Who is the hot celebrity du jour, you may wonder? Look no further than the Lycos 50, where you'll discover that buxom comedian Jenny McCarthy is currently beating Latin crooner Ricky Martin; Martin is falling fast but still beating out nymphette rocker Christina Aguilera; and all of the above are trailing TV starlets Alyssa Milano and Jennifer Love Hewitt. But the enduring Pamela Anderson has them all beat. Thank God for youth and breast implants (and removal).
"The Lycos 50 with Fritz Holznagel," which launched last Wednesday, surveys the search engine's lists of most-searched terms, compiling charts and commentary on the popularity of various items. The result is an amusing -- and occasionally surprising -- barometer of pop culture, trends, hot news and seasonal quirks. Or, as Holznagel himself explains, "We are interested in the rising and falling of the public consciousness."
Take last week's Top 50 list as an example: Maybe it makes sense that Pokemon and Britney Spears (popular trading card game and teen chanteuse, respectively) would dominate the top two positions, but who would have guessed that Russian tennis player Anna Kournikova would have rocketed up to No. 29? And why are more people searching for "frogs" than "the Bible"? (Could it have something to do with dissection season beginning in high school biology classes around the world?)
The Lycos 50 is sponsored by Lycos and compiled from daily numbers provided by Lycos' internal data mining group. Holznagel and his team then scour the list for misspellings ("There must be at least eight ways to spell Britney Spears," says Holznagel) and related concepts, and purge it of popular generic terms like weather, sex and mp3. Besides the weekly top 50, Holznagel provides daily commentary on news events (such as how the weekend's championship boxing match drove Net traffic) and a section called Mystery Terms -- "These terms are getting heavy traffic lately and we have no idea why" -- which includes such mysterious hits as Somerset, Juliet and laundry. Readers are invited to posit reasons for the popularity of these terms ("The money laundering going on in Russia perhaps?")
The list is an homage to the mainstream and lowbrow -- hence the overwhelming presence of video games, boy bands and pneumatic-breasted starlets -- but those who care will be heartened to know that poetry, while trailing the WWF, is still hanging strong at No. 18. Still, don't expect Ludwig Wittgenstein to make a surprise appearance on the Lycos 50 anytime soon -- unless there's a made-for-TV movie about mad philosophers, since, as Holznagel points out, much of the traffic seems driven by television appearances and media hype.
Is this a bleak indication of the devolving interests and education of American society? Holznagel pauses. "I wouldn't call it bleak; I think it's an indication that the Net is still widely used as an entertainment medium," he explains. "The Net is really a pop culture medium; the demographics are still people under 30. It's partly a reflection of the audience and, more, a reflection of the age."