One of the dubious pleasures of blogging is the availability of analytics. I say ‘dubious’ here, because although Google and WordPress helpfully offer me a wide variety of data that I can sift and track according to any number of metrics, it isn’t altogether clear to me why such data is useful. Of course, if I were offering advertisements on my site, or if I intended to approach someone for funding, being able to track my readership would be extremely useful. But I don’t, and so I’m left with pages and pages of data that I mostly ignore, though sometimes I check my stats pages in much the same obsessive way that some of my friends check their Facebook walls or Twitter feeds.
Today, I got to thinking about my sense that the current fever of apocalyptophilia we find ourselves in is a relatively recent phenomena. I’m not in any way arguing that human beings have not always had a kind of horrified fascination for imagining the end of (all) things, or that we’ve never before gone through such periods in our history, only that the contemporary moment feels somewhat unique. Part of that feeling, I am sure, stems from the fact that I pay attention to any occurrences of apocalyptic rhetoric and therefore I see more of it than others would. Once you are primed to look for something, you tend to see it. Nothing controversial there.
But I do have a sense that there has been a measurable rise in ‘apocalyptomania’, a condition I liken to a kind of social hypochondria where every difficulty, every large-scale phenomena is suddenly elevated to the status of an extinction-level geophysical event. In addition to the perennial interest in the apocalypse narrowly construed (anything related to a particular Christian eschatological preoccupation), we’ve also had stormpocalypses and snowpocalypses and in Los Angeles we even had a carpocalypse with the temporary closing of the 405 freeway for construction. And so, as they say, I had a curious.
Lucky for me, Google Trends was there to help. It turns out that the last year or so has seen a distinct rise in curiosity about apocalypse, at least according to the prevalence of the term in Google search data. That peak in September 2004 represents the high point of this interest (and is coincident – see point N in the graph above – with the release of the disappointing Resident Evil: Apocalypse), with a fairly steady drop off. Interest in the apocalypse as a phenomenon began to climb again in October 2008 (coincident with the early days of the world financial crisis and just before the election of Barack Obama to the U.S. Presidency). Not all of those high points are related to the particularly Christian understanding of apocalypse, though the highest points are. Point E represents the spike in interest in May 2011 during the height of the hysteria stirred up by Harold Camping and the helpful folks at Family Radio Worldwide over the impending (and still delayed) end of the world, while the spike at point A represents the ‘zombie apocalypse‘ hysteria sparked by a series of gruesome news reports.
But there’s an even more interesting graph to be had here when you just search for instances of “pocalypse” as a suffix.
See that line? Assuming that my methodology and search terms are valid (not always a safe assumption, mind you), the story here seems quite clear. In September/October 2008 (See above Re: global financial crisis) there was a sudden bump in the suffix ‘pocalypse’ being added to more and more words. The extreme spike again is May 2011, and is most likely related to the above mentioned Camping/Family Radio fizzle. Since the calmdown after The End failed to materialize in May, we don’t seem to have reset to zero but to have established one of the many ‘new normals’ of contemporary life where everything begins to take on apocalyptic proportions.
Incidentally, in my research today, I noticed this little gem. Neil deGrasse Tyson has a much better track record than Harold Camping at bringing an end to planets, so we’d best hope that this isn’t an omen.