By Belinda Goldsmith
CANBERRA (Reuters) - Social networking sites are the hottest attraction on the Internet, dethroning pornography and highlighting a major change in how people communicate, according to a web guru.
Bill Tancer, a self-described "data geek," has analyzed information for over 10 million web users to conclude that we are, in fact, what we click, with Internet searches giving an up-to-date view of how society and people are changing.
Some of his findings are great trivia, such as the fact that elbows, belly button lint and ceiling fans are on the list of people's top fears alongside social intimacy and rejection.
Others give an indication of people's interests or emotions, with an annual spike in searches for anti-depression drugs around Thanksgiving time in the United States.
Tancer, in his new book, "Click: What Millions of People are Doing Online and Why It Matters," said analyzing web searches did not just reflect what was happening online but gave a wider picture of society and people's behavior.
"There are some patterns to our Internet use that we tend to repeat very specifically and predictably, from diet searches, to prom dresses, to what we do around the holidays," Tancer told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Tancer, general manager of global research at Hitwise, an Internet tracking company, said one of the major shifts in Internet use in the past decade had been the fall off in interest in pornography or adult entertainment sites.
He said surfing for porn had dropped to about 10 percent of searches from 20 percent a decade ago, and the hottest Internet searches now are for social networking sites.
"As social networking traffic has increased, visits to porn sites have decreased," said Tancer, indicated that the 18-24 year old age group particularly was searching less for porn.
"My theory is that young users spend so much time on social networks that they don't have time to look at adult sites."
SOCIETY CLICKS TO CHANGE
Tancer said the change in communication patterns was one of the most noticeable shifts in society in the past five years -- a key point for marketers seeking to learn about their audiences.
But analyzing data also showed what preoccupied people, allowing Tancer to predict the outcome of reality TV shows.
"I noticed in our data that some of the top search terms are about tropical storms in the United States," said Tancer.
"Before Hurricane Katrina rarely would you see a search on tropical storms but the devastation from Katrina has made us as a society much more sensitive to tropical storms."
Tancer said the current obsession with celebrities was also reflected through web data, with celebrity websites garnering more attention than sites devoted to religion, politics, well-being and diets combined -- and no sign that this is waning.
This celebrity mentality had also overlapped into the November presidential election in the United States with surfers looking for images of Republican vice presidential candidate Sara Palin rather than looking for her policies.
"A lot of the focus around the candidates in general is image based. People want to know how tall Barack Obama is and also to search for their families," he said.
"You have to get far down in the search terms to link the search for a candidate with any issue."
But Tancer said the speed at which information spread on the Internet had meant in some cases it was consumers generating the story and the media is last to record it -- or fact-check it.
"With the explosion of this type of false information on the Internet I think we will see someone come forward and develop a new type of software that can filter for the most accurate information," he said.
"Maybe accuracy is the next thing we will all search for."
(Editing by Miral Fahmy)
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