Flashback: A 2008 vs. 2007 Analysis

Vera H-C Chan, Buzz Log senior editor

The Web equivalent of reading tea leaves, at least here at Yahoo!, is sifting through billions of searches. From last year’s frenzy of queries about the Wii, Britney Spears’ shaven-headed outburst, and tainted pet food, we declared ourselves a culture teetering on the brink. Thus, the gravitational pull to dub 2008 as “the year we fell off the cliff” is strong indeed. Yet even as the domino effect of domestic subprime mortgages threatens a global market collapse, a strange thing happened on the way to this meltdown: the politics of hope and Olympian spirit. Welcome, then, to the seesaw volatility of 2008, a year of pinnacles and pitfalls.

Politics as Unusual
Political debate supplanted the spectator sport of rubbernecking at the scene of celebrity train wrecks. People barely had time to craft and break New Year resolutions before they had to decide on primary candidates. The Republican field brimmed with a wide range of contenders; the historic nature of the Democratic contest, however, pulled in a search flurry for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and also inspired thousands to look up “how to register to vote.” The entwined fate of Michigan and Florida Democratic votes, the increasingly tight race, and the Web as the new political stumping grounds all propelled the American electorate into a year-long online civics course about delegates, superdelegates, and the mysteries of the Electoral College.

Celebrity Growing Pains
With the media frenzy focused elsewhere, a few fallen stars quietly picked themselves up: Britney Spears won a VMA award and relaunched her website, Lindsay Lohan settled into a reasonably monogamous relationship, and Paris Hilton even took advantage of a campaign slap in the face. True, ever younger pop stars got themselves into trouble: A come-hither Vanity Fair photo shoot backfired on Disney phenom Miley Cyrus, while another Spears got herself in the family way. Cyrus’ coterie of handlers quickly managed the episode, while Jamie Lynn Spears became an unlikely model of responsible motherhood (it’s all relative) and sparked national discussions about teen pregnancy.

China and the Olympian Spirit
Aside from Brett Favre’s tiff with Green Bay Packers’ management, the sports sphere lacked last year’s raw-edged scandals. The August 2007 searches swirled around the dismaying fall of promising Atlanta Falcons’ star quarterback Michael Vicks over a dog-fighting scandal. More than a year later, on 08-08-08, the world cheered for the collective Olympian spirit. Eight was the operative number not only for the Summer Games’ starting date, but also for American swimmer Michael Phelps‘ record-breaking gold-medal count. The Beijing cinematic opening ceremony, years in the making, hushed much of the uproar over China’s environmental pollution and human rights record. The concerns by no means disappeared, but countries gave credit where credit was due, as the 6-billion-strong nation at last re-entered the world stage on its own terms.

An Old World Order
The golden period, however, didn’t last long. The Cold War specter hung in the air when Russia stepped into Georgian territory (although some searchers got that region confused with Hotlanta’s state), and North Korea petulantly began firing up its nuclear reactors again. Accomplishments in Iraq were offset by rising violence in Afghanistan. Even those threats paled when the heartbreaking loss of a few American homes turned into a countrywide subprime collapse that threatened to take all the financial markets with it. The 2007 pleasures over tech toys or worries about recalls had to be put aside, as people tried to keep track of institutional closures, personal finances, and bailout plans.

Economic Baggage
At some level, we weren’t entirely unprepared: The warning signs that the economy would literally bring us to a standstill came in the form of rising gas prices and closing airlines. Security concerns had long dampened the pleasures of travel, but passengers found themselves put out even before the economy nose-dived. A federal appeals court struck down a passenger bill of rights, the Federal Aviation Administration randomly grounded flights after a whistleblower exposed a cozy relationship between the FAA and airlines, and companies (Aloha Airlines, ATA) shut down in rapid succession or curtailed schedules. Then the indignity truly began, as airlines began nickel-and-diming travelers by taking away foods and charging to check luggage. “Staycation” became the new buzzword of Buzz, even as searches soared intently yet fruitlessly for travel websites and deals for “cheapest airline tickets.”

Earth, Wind, and Solar Power
The mood, however, didn’t entirely shift from saving our world to saving ourselves. Searches for the concepts “global warming,” “air pollution,” “ethanol,” and “endangered species” dropped compared to last year, even as the Bush administration poised to revamp the Endangered Species Act. Conceivably, however, people started to move away from concepts and towards action (although “effects of global warming” queries did rise another 10%). Heavily prompted by gas prices and a slowly improving green infrastructure, people more often looked into “hybrid vehicle,” “solar panels” (+96%), “electric cars” (+173%), and “electric scooters” (+97%). The term “fuel economy” leapt back into our vocabulary, as did “wind power,” thanks partly to billionaire T. Boone Pickens. People also did more than observe “earth day” (+160%), but also paid heed to a lights-out call for a single “earth hour” on March 29.

Change, Hope, and the New Sobriety
The year may have been a time of retrenchment and new-found sobriety, but it was also a time of making do, of doing better, and overcoming. The 2008 slogan from all camps centered on change and hope, but people didn’t sit and wait for them: They lobbied, they rallied, they saved, they scrimped, they acted. Most of all, they searched for ways to understand the world around them and to take steps to make things better. As for 2009, we cannot wait.