"April is the cruelest month." Yes, even in May.
Last Friday morning, the opening line of "The Waste Land," T.S. Eliot's most famous poem, became one of the most explosively Googled phrases in America. (Eliot spelled "cruellest" with two L's, but I'm all in favor of editing poets for brevity.)
The line appeared on Google's aptly named Hot Trends list, a utility offered by the company that offers a glimpse of what the online nation is most furiously searching for at any given moment. Hot Trends is Google's answer to the "most viewed" pages that have become a fixture on so many news and entertainment websites. Popularity is the Web's basic unit of currency now, a dynamic that works about as well as it did in high school. Chances are you know the names of the head-turning, eye-candy types -- and have been unable to avoid the loud-mouthed troublemakers. As for the rest of us, sorry, guys, if you're not in the "in" crowd, you're just . . . in the crowd.
Hot Trends is just such a popularity contest. As I write this, a few of the top 10 phrases are "american gladiators," "suge knight knocked out," "skimpy prom dress" and "florida fires." Jocks, violence, prom queens and fire -- fail-safe ways to make sure everyone knows who you are.
So imagine my surprise when something as bookish, stuffy and uncool as a line from Modernist poetry popped up on Hot Trends in one concentrated burst. It was more than surprise, actually -- it was bafflement: What could explain a hike large enough to beat a field of popular searches that included "bikini-wearing teacher," and "hulk hogan's son?"
I searched for the Eliot phrase in hopes of finding the answer, but, ironically, Google was of little help. All it turned up were a few links to the poem and a long list of news stories from April that had invoked the month's legendarily cliched cruelty to describe gas prices, General Motors' stock performance, taxes, and Seattle Mariner Richie Sexson's batting average. But it was May 9, and the most recent of those stories was more than a week old -- whatever inspired people to start Googling the phrase, it had to have happened within the previous few hours.
Even more confusing was the list of related searches alongside the Eliot line -- the other terms the same people were searching at around the same time. Among them were "melanite," "bouzouki," and "cayenne, sugarloaf, red Spanish."
More Googling revealed that the first is a black mineral, the second an Irish stringed instrument, and the last are pineapple varieties. What any of these had to do with "The Waste Land," however, was beyond my grasp. That's the funny thing about Hot Trends. Whereas popularity lists on other sites, like YouTube, MySpace or cnn.com, are occupied by site-specific stories or video clips that people have already watched, Google's most-searched is by definition a list of what people don't yet know enough about.
And that gives rise to this strange kind of popularity mystery, in which if somewhere, for some reason, something has caught on, it can be difficult to figure out why. We're not used to this -- you should be able to find out anything on the Internet. Anything.
I put my investigation on hold to call Sharon Hoffman, executive producer of NPR's "The Bryant Park Project," a hip New York radio show that, like other edge-seeking 24/7 news outlets (including latimes.com), frequently reports on what's big on Hot Trends, occasionally delving deeper into the quirkier ones.
"We're a show that lives on the 'Net and assumes that our listeners have seven or eight browsers open at the same time -- so we have to stay on top of this kind of stuff," Hoffman explained. "There's a desire to find out what's hot and why and what the back story is for these particular items."
When a green puppy was born in New Orleans recently, TV news shows were all over it -- outlets from CNN and MSNBC to local 12 in Cincinnati carried the story. With that many people bombarded with this unheard-of oddity, it was no wonder the nation was Googling to find out more. (Amusingly, besides the 79 news stories Google returns for "green puppy," one of the other early results is an identical green puppy story that "broke" in late 2005. )
Fine, but what about when Google gives no guidance? Hoffman mentioned that "Bryant Park" editor Tricia McKinney was the show's Googler-in-chief, so I enlisted her to help me figure out why April was so terrible a week and a half into May.
In an e-mail, McKinney revealed some rules of thumb when it comes to sleuthing the Trends.
"Usually people are Googling while watching TV," she wrote. "So I use the time the searches spiked and I ask myself what was likely to have been on TV at that time."
This makes perfect sense. TV is among the only media capable of reaching a large audience simultaneously -- otherwise known as broadcasting. Online and with the rise of TiVo and time-shifted viewing, it's easy to forget that a lot of people watch live television for programming other than news and sports.
And as for the significance of the melanite, bouzouki and pineapples, McKinney was all over it like Holmes on hounds. "I had a hunch it was a game show because the series of items was so random."
Put it all together and what do you get? I'll answer that question with a question already answered: " 'April is the cruellest month' is a line from what poem?"
So asked Meredith Vieira on Friday morning's episode of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Det. McKinney discovered "Millionaire" was airing at the time of the "April" flurry, so she Googled the show's name, along with the mystery phrase. This turned up a short blog post by Hartford, Conn., Courant TV writer Roger Catlin, who had transcribed all the questions on the episode because the contestant was from East Hartford.
As it turned out, Catlin wrote, Valerie Bashura needed to phone a friend to answer this $25,000 question correctly. She was later undone when she guessed that cayenne, etc., were varieties of pears, not pineapples.
So it seems that rather than the discomfort of having to guess, hordes of daytime quiz-show viewers are Googling for the answers. Does this mean "Millionaire" viewers are somehow . . . cheating?
It's not for me to say.
Either way, the source of Eliot's masterful line has reached that crucial stage in the life of every cultural touchstone: It's become a trivia question that, without Google, many people couldn't answer.