Just under seven years before Edward Snowden made internet privacy a topic of national conversation, AOL found itself embroiled in its own alarming — if less massive — personal data scandal. As part of a research initiative, the company collected search information from over 650,000 of its users for three months, yielding roughly 20 million queries. Each of these searches included information about who conducted them, when they did so and which websites they visited immediately afterward. While the text files that contained all this data were never supposed to leave AOL’s systems, one researcher — out of negligence or insubordination — made them available to the general public. AOL deleted the files quickly, but not quickly enough — they were downloaded and copied by a number of internet users almost immediately, and all of the information remains easily accessible today.
The data was anonymized prior to its release; each of the search profiles was mapped onto user numbers rather than names. In some cases, though, it wasn’t difficult to deduce a person’s identity from their searches. The New York Times was able to identify and locate a user named Thelma Arnold using only the leaked data.
“My goodness, it’s my whole personal life,’’ Arnold said to the Times upon learning about her exposure. ”I had no idea somebody was looking over my shoulder.’’
A new interactive web page installation by photographer and digital designer Simon Baer is premised on turning the audience into this vague “somebody” who looks over the shoulder of an unsuspecting AOL user as they browse the internet. Baer selected one of the 650,000 individual three-month logs — the file for “user 711391” — and organized its content into a narrative that plays out in something akin to real time. The story, called “Cannot Sleep with Snoring Husband,” is hosted at the domain cannotsleepwithsnoringhusband.online, where Baer replicated AOL’s search interface as it was in the middle of the last decade. An initial visit to the website reveals the search queries made by user 711391 on March 1, 2006, following a brief introduction: “hello there, stranger,” the search bar displays, as though the message had been typed remotely. “let me tell you my story.”
The searches then appear in the same manner as the greeting: typed, then backspaced, one at a time at intervals of a few seconds. The user’s March 1 log opens with the saga’s titular query, “can not sleep with snoring husband,” and ends with “online friendships can be very special.” As in any good series pilot, tension and intrigue are established immediately; who might this online friend be, and how might their role in user 711391’s life be related to the frustration of sleeping near a loud partner? But like a series pilot prior to the rise of streaming-enabled binge watching, this tension is only elaborated upon in increments whose releases are carefully timed. After all the day’s searches have been displayed, the visitor must wait 24 hours before the next day’s queries are revealed.
“[In] an environment like the internet, where we are used to the intriguing possibility of seeing everything at once and whatever else we’d like — it’s interesting to use a limiting factor, which can, in my opinion, make such a project even more alive,” Baer said to digital art site Rhizome.
Baer’s sense of rhythm in this regard is brilliantly effective. As one follows the user through their daily engagements with the web, they are given a real sense of how users live. For example, one can follow user 711391 through their concerns about a lesion on their face. Repeated visits to the faux search engine demonstrate how this skin ailment affected 711391 and shaped their daily relationship to their body: “can putting makeup over sores hurt them” is but one query among dozens spanning several weeks that indicate the user’s persistent concerns.
Other media have relied rely on deft compressions, dilations and elisions to represent durations beyond the scope of their audience’s engagement (with the exception, perhaps, of “24” (2001 – 2014), but that hardly warrants comparison); Baer, on the other hand, choreographs “Cannot Sleep with Snoring Husband” such that the viewer is forced to inhabit the user’s cycles in all their slow tediousness, outlining new ways for identifying with or becoming attached to a character.
Chains of search terms spread out over a few days clue the viewer into the distrust and infidelity that come to weigh heavily on user 711391’s personal life: the question, “should you plan sex before meeting a cyber lover,” is soon followed by “husband does not think it is good idea for me to meet my online friends” and later “how can i tell if spouse is spying on me while i’m online.” Eventually, these queries move outside the realm of genuine consultation and become desperate pleas: 711391 is worried about divine retribution on May 13, 2006 — “does god punish adultery” — but by May 15, the user is more introspectively concerned with “how to forgive yourself.”
Some of these searches almost seem to be crafted with literary intent, as though the user is iteratively grasping for the most evocative way to express themselves in hopes that the search engine can respond to affect as well as bare text. There is, for example, something about the emotional charge of imagining the user type the phrase “affairs can be devastating,” searched on May 5, that pales in comparison to the more anguished “affairs hurt so bad,” a search query two days later.
But each pang of cathartic pain that one draws from this intimate-seeming connection to the user is marked with a proportionally large feeling of guilt; the object of sympathy is still a real person who never consented to having this story told about them. Baer’s daily interventions in the narrative — the fourth wall (or screen) is broken each day as the page is refreshed with a message welcoming the viewer to the next installment — only throw the voyeuristic quality of the project into sharper relief. Baer ventriloquizes user 711391 with phrases like “come back tomorrow to see the next part of my story.” The viewer is meant to understand that these addresses were never written by 711391, a fact that serves as a reminder of the divide between the intentional artist and the unknowing user whose struggles and secrets have become a conceptual experiment.
“Users were exposed in terrible ways [by the leak],” Baer said to Rhizome. “But I had the feeling that there’s nothing I can change about that anymore, and neither did I want to.”
Beneath the morally ambiguous terrain on which the story rests, there is a more fundamental ambiguity about whether or how the profile called “user 711391” describes or maps onto an actual person. Whether “Cannot Sleep with Snoring Husband” is a portrait of the user as a full human being, a mere tally of interests and anxieties, a whole family or something else entirely, is determined by who is looking over 711391’s shoulder. The viewer is led to piece together a life in the same manner that the black-box mechanisms of Google, Facebook, Amazon and the like seek to generate unequivocal knowledge of who we are and what we want based on our online activity. The illusion that more search queries (or other information) will always yield a more complete picture of the individual is shown not only to be a fixation of major web companies, or the many academics who were eager to use the questionable data sets for research in 2006, but of anyone whose curiosity leads them to try to figure someone out by extrapolating from whatever information is available. There are infinite twisted subplots that could be teased out from user 711391’s search log; following their medical and romantic stressors yield only two fairly obvious ones. With each viewer’s attention likely trained on different threads running through the 90 days of 711391’s searches, there’s no guaranteeing the story one reads in “Cannot Sleep with Snoring Husband” is not really a story about oneself.