aol exhibition

Simon Baer, since some days a former student of mine, finished his studies with a work that contributes to several contemporary “fields of concern” – big data, surveillance, the right to be forgotten, as well as user culture, digital heritage, personal archiving. On the top of it is a true online story, it speaks the language of the web, browsers, it takes place in the search engine.

It is a search engine drama. The genre we, google folk, will not have problems to get accustomed to.

OL: Simon, what happened in AOL kingdom on the 4th of August 2006?

SB: On that day, AOL released ten compressed text files to the public, containing around 20 million search queries, captured over a three month period from over 650,000 US users, originally intended for research purposes. The basic problem was that a lot of users – although IP addresses were replaced by a numeric user ID – could quickly be identified, only based on their searches.
The whole thing caused quite a debate, the responsible employees had to leave the firm and AOL deleted the text files three days later.

Two days after the release, the day before AOL removed the files, a TechChrunch journalist wrote:

“The most serious problem is the fact that many people often search on their own name, or those of their friends and family, to see what information is available about them on the net. Combine these ego searches with porn queries and you have a serious embarrassment. Combine them with “buy ecstasy” and you have evidence of a crime. Combine it with an address, social security number, etc., and you have an identity theft waiting to happen. The possibilities are endless.”

OL: But it was not really deleted. Right? How many clicks it took to find it? And what were your next steps technically speaking?

SB: Right. Although AOL immediately deleted the files from their website, they were mirrored and distributed hundreds of times by several people. Now, ten years later, the hardest part was not to find download links in general, but to find a mirror with all the files still being online. After downloading the whole package (which took ages!) I’ve created a MySQL-Database, containing every single query, to get full flexibility with using the data.

OL: And then you built or rebuilt the AOL search engine as of 2006 to search for what ever in it and find similar search requests from 10 years ago and also the search result according to AOL algorithm of that time. As you mention, it became a scandal because it was an exposure. How did you feel accessing the files?

SB: When you start searching for some keywords it will be funny or hilarious at first and may take a while until you’ll become aware of the dangerous dimensions this whole thing had.

Users were exposed in terrible ways,. But I had the feeling there’s nothing i can change about that anymore, neither did i want to. By not dragging the data into another environment and keeping it inside the (rebuild) AOL search engine, I built the memorial to this case and everyone involved.

OL: I know it was not an easy question. As someone who already for several years restores, quotes and exhibits Geocities pages, without getting permissions from those who made and abandoned them — I am asked about it a lot. And i don’t have an answer, apart from that my goal is to preserve the history and monumentalize the figure of the user in it.

So what about AOL users? Can you tell me more about 711391? How did her (is it her?) story become

SB: When scrolling through all the search logs of a certain user, you’ll find that most of them are highly narrative, which is fascinating. What makes user 711391 so special, in my opinion, is the way she uses the search engine in general: in most cases, she doesn’t even seem to seek answers; she’s just typing down the things troubling her – like writing in her journal, talking to a good friend or even god. She frequently reassures herself about the things she’s doing, about to do or dreaming about, which makes the insight into her life and mind even broader. Take her first search for example: “can not sleep with snoring husband”, entered at 1:24AM – at that time, most of us would rather move to the couch instead of turning the computer on and typing our hearts out.

The three months in which the data was captured are enough to turn the life of user 711391 upside down: we can basically follow her meeting someone online, having an affair, having “bad experience meeting cyber lover“, “cutting ties with person you had an affair with” and falling into a period of inner confusion and depression afterwards.

OL: And all this story can be recreated solely from her search requests?

SB: Yes, but the entered search term doesn’t always speak for itself; additional information like the link, user 711391 clicked on, or the time the search query was sent often complete the association.

OL: There is a lot of assuming and interpreting involved. I think your work brings Dragan’s Big Data Little Narration point – “I strongly believe that archives of digital culture need lots of context and interpretation to fulfil their most basic function” — to a new level. And… it is so intense… I am only at the day 3 of her (your? my?) story and can feel all the dramatism. And can hardly wait till tomorrow. And why or WHY?!!! did you limit the amount of search queries user 711391 shows us per day to one of her days? Why do I have to wait till tomorrow to see what was she searching for the next day?

SB: You’ve already emotionally put yourself in the place of user 711391: meeting someone online who excites you, letting each other in one another’s life, chatting now and then, sometimes desperately waiting till the next day for an answer. I guess, everyone knows these feelings. By limiting the amount, I’m trying to transfer her feelings to the visitors of my project – this way, there’s some time to think about what’s going to happen the next day. Otherwise it would just be another “dead” archive, wouldn’t it?

OL: I agree, high speed, vast memory and fast retrieval can kill such project. To calculate “escape velocity” is not a trivial task for online performance. When we started the One Terabyte Of Kilobyte Age Tumblr we were at first irritated by the fact that we could post only 72 screenshots a day. We wanted to flood the internet with our 400,000 dead pages immediately! Now, 3 years later I see this limitation as blessing…but another part of me wishes to read all the story in one gulp.

SB: I think, especially in an environment like the internet, where we are used to the intriguing possibility to see all at once and what ever else we’de like, it’s interesting to use a limiting factor, which can – in my opinion – make such a project even more alive.

OL: Some days ago you presented the project for the first time publicly. I could see the reaction of the audience: from laughter to silence to… the next round of laughter that was more gracious or self reassuring. I think, first we recognize ourselves in user 711391 — even those of us who don’t have experience with an online affair or snoring husbands know what is it to turn to the search engine. And then in your mind, you try to find the differences, looking for what you do better or smarter than she did… Once you find it your world is fine again.

SB: It was definitely fascinating to see how the reactions changed during the presentation. In my observation it was, amusement as a first reaction, followed by the amazement of how deep the insight into the life and mind (of user 711391) really is. Interestingly, I’ve found that the discussions I’ve had after the presentation differed: While one group of people wanted to know a lot about the circumstances of the search data release and the legal consequences for AOL, the other group really did question their own search behaviour and tried to think of search queries that would make themselves identifiable. In the end, everyone felt caught out in a way, but dealt quite differently with this displeasing feeling.

OL: How do you see the AOL search data breach in the light of recent global surveillance scandals and Big Data?

SB: I hope that looking back widens our current field of consideration: it’s not only about big companies or the NSA secretly stealing data from us, it also about the data we no longer care about. Nowadays, searching online seems to be such a banality and has become such a implicitness, that the majority of users simply forget that even a handful of search queries offer a deep insight into the life and mind of an individual. Google for example makes no secret out of the fact, that all entered search queries are saved and used for creating an individualized user profile, you can even view and edit online. So in the end, even the user that has „nothing to hide“ still has a lot to tell.

OL: Your work reminds me of a project by Tobias Leingruber, a student of mine a few years back. In 2008 he released Pirates of the Amazon, that made a lot of ado for a week or two, but had to be shut down quickly. It was a browser addon for the Amazon website. When you searched for something there, it provided a link to the same product on Pirate Bay. Tobias didn’t provide pirated material, he didn’t pirate anything. He provided a one click interface. You didn’t collect or leaked the data, but you made an interface that provided access. Which brings me again (and again) to the statement that the role of the interface designer in todays world is enormous. Do you feel your power?

SB: Definitely! I’m kind of grateful I’ve worked with the released AOL search data for my final project, because to me, it clearly underlined the point you’ve just made: in most cases, it’s not about providing a visual pleasing or “entertaining” interface; it’s about the power of the interface to enable users to do the things they need to do to gain knowledge – whatever that might be particularly. In my case, I’ve could have transferred the data into a completely different context with some fancy data visualization, but that wasn’t the best way to prove the whole point.

OL: While you’ve worked on your thesis “BIG DATA, small me” we talked about exposure, the ways to avoid it, and that in the end of the day there is no way to avoid it. The harder you try, the more epic your fail will be. I’d say In the 90’s, to enter or embrace the digital, you had to understand that there is no spoon. Today the lesson to learn about Matrix is: there is no Incognito Tab. Do you think sharing sleepless nights with user711391 can help?

SB: It may help to understand the matter itself, raise awareness and start a process of personal identification and reconsideration – but often in a very displeasing way. User 711391 accompanied me the last few months and there have been lots of moments i’ve felt like watching a TV series: it’s like seeing the main character, you’re maybe sympathizing with or even feel sorry for, being sucked into a downward spiral of problems and misery that’s spinning faster and faster.
In the end, it’s this kind of personal bond, that makes observing and the accompaniment of user 711391 so strong.

The conversation between Simon Baer and Olia Lialina took place in email, Libre Office, etherpad, WhatsApp and IRL in between February 3rd and 7th 2016


This page really puzzled me. There are many sins you could accuse GeoCities and Yahoo! of, but not that they would have ever prohibited links.

A quick search delivered a report from August 1999 explaining that it was actually about hot-linking (embedding resources from another server than the HTML page is hosted on) that was starting to get on the nerves of GeoCities and Tripod users and owners.

This is how I’ve learned that Web TV users referred to hot-linking or remote loading as linking, and that they have their own poetic term for file transfer — transloading. There is still a service for it online at

To circumvent GeoCities’ brutal restrictions, the web master of the page above made this modest profile on Angelfire to offer MIDIs for linking. This is how she explains why the page “is not going to be a pretty or fancy looking site”:

to my site for midis to use on WebTv e-mail!

First thing you will notice about this site is….it’s not very fancy!
There is a reason for that. In order to explain the reason, I will have to tell you why I decided to make this page.
You may have noticed that getting midis to play in your e-mails has been very frustrating lately!

First Tripod, now Geocities, have blocked us from linking to midis and wavs from their sites. I have web space at Geo and STILL couldn’t use my own tunes!
I started searching for midi sites that were WebTV compatable (linkable) and NOT on Tripod or Geocities. Let’s just say that I didn’t find much!
So I decided to take matters into my own hands! I signed up for space here at Angelfire so that I can offer ALL WebTV users midis they can link to and be able to actually hear on their e-mail signatures!
That brings me to the reason why this is not going to be a pretty or fancy looking site!
I want as much space as possible for as many midis as possible!!!! That means NO fancy tricks or pretty pictures….
Just as MUCH music as I can possibly fit into 5MB of space!!!

P.S Another altruistic WebTV webmaster
P.P.S.: WebTV webring

This screenshot appeared on the One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age Tumblr today. It represents a page last updated late February 2000, which was very likely started the same week. The page is made in flash and is actually a typical intro of that time. There is not a lot to say about the site, because there wasn’t much of it saved, and because the flash file is not particularly interesting. What attracted my attention is the setting, the scenario, or, as interface designers say “global metaphor”: a movie theatre.

When in 2011 we designed the fictional Youtube of 1997, this was exactly the type of design we tried to imitate.


I remember this drive to go away from the page (paper) to the screen (cinema). It started already before broadband, and flash. Indeed it was always tried but never worked, because all this entourage required to transform the browser into a movie theatre was using up too many pixels, and there were too few available 20 and 15 years ago. Additionally, the “theatre” is neither scalable, nor scrollable. So, I remember those pages very well (not to mention my own attempts), but very rarely I find an example. Please tell me if you know one, of any age. (Templates for blogs, like the ones on Freewebsitetemplates, Templatemonster and Templatewire are less interesting.)



It is 31st of December 1999 on One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age, the last hours of the last century. Apart from the page above and common Y2K jokes, nothing reveals that the world is on the age of algorithmic catastrophe. As usual, people moving in and moving out of GeoCities. … continue reading


“In this book, I will make and justify the following two claims: (1) There is no ontological difference between virtual reality and actual reality. (2) As co-creators of the virtual world, we—humankind as a whole—for the first time begin to live a systematically meaningful life.” (Zhai, 1998, p. xiv)

A few years ago, I read Philip Zhai’s Get Real: A Philosophical Adventure in Virtual Reality without knowing much about neither the book nor the author, just because Amazon’s recommendation algorithms decided that the text was relevant to my repeated search queries about the Internet in China. And the suggestion wasn’t that far off: Get Real is in fact one of the earliest English-language texts about computing written by a Chinese author.

… continue reading


A month ago, on the 14th of August 2015, the online image manipulation service announced their sunset. Unlike similar situations — the closing of Geocities (2009) and Hyves (2013) when it was rather archivists, journalists and researchers who showed their concern, not the actual users — with Blingee we witness a very emotional response of the community, of people who were still on. Users were asking and begging not to close, offering money and suggesting financial models, users were thanking the service for the years of joy!

Five days later, the Blingee Team came to their senses: “We have heard you loud and clear. […] We are happy to announce that is here to stay.” I’m far from thinking that the owners changed their mind out of philanthropy, but still it is a great precedent. And I also think it is so important to listen to the users. “Talk to the user!” – I encouraged myself and approached one of the most popular Blingee makers, glitter master and vintage queen — Irina Vladimirovna Kuleshova, also known as kuleshova or ivk. The interview was conducted in Russian, via email, in between 5th and 10th of September 2015.

753149027_1511992 Irina, thank you for agreeing to answer my questions. I have many: personal, philosophical and purely technical. I will begin with the most simple one: I started to pay attention to your work in the very beginning of 2014, noticing that is filled with collages using your gold stamp. Can you say that it is your most popular one? … continue reading

“In Cyberspace Pixels are Free” is the wisdom from the first real web design textbook — Kreating Killer Websites by David Siegel (1996). It became the name of the installation Merz Akademie student Max Semmler made out of my library for the Digital Folklore at HMKV.
… continue reading

I’m an early Blingee adopter, I remember the times when you only could use a fixed set of stamps (see the FAQ page) and there were only 10 pages of them. I used blingee as a tool, as a subject, as an environment to spread myself as a GIFmodel, for teaching to make students follow and break the logic of software. I made and received blingee cards. I admire Blingee as a tool and–from the outside–as a community, and it is my first answer when I’m asked “Can you give examples of contemporary Digital Folklore?” was dear for me in many aspects and of course I feared that one day it will be gone and that it will happen rather soon.


Now it is 17th of August 2015. Two days after I got to know that is closing and 8 days before it will actually vanish. Unbelievable, but true: a service nine years old allows their users only ten days to grab their creations. It’s maybe enough time to save what you want, though some made thousands of animations, and the Blingee Team din’t provide any export function. Users are suggested to download pic by pic. It is slow! and it also what is not really needed, probably users saved their pics after creating them anyway.

No export function means that there is no way to transport interactions and connections. You can’t save your profile and see your circles, awards, friends and the way your stamps were used in the pics of others. All this could be done if services like would be available for everybody. Blingee is exactly the case where recording interactions and paths would be able to show each stamp in its full power: where and how it was used by others. But webrecorder is in beta and Blingee Team didn’t want to wait.

Another remark I’d like to leave here is that is represented quite well on With quite I mean — enough to get an impression about the kind of graphics that were produced there and even how their aesthetics changed through the years. The the tool that was used to make the graphics is of course impossible to capture by a classic web archive. Probably it can be best remembered from users’ How to make blingee videos on youtube. I suggest this one from 2010 in 11 parts (part 5 is missing) and the one I recorded yesterday.


It should be said that “sunsetting” in August and giving 10 days is equal to closing without saying a word. August is not November (as it was when Hyves was closing), people are on holidays, AFK. It is especially true for Blingee’s audience. I don’t have numbers, but a big part of blingee makers are Russian grandmothers, who spend their summer with their grandchildren at dachas. School begins in September, in the end of August they’ll come back to their computers and see their favorite service gone.

Those who are online these days are sad, devastated, making suggestions and financial offers to the Blingee Team, begging not to delete, comforting each other, exchanging facebook and email addresses. It happens on profile pages and in the forum. It is webrecorded, till page 22. If you read it you see that there is hardly an angry message, no sarcasm, no irony. Indeed, how to be angry about a service that costs nothing, was improving, was there in the most difficult moments of your life! How to be angry about the dog which looks in your eyes like this?

And users make farewell blingees. They are getting more and more and more and more monumental and heartbreaking with every hour. Blingee has a long history of “in memory” pix. It’s users know how to mourn.


According to the article on Fusion, Blingee developers “chose to focus on our mobile app” that promises “Amazing Special Effects for Mobile Video”. Blingee users move on to picmix as it seems.

Time to say goodbye. But let me first mention five important things about and why it was important for web culture:

1. Blingee started as a tool and developed into a community

It is difficult to say when it did happen (Blingee Team for years never answered my emails), but it happened. Blingee was not only working on their tool and new features, but providing space for communication and interaction. Or let me put it like this: they didn’t restrict communication and also didn’t channel it into an extra chat or an app. People could communicate in comments or in create groups and topics in forums. Doesn’t sound like a revolution, I know. And not something to impress venture capitalists. And not anything they will have with their mobile app. But it’s a precious, vanishing approach: users found a way to communicate and are left alone. Blingee users created a very welcoming and supportive atmosphere without a real name policy and without the suggestion to “say something nice”.

This brings me to the next point:

2. Blingee is a “stupid” tool

There is a term many of us use–stupid network: a neutral network that just delivers packets, without looking inside. It is a positive term and the idea is indeed very important, if not vital for the Internet. In Blingee’s case, intentional stupidity or neutrality was manifested by not restricting their users in what the stamp could be. It didn’t have to be glitter, you didn’t have to make it animated! It started as a tool to pimp up your photos, but in the end of the day you could just use it as an image processing software, as a tool to make collages and work with layers. Again, as with user comments and forums, Blingee was just providing.

3. By making your picture you were making pictures of others

This one is very important for me. And this–not the technical format (GIF) or visual appearance (glitter)–is what really makes me think about Blingee as a perfect example for Digital Folklore. If you upload a stamp, you can decide to make it available for everybody. This is ideology. Very Web 1.0 ideology. Or let’s say, the philosophy of web-page-making 20 years ago. Blingees are little web pages. They are modular. You can see what are they made of and use stamps you like in your own blingee. Looking at a blingee in blingee display mode is like going through a 1990’s free graphics collection that amateurs used to exchange elements for their homepages.

That’s why on one hand, I’m facepalming when I read that Blingee was a “web 1.0 service”: It is of course a classic Web 2.0 service, technically and chronologically. And aesthetically! Glitter is Web 2.0!! But on another hand–yes. If there is a service that kept spirit of Web 1.0 production, it is

4. You didn’t have to log in

It may contradict my excitement expressed in 1., but it is just another aspect. And again a strategy that is precious, but getting more and more exotic today. To make a blingee you don’t have to log in. You didn’t have to be a member, don’t have to be a part of the community. You could just use the tool and vanish with your download.

5. It was recognizable

It is the last and may be really least important for me, but would be unfair not to mention: Blingee was recognizable as a style, also in the sphere of glitter generators. Stamps that we know from the first pages of “most popular” and “most dynamic” made their way into web folklore, became self referential and iconic.


I have a list of bad lessons to learn from Blingee. And I promise to never publish it if Blingee Team changes their mind and leaves everything as it is.

After Kurt Eichler, Inke Arns and Dragan Espenschied wished a lot of fun to the first visitors of the Digital Folklore Exhibition, I allowed myself some melancholy:

You will see a lot of bright, animated, loud and funny stuff here. It looks like fun, but it is a sad exhibition. Not because web pages of today are made differently, but because we don’t make them at all. Not so much because the web looks dull, but because it doesn’t have a look at all. It is invisible.

The web disappears together with the browser. Did you notice that it has less and less buttons every month? That its borders are getting thinner every week? Did you notice that since some days you don’t see the names of files in the location bar on your smartphone? Less and less of everything…

It disappears because we don’t design it, don’t build it, we only post into prepared forms.

As a keeper of the One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age archive, I’m proud to present what we’ve collected and restored. We show to you many web pages, many pages in the history of the world wide web. But we can’t restore the web.

I’m happy that students worked so enthusiastically with the archive, that their projects look so great, but I know they will not make pages for themselves. They don’t need to.

The web is everywhere, it survived everything, outlasted all competitors, became an unbeatable technology, but is not seen as a medium anymore. A big loss, because the WWW is the best what happened to the Internet and all of us.

The One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age archive is the home of many broken web pages. Missing plugins, missing images, missing fonts — lead to scenes that are best described as ruins. The most dramatic appearances I tag as RUINS in hope to come back to them and for restoration. It is a challenging task, mentioned in the earlier post every missing image has its own story.

Since May 2015, Monique Baier, student in the project “20 years of web design” at Merz Akademie was working through the collection. She managed to find missing materials and restored 20 pages. They are stored and publicly available at our new subdomain

To make the process more vivid, Monique recorded the magic moment when a broken page is reloaded to shine in in the light of its completeness. Pages are opened in an original browser of that time, and filmed from a CRT monitor set to 800×600 resolution.

16 Ruins Restored videos are one of the central works of the Digital Folklore exhibition.