the search behemoth released a set of handy lists comparing today’s top queries with those dating back to its launch in May 2006. Fifteen years ago, people were busy searching for the lyrics to Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day;” today they’re searching for Billie Eilish’s “Your Power.” Angelina Jolie topped the list of most searched actors in 2006. Today it’s Jennifer Lopez, with Ben Affleck just behind —because time is a flat circle.

The initial batch of lists posted this morning actually compared the most searched terms from May 2004, when Google started keeping track of trending data. Interestingly, when they updated the page, they swapped out the original list comparing most searched celebrities for most searched actors. But I think that first list reveals a lot more about how our culture has changed over the years.

A screenshot of Google Trends' Most Searched Celebrities lists
A screenshot of Google Trends’ Most Searched Celebrities lists

With the exception of Paris Hilton, the top five celebrities that people were googling in 2004 were all either pop stars or movie stars. Back then, our cultural attention was still primarily fixed on the entertainment industry. Britney Spears was all over the radio and MTV, and her relationship with Kevin Federline was just beginning to feed the ravenous maw of the tabloids. Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were Hollywood’s golden couple, starring in their own marriage as well as major movies and hit shows. Lindsay Lohan was at the pinnacle of her career, riding high on the massive success of Mean Girls. Even Hilton was on TV on The Simple Life.

The point is that they were all entertainers of one type or another, and the sort of entertainment they produced — music, film, TV — had been around for decades. With that in mind, the 2021 list looks very different. Again, we have an outlier in Jennifer Lopez, but the rest of the top five names are either influencers, political figures or — terrifyingly — both.

I don’t need to explain how reality TV and social media have reshaped celebrity culture. YouTubers and influencers are the new celebs, complete with stomach-turning scandals and controversies. And smarter people than I have written about how American politics has turned into a 24-hour sideshow, sucking up more of our attention than ever before. But seeing these two lists side-by-side really drives the message home.

Of course, these lists don’t reveal anything about why people were googling Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan in 2004 any more than they reveal why people are googling Donald Trump and Caitlyn Jenner now. It’s probably safe to assume, now as then, it’s some mix of fascination and morbid curiosity. They also don’t reveal what those searches might have turned up in 2004. Possibly some photos from Spears’ Onyx Hotel Tour or a juicy bit of gossip about her relationship with Federline. Maybe an interview with Lohan about Mean Girls. I’m not sure I want to know what I’d find if I were to google Donald Trump or Caitlyn Jenner now.

Maybe the biggest takeaway from comparing these two lists is what they tell us about how differently we chose to spend our time now. Unless you’re an entertainment journalist, googling actors and pop stars is probably a leisurely activity, a diversion; like reading the tabloids or a magazine profile. Googling ersatz political hucksters like Trump or Jenner, for all their sideshow antics, is something else. It speaks politics’ continuing encroachment on our time and attention; of our increased engagement, sure, but also of our increased anxiety.