11.20.2009

don't be hatin' - everybody googs

At the beginning of this month, in attempt to extend transparency to users, Google released Google Dashboard, a new tool that allows Googlers to view all the information Google has collected about them. Now, Google has taken a lot of heat for all its data-collecting: I guess, if you're one of those people that's squeamish about privacy, the fact that someone out there pretty much can keep tabs on every aspect of your life might be a little paranoia-inducing. If maybe, you're Aaron and Christine Boring, for instance, a couple from Pittsburgh who attempted to sue Google in April 2008 for invasion of seclusion when pictures of the Borings' house were made available on its "Street View" mapping feature. Well, Lawsuit Fail: the case was dismissed. A., had the Borings chosen to take advantage of Google's very flexible "opt-out" function, the company would have gladly taken down the pictures. And b., as the nice people at Google pointed out, satellite imagery of the entire WORLD is available at this point... If a view from space can hang out online, why not a more grounded perspective as well?

The Old Boring Home.
Although their ultimate prerogative seems to be to make as much information as available to the world as possible, the creation of Dashboard shows us Google is not deaf to privacy concerns. Collecting onto one page all the data Google has learned from its logged-in users' web activity, Dashboard allows us to see exactly what Google knows about us, and to browse through and delete our past searches. According to the Official Google Blog, "the scale and level of detail of Dashboard is unprecedented," and is a further illustration of the company's commitment to their pithy little motto: "don't be evil".

However noble its professed intentions, a quick googling of Google Dashboard will mostly produce negative responses to the new tool. As PC Magazine EIC Lance Ulanoff futzed around with his Google Dashboard for the first time, he was suddenly struck by the scope of information Google has access to; he's even a little worried prosecutors might be able to subpoena Google for the defense's search history...
(to be fair, he does acknowledge several important realities:
1. it's pretty unlikely that Google employees (or anyone else, for that matter) are looking specifically at any individual's data, least of all his.
2. it's even more unlikely that Google is going to start receiving subpoenas anytime soon.
3. if Google DOES start getting subpoenaed, and you're a criminal, you can conveniently erase your search history.
4. if you're still all that worried, get your ass off Google!)
What Mr. Ulanoff found more perturbing than the legal implications of Google Dashboard, though, was the degree to which his search history served as an unintentional diary of the past few years - a meticulous record of momentary musings that even he had since long forgotten. Realizing that such embarrassing information as his having searched for teddy bear images on June 19 had been logged somewhere in cyberspace prompted him to delete any similarly unseemly searches. Over at Slate, Michael Agger also found his Google Dashboard to feel like an all-too-revealing journal, "a place where [he] regularly [confides his] fears, insecurities, and dreams: 'cell phone cancer link', 'michael agger slate', 'pennsylvania farm for sale'.

Ok, well I have news for you guys (and I swear, we're getting to the point here): call me crazy, but I've actually been working concertedly to maintain a Google Diary for over a year now.

Let me explain:
I'm juuust one of those people that likes to save everything. One of things I JUST SO HAPPEN to value most highly in this world is the ability to point to a moment and remember its details. This has manifested itself in various ways -- a fairly comprehensive set of all my airplane stubs, a shelf overflowing with my grandma's moth-eaten cashmere, shoeboxes upon shoeboxes of pictures, letters, mementos all and sundry - and of course, journals dating back to 1997.  It might qualify me as a packrat
(though if you do your research, you'll learn that pack rat really refers to "a trade rat or wood rat, any of several species in the genus Neomotoma".
Found in the Western U.S. and Northern Mexico, pack rats are known as such because of their tendency to collect assorted items to add to their middens (complex nests structured out of twigs) .
Disambiguation of the term pack rat will lead you inevitably to its more familiar connotation, compulsive hoarding - defined by the DSM IV as the acquisition of and failure to discard a large number of possessions that appear to be of useless or limited value.
Out of the cyber age has evolved a new breed of compulsive hoarder: "digital pack rats". These guys, known as infohoarders, take full advantage of the inexhaustible internet, overloading their hard drives with gigabytes upon gigabytes of data.
Now I'll admit, I can identify a little here, because I don't get rid of NOTHIN'. But should I apologize for the fact that I've saved IM conversations from the digital days of yore? Is there really any harm in perusing my ten year-old, long-abandoned Yahoo mailbox every once in awhile? Personally, I prefer to think of my behavior not as compulsive hoarding, but deliberate archiving. It is thus that I say without shame that beginning last November, upon noticing how well my handy-dandy Firefox Google search box could function as a record of my passing thoughts, I stopped deleting my cookies. A few months later, having at that point collected a mind-boggling array of searches, I thought it would be a good idea to start writing them out in a list. Ten minutes later I realized what a pain in the ass it would be and gave up, but I didn't stop deleting my cookies. Then, after several conversations this summer about the strangeness of our new-found facility for obtaining arbitrary information, I decided that my Google searches would best be adopted into an epic poem. I set about copying down my searches anew, this time succeeding in creating a 29-page list of the most random assortment of scrawled out phrases that I, at least, have ever seen.

Looking them over, I found myself recalling the stories behind the inquiries, and the bits of knowledge I gained as a result. This didn't feel like the makings of epic poetry, but it did feel like something. Finally, it hit me: OBVIOUSLY the ideal vehicle for a record of my digital life is the Internet itself. I began looking for blogs and sites that were equally aimed at disclosing our adventures in wondering-land, but even the Official Google Blog wasn't doing it for me. At last, in this wide world, which has proven to me time and time again that nothing has not been done, a void to fill!

The seeds for Curiouser and Curiouser had been planted, but naturally, obstacles presented themselves: first of all, HTML and CSS is a lot harder than it looks, and all the formatting BS was pretty frustrating. On top of that, every time I tried to weave my searches into a coherent narrative, it all started sounding stupid... So once again, blog create FAIL.

But the concept lingered, and more than in the back of my mind. And admittedly, between hearing an Talk of the Nation podcast about Ken Auletta's new book Googled, and coming across the release of Google Dashboard on CNN.com, things were starting to feel a little timely. I'm not one for superstitions, but I learned at an early age the importance of following signage,  and it sure as hell seems like Google, the ultimate infohoarder, has positioned itself perfectly for deliberate archivists like myself to take advantage.

Unlike Messrs Agger and Ulanoff, I don't feel an iota of embarrassment over [the majority of] my Google searches, and with sound reason: the reality is that at least 85%* of the time I type out a search term, Google offers me exactly the phrase I was looking for. Do you know what that tells me? That tells me that someone, somewhere, sometime, found themselves making the very same query. More than that, in all likelihood, LOTS of people in LOTS of places at LOTS of moments made the same query - at least enough for Google to be confident in its suggesting powers. Never forget, folks, there's no such thing as a stupid question - you all should know that by now, because I know you've been asking them too. It's no secret: you do it, I do it, everybody does it. Nowadays, everybody googs.
*Percentage based on absolutely NO real data.

So here we are, at long last, ready to set forth into unabashed search history disclosure. I'm not entirely sure how it's all going to work, I think we'll need to play it by ear a little bit - originally I was just going to go off my original 29-page master list from 11.08-08.09, but now that I've got Google Dashboard, there are, after all, years and years of Google searches for me to unearth. I sort of don't know where to begin. Maybe we can do some sort of fun thing where you name a date and I'll tell you what I learned that day, or we can do a letter-of-the-day type deal, or you can even vote on topics you wanna hear more about. I dunno, we'll see - sometimes democracy has its downfalls. I do think that I can promise a little something for everyone, and posts that aren't as agonizingly long as this one. I highly recommend indulging as much as possible in all the linkages and giftlets with which I provide you (press play below, for starters) for best browsing experience. BTW, if ever you feel like I'm pushing the whole intimate details thing too far (I do have something of a blindspot for boundaries), and it makes you uncomfy, please let me know - not saying I'll necessarily hold back, but I'll for sure take it into consideration. Finally, I'm not above begging for comments and feedback. Please, I beg you. We clearly are not gonna be shy around here. Oh, and finally finally, while I would like to officially lay claim to Curiouser and Curiouser's mission as my own, I fully recognize that a lot of the content on this blog will be borrowed from around the netborhood... I don't know too much about online copyright infringement law, but I'm hoping it will suffice for me to say right off the bat that anything that's not obviously mine is not mine, and I have no illusions about that. Feel free as a bird to take what you want from me, just make sure you link on back here!

And with that, kittens, I leave you with this:

video
Credit goes primarily to Disney, obv, and secondarily to vivalajuicy16 at YouTube

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