Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

The unguarded thoughts of the digital haves...

Posted by Tom Foremski - August 15, 2006

The most compelling content on the Internet, by far, is AOL's release of search terms linked to individual users. This is a glimpse into the human condition that goes way beyond anything else we have seen, beyond Dostoevsky, Dickens, Balzac, Melville or anybody else.

AOL apologized for releasing the data into the public domain--a huge database of 21m search terms with each search term linked to a unique numeric code representing a specific user account, along with the date of each search. The result is a narrative that tells stories that are unguarded, and are sometimes truly disturbing.

Over the past few days, several web sites, such as AOLPsycho.com and AOLStalker.com, have sprung up and hundreds of volunteers have begun to catalog the data and flag some of the more extreme search terms, along with the users who query them. There are sometimes violent and sexually extreme terms and phrases. But also, there are the many mundane search terms, that reflect an ordinary life, occasionally punctuated with extreme drama...

It all makes for incredibly compelling reading. These are the thoughts of people when they feel safe there is nobody looking over their shoulders.

In one instance, it looks as if a wife and a husband are using the same computer, each hiding their extramarital affairs from the other, then later looking for help online to deal with the pain of failed relationships.

These are real soap operas, tracked over a period of months... from the excitement of first meetings:

"how to get rid of nervousness of meeting a blind date 23 Apr, 12:27"

Then disaster:

"if your spouse has an affair should you contact the other person's spouse and let them know : 07 May, 09:58"

And the same user account asks:

"i had sex with my best friend and now he treats me differently :26 May, 13:58"

Even though AOL used numeric codes for each user, discovering the identity of some users wouldn't be hard--if someone wanted to try. That's because people search on their own names (ego surfing) and also search telephone numbers, social security numbers, . . . and names of (ex)loved ones.

There is a tremendous amount of rage in some of the search terms, a search for revenge when relationships fail that can be disturbing to read. And so are some of the searches for underage sexual images.

Are these the musings of an idle brain, maybe a drunken brain that searches for things it wouldn't under sober circumstances? Are searches for under-age sex, or how to murder someone in a gruesome manner, just fantasies expressed within a search box? Or are they plans waiting to be executed?

Most probably they are fantasies because otherwise we would be awash in blood, dealing with a Sodom and Gomorrah of cinematic proportions every day. Yet our daily experience shows us that the vile fantasies expressed in some AOL searches, are rare in reality.

What the AOL data shows us, is that the search box has become a collector of the only true expression of whatever is happening in our heads--at the very moment of creation, at that specific point in time ...(within the heads of the Internet-enabled population).

Has the search box become a modern age confessional box--yet without the promise of redemption?

The unfortunate thing is that now, everyone will be on guard. All will think twice and thrice about what is typed into the search box. Because it could all come out into the open.

AOL's data shows us something else: Google (and YHOO, MSN, etc) has a treasure trove of search data, all linked to millions of users, much larger than AOL's database. Google saves every piece of data it comes across and puts it all on backup tapes and stores it in a very secure facility inside a mountain. A Google senior executive told me this more than two years ago. When I asked, "what will you do with the data?" I was told, "we don't know."

Google's search data can be seen as a chronicle of the human condition over a period of time, within different societies. Google has a collection of billions of thoughts collected from millions of people at (nearly) the exact moment of thought-creation, all pegged in place and in time.

Google's search term database is eaily the world's largest repository of the unguarded thoughts of the citizens of the rich, developed world. It contains information that could not be gained in any other way.

No survey of people's thinking could uncover such content because people answer questions according to what they believe they should say.

GOOG has the means to gain an incredible insight into the human condition. Can it keep the data safe from being released into the wild? Maybe. .. If it can keep the data from others, it can mine that database to its advantage--an extremely powerful, competitive advantage.

- - -
Please see SVW: The Future Transparency of the Past or why you should get used to living in a glass house...

AOLPsycho.com for a community approach to document some of the personalities of AOL users.

Also, AOLStalker.com

News.Com: AOL apologizes for release of user search data

AOL's disturbing glimpse into users' lives

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