In times of uncertainty, search engines become oracles.
By dawn in London Friday morning, it was clear that the people of Britain had voted to leave the European Union. As people awoke to this stunning news, many of them did what you may have done, too: They googled.
This chart shows a sharp rise in searches for information about the value of the British pound, for instance, as the currency nosedived. It’s the highest ever spike of searches related to the pound, according to Google data.
In London the night before, Google saw a 680 percent spike in searches for “move to Gibraltar” after the polls closed. Across the United Kingdom in the hours that followed, Google logged a 500 percent surge in searches about buying gold. The search term “Are we in or out of the EU?” spiked more than 2,450 percent, Google said. (Incidentally, one website about how to rebuild civilization from scratch, reported a huge influx of traffic, too.)
This isn’t surprising. In less than two decades, search engines have become an essential part of how many people make sense of the world. At a time when search engines are—for some 3 billion smartphone owners across the planet—practically never out of reach, such an observation is borderline mundane.
Of course people turn to Google in times of uncertainty. Where else would they go?
People still turn to one another, of course. Digital forums, like Twitter and Facebook, increasingly occupy a cultural space that was once physical: It’s rare anymore to see a crowd assembled around a newsstand (or, for that matter, to see a newsstand at all), or a cluster of people looking up at the live-ticker wrapped around a building. (One exception may be the remaining prevalence of televisions in airport terminals, which remain a communal place for watching the news.)
As media formats have become portable and personalized, the experience of processing and understanding major world events has changed with them. This is in many ways empowering: Instead of passively letting news wash over them as events unfold, anyone with an internet connection can seek out the answers to specific questions, and very often find them. In times of uncertainty, search engines become oracles—maybe no more than they ever are, but the stakes can feel higher.
Google is, at this very moment, being flooded with questions about what’s happening in Britain and what it means for the rest of the planet. Some of the things people are asking most, according to the company:
- Are we in or out of the EU?
- When did the UK join the EU?
- What is Brexit?
- What happens if the pound collapses?
- What does it mean to leave the EU?
- What is the EU?
- Which countries are in the EU?
- What will happen now we’ve left the EU?
- How many countries are in the EU?
- Who will replace David Cameron?
- Has David Cameron resigned?
- Why did David Cameron call an EU referendum?
- Why did David Cameron resign?
- How old is David Cameron?
The search engine is a place for wondering, but it is also a machine for knowing. In ordinary moments, it’s easy to take for granted that searching online does more than satisfy idle curiosities. But when people search for answers during history-making events, it’s possible to see, if only for a spike in time, how curiosity can shape where we all end up.
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