What Americans Really Cared About In 2014

Or what they tweeted about, anyway. Twitter provides a fascinating, objective look at what people are discussing. Tracked over the course of the year, it tells us a little about the news, and quite a lot about us. People may claim to have lots of high-minded interests, but what are they actually talking about? Donald Sterling. Here it is: 2014, as documented on Twitter. Click to enlarge:

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The results are quite striking. What was the number one tweeted topic? The Ferguson grand jury, not indicting Darren Wilson. What was number two? Darren Wilson shooting Michael Brown. So why does a local crime story, without any apparent broader implications, grip the national imagination? Sure, race hustlers like Al Sharpton and Eric Holder promoted the Ferguson narrative, but there has to be more to it than that. Something in the story obviously resonated with a lot of people.

Story number three was the midterm election. No surprise there. But look at some of the other contenders: the State of the Union, a surprise to me. Was there anything notable about Obama’s sixth such speech, any reason why millions of people would be talking about it? Maybe these spectacles are more important than I thought.

Then we have the soft news stories. Why was Donald Sterling fascinating to so many people? Yes, the story involved professional sports. But it also involved race; maybe that is a common denominator. A similar soft news story was the Ray Rice controversy. I was one of the few people, as far as I could tell, who stuck up for Mrs. Rice. Evidently it was an event about which many had strong feelings. Again, though, was there a racial subtext?

The remaining tweet peaks relate to appropriate breaking news stories–Crimea, Hobby Lobby, the vanished Malaysian airliner, ebola, Sony and Cuba. So maybe we really do care about the news. Still, looking at quantitative data on Twitter tends to support the idea that, however much we may claim to be concerned with the national debt, global warming, and so on, it is the more personal stories–the ones that take on a mythic cast–that really hold our attention.

There are lots more data here, including this comparison of the most talked about stories by conservative and liberal activists:

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