When I was on the high school debate team, about 15 years ago, using the Internet was considered strange, if not cheating. We used photocopy machines, print magazines and academic journals almost exclusively. That time in the world's history is now gone forever.

When Sarah Palin and Joe Biden debated in front of one of the largest TV audiences in US election history last week, the two candidates might not have been Googling for facts during the debate, but millions of people watching the debate were. Today Google released some information about what kinds of things viewers were searching for as that debate unfolded, minute by minute. It is amazing both that viewers were able to do such a thing, in real time, and that we're able to watch what people are searching for. The internet in general, and Google in particular, has substantially augmented this important part of public life.

The collective search history provides an interesting look at the world's reaction to what the candidates are saying. Google points out, for example, that one of the hottest searches of the night was "define:maverick." I wouldn't mind learning more about the word maverick myself but I'm struck by the evidence that so many people know the search protocol define: and are comfortable using it in a dynamic situation!

Other interesting, popular search queries mentioned in Google's blog post today included:

  • meaning of theocracy

  • windfall profits tax

  • nucular vs nuclear, nuclear pronunciation, palin nucular, and even nukular

  • "When Senator Biden offered a civics lesson ("Article I of the Constitution defines the role of the vice president of the United States, that's the Executive Branch") many people checked, and learned that Article I of the Constitution describes the legislative branch of the U.S. government. The executive branch is described in Article II. Others just searched directly for the role of vice president and vice president duties."

It's pretty incredible to know that these topics resonated enough with the public that they sought to learn more about them online. That people were even curious enough to ask is encouraging (at least for someone hoping the Democrats will win).

Another technology that changed the debate experience was Current's live video stream with a Twitter overlay, which we wrote about immediately after the first Presidential debate.

The candidates may not have used online search while they were debating, but we sure hope they will every day they are in office. It's changed fundamentally our relationship with politics and we hope that politicians can keep up. Maybe they can even take the lead.