March 21st 2012

Two thousand twelve

I was interested in popularity of pseudoscientific topics, and Wikipedia seemed like a good source of information. There are too many articles that are classified as pseudoscientific, but there is an overview article titled List of topics characterized as pseudoscience, so I started from articles featured there.

Raw data on views of Wikipedia articles are available online. One way to visualise the relative popularity of a set of articles is to form word clouds, like those generated with wordle.net. On the right you can see a word cloud of a thousand vital articles of the English Wikipedia. Font size corresponds to the number of HTTP requests (hits). One hit usually means that a person opened that article in his Web browser, but a hit can also be caused by Internet robots, page refresh, redirects etc., so use this data with a grain of salt.

In August 2009, relative popularity of these articles was something like this:

A lot of articles with varying levels of popularity, none of them really stood out. But in just three months, the situation changed drastically. Here is the situation on November 2009:

It's not that those other articles became less popular: the only important difference is the appearance of a new article which overshadowed all others—2012 phenomenon. You see, in November 2009 the movie "2012" hit the theaters.

Teaser instructed its viewers to google "2012" to find out "the truth". This "truth" was to be found on hundreds of bogeyman sites talking about the upcoming apocalypse, some of them made explicitly for the purposes of the movie. They succeeded in scaring and misinforming a large number of people. NASA astrobiologist David Morrison says that he has received more than 5000 questions about doomsday 2012. In another interview he commented:

I think people are really, really worried about the world coming to an end. Kids are contemplating suicide. Adults tell me they can't sleep and can't stop crying. There are people who are really, really scared.

A lot of people bought this story: it was the fifth movie of the year by revenue worldwide. Only after the movie loosened its advertising grip the interest started to wane, but it hasn't disappeared. All through 2011, the phenomenon of 2012 dominated this part of the english Wikipedia, with the related story about planet Nibiru in second place:

Let's look a the popularity of 2012 from another angle. How unusual is it for people to be interested in an article on a specific year. Here are hit counts of articles on last four years:

As you can see, typical interest for an article on specific year lasts only for the duration of that year. But, as you can see if you click on the chart, the interest for 2012 was high well before the year began, especially rising at the end of 2008, when the first teaser hit the theatres. Keep in mind that article on 2012 does not talk about the end of the world or anything like that. In those years it consisted of rather dry listing of expected events and holidays. The spike in interest was most likely caused by the people looking for the information on the movie and the apocalypse, and each of these topics has it's own article.

So it looks like the popularity of the 2012 phenomenon is largely due to one movie, at least as Wikipedia articles are concerned. A choice of a single corporation to pick a topic for its project and to support it with an aggressive marketing campaign, can have quite an influence on perceptions and attitudes of people. Columbia did not invent the story about 2012, but it helped a lot of people to hear about it and experience it visually and emotionally.

So, what does that say of us? Are we suckers for movies, remarkable only for their dramatic presentation and special effects? Are we capable to discern fiction from facts? Should the entertainment industry be held responsible when it intentionally blurs the line between reality and fantasy?

I don't have the answers to those questions. But I must admit, I'm a little disheartened to see just how easy people fall for cheap tricks, like the story of the apocalypse of two thousand twelve.

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