In 2006 AOL mistakenly released the searches of thousands of its subscribers. As I understand it, the information was anonymized, in that no names were used, but still identified: an individual subscriber had a number attributed to them. AOL quickly “retracted” its release, but by then the information had been copied all over. Two Dutch filmmakers pored over the information and discovered that the information we submit when we search for information reveals things about us that we perhaps would rather not be known in composite. The searches of one particular individual, user 711391, told a particularly interesting story all on their own.
They released their documentary as a series of short videos, each one nothing more than an image of an Alaskan landscape, shot in HD video, while a woman’s voice reads out, fairly flatly, the contents of each search. If you watch the videos in sequence, the searches unfold chronologically and reveal that the searcher is a woman with a snoring husband, who has conducted an affair over the internet, and is looking to escape her life in Houston by going to Alaska.
Her searches are interesting in that they are often phrased as rather personal questions or statements: “Has anyone ever praised you for being who you are?” The starkness of the represented Alaskan landscapes would seem to reflect the starkness of the searcher’s life, as she seeks to live life more fully.
This is the first episode:
This kind of archeology of ordinary life as it is being lived reminds me of the *garbology* craze that hit a decade or more ago, where researchers would go through people’s trash, usually in the context of teaching a course on archeology or sociology, in order to show how much we can know about a person through the things they throw away. In both the cases of garbage and internet searches, what I think is really compelling is that we typically think of them as discrete bits of information, which they are, which reveal relatively little about us. Where they become compelling, even disquieting, is in their aggregate:
* a single piece of garbage reveals relatively little
* a kitchen trash can reveals a few days of living
* a household can at the street can reveal an entire week’s worth of living
The same goes for internet searches. Just think how much information Google knows about you — perhaps not you as in named you but about the on-line you, your avatar if you will — from days, weeks, months, even years of searches. Chances are the longer period is possible if you have any Google accounts and tend to log on to check your GMail or for your personalized iGoogle page which gives you local weather and news.
I think I’m going to log out and clear out some of those cookies. Maybe give birth to a new user id. Break my on-line self up into smaller pieces. I might even like Alaska.