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

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