Inside the AOL User's Mind


America Online is getting raked over the coals for releasing a portion of its users' search data. It deserves all the criticism it's getting, but I have to say I'm a little freaked out by some of the AOL subscribers as well.

Take this search history, for "user 17556639":

17556639 how to kill your wife
17556639 how to kill your wife
17556639 wife killer
17556639 how to kill a wife
17556639 poop
17556639 dead people
17556639 pictures of dead people
17556639 killed people
17556639 dead pictures
17556639 dead pictures
17556639 dead pictures
17556639 murder photo
17556639 steak and cheese
17556639 photo of death
17556639 photo of death
17556639 death
17556639 dead people photos
17556639 photo of dead people
17556639 decapatated photos
17556639 decapatated photos
17556639 car crashes3
17556639 car crashes3
17556639 car crash photo

I'm curious about the fifth item. What makes a potential wife-killer (or, perhaps, a man very interested in wife-killers) suddenly pause and say, "Hey, I think I'd like to look at some poop?" (And the steak and cheese? I guess looking at all those corpses made him hungry.)

This reminds me of something that allegedly happened in the early '90s, when I was fresh out of college and selling books at the local Borders. A story spread through the chain about an event that supposedly had just transpired at a Borders in New Jersey. It sounds like an urban legend—hell, it probably is an urban legend—but we all believed it at the time.

(The book titles, among other details, are approximate. Do not write me to say that you can't find them on Amazon. Printed for entertainment purposes only.)

A fellow came into the store and said he'd been told that a book he had ordered had arrived. The clerk searched the shelves behind the counter, found one with the customer's surname attached to it, and handed it to him.

The man's face changed color, his voice started to shake, and he said, "I didn't order this book. My wife did." The employee looked at the cover. It was called How to Divorce Your Husband.

Mortified, the clerk returned to the shelf and found the book the husband had ordered.

It was called Taking Care of Your Gun.

NEXT: Is America Over A Barrel?

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  1. And the steak and cheese? I guess looking at all those corpses made him hungry.

    Warning: do not follow this link.

  2. In college, my roommate told me that his friend’s mother had paid $250 for a cookie recipe. He swore that it was true.

  3. “steak and cheese” is probably, which is a Web site full of sick pictures and movies with human injuries and deaths. The site’s content is similar to that at

  4. 1: Given the number of grisly fiction novels out there, it could very well be an author doing research.

    2: Voluntarily using AOL (unless you live in the wilds or unwired rural areas) could be construed as a psyschlogical disorder all by itself.

  5. Hey, give the guy some credit, he ain’t looking for porn.

    Jesus, I just shudder to think what would happen if my girlfriend caught a whiff of my google search records.

    ‘Honey. Who’s Briana Banks? You sure seem to like her…

  6. 1: Given the number of grisly fiction novels out there, it could very well be an author doing research.

    … for a novel featuring an antagonist with a scatalogical fixation. Or maybe a protagonist.

  7. Jesus, I just shudder to think what would happen if my girlfriend caught a whiff of my google search records.

    Cover your tracks:

  8. Cover your tracks

    I Like it QBryzan. I like it a lot.

  9. Oh sweetie, Briana Banks is a custom jewelry designer, and you know that your birthday is coming up….

  10. What I find hilarious is that some guy from AOL has pasted the exact same form letter into multiple comment boards, about how this was all a huge mistake and nobody actually meant to release the records. I’d love to ask him which AOL employee mistakenly wrote the introductory paragraph asking future researchers to please cite this document, and bragging about what a useful research tool it is.

    I’m also willing to bet that when AOL “anonymized” the user information, they didn’t bother blacking out the names of people who did things like vanity searches for their own names on the Web.

    I used to do work for them. I thought the company was merely incompetent, rather than evil. Oh, well.

  11. Maybe the aolers were just big fans of Virna Lisi?


  12. “AOL search data shows [sic] users planning to commit murder”
    I guess we should expect remarkably stupid leaps of logic from an organization that can’t get the grammar in its headlines correct. There are too many possible benign explanations for these search terms to conclude that a sicko was planning on murdering a wife, even if the person did kill his wife.

  13. “Given the number of grisly fiction novels out there, it could very well be an author doing research.”

    User #17556639 is in fact David Cronenberg.

  14. “User #17556639 is in fact David Cronenberg.”

    Nonono, it’s the William S. Burroughs Memorial SearchBot.

  15. AOL is to ISP’s what Honda used to be to motorcycles years ago. The name is identifiable to people just getting started and you can get around. But if you have any experience at all you’re not going to AOL. You’re going to buy a Yamaha, Suzuki, or a Kawasaki. Yes that’s an overgeneralization.

    It doesn’t surprise me that people are interested in death. Look how many people watch the Soprano’s and then estimate how many of them form their own neighborhood mob.

    The other day a friend sent me some drivel about Marilyn Monroe’s death day. I did a google search and found her autopsy photo and sent him a note back saying check this out if you want to see the real Marilyn. While I was out there I found some JFK autopsy photos. Grisly but interesting to me. Had never seen them before. I’m willing to bet that like my search, most seemingly sicko searches are not all that sinister. Then again I could be Lizzie Borden’s great nephew. We’re all going to die and we don’t know a whole lot about it. Death is morbidly fascinating.

    And if AOL is releasing gross stats that aren’t personally identifiable I don’t see the harm. I’d like to see the harm though because I hate AOL.

  16. Then again I could be Lizzie Borden’s great nephew.

    Funny you should bring that up since I AM a great-great-great (not really sure how many greats should be in there, so let’s just all agree that I’m really great) nephew of Lizzie Borden. Coincidentally, so is my brother. 🙂

    From the other side of the coin, I regularly parse my web server’s logs and pull out the search terms people are using to get to my site. 99% of the time it’s stuff I expect to find, but occasionally I’ll find a term that I’m pretty sure doesn’t appear on my site at all. Someone must be clicking back to Google result number 52,341 to get there. It’s interesting to see what comes up most often, because it’s frequently not what you expect. (For the seriously vain only: insead of using Google to search for yourself, search your own web logs to find out who’s searching for YOU.) Anyway, I don’t think AOL ought to be spreading this data around when it’s associated with an (anonymized) user name, but it’s still useful research data. So even if they shouldn’t be printing a list like “user 6 searched for X and Y” I can’t think of any reason not to print a list that showed 20,000 users searched for X last week, and 50,000 searched for Y.

  17. Oops, misread, it looks like AOL is keeping and releasing personally identifiable search info and habits. That’s crap. I knew I hated AOL. But i’ll bet most other ISP’s would do the same.

    My crappy ISP says that don’t keep records of stuff like how many pirated albums you download.

  18. 17556639 decapatated photos
    17556639 decapatated photos

    Wow, I’m disturbed that the guy with such an interest in people being decapitated doesn’t know how to spell it.

  19. Mad, That is fascinating and it also proves we really are only 7 times removed from Kevin Bacon.

    Is your site connected to your great and ever-so-well-known aunt?

    As a child, my mother used to chant the Lizzie Borden ditty while she jumped rope in the 1930’s. I recently taught it to my daughter who appalled her teacher and the yard duty supervisor by reciting it perfectly. Why are kids fascinated with that stuff?

  20. Why are kids fascinated with that stuff?

    Kids? Why is “Crime Scene” tape a crowd magnet?

  21. TWC, no, my site doesn’t say squat about dear Auntie Lizzie. 🙂 My sister is the family expert on that little nugget of information and I probably wouldn’t know about it at all if she hadn’t put in the research time. My Mom’s been to the actual house where it happened though. I think it’s been torn down since, but she was once there as a kid visiting some relative or other.

    I should have my sister find out if we’re related to Kevin bacon next. 🙂

    I was just checking into Ring-Around-The-Rosy, which I thought was a much nastier song than the Lizzie Borden ditty, but according to Snopes it has nothing to do with the Plague at all.

    (Appologies if the server squirrels have posted this multiple times.)

  22. Mad, thanks for the Snopes reference. I’ll reserve judgement because it appears that the Snope’s opinion is riddled with as much conjecture as anywhere else. I would think the hypothesis would merit a not certain.

    Snopes got the words wrong, too. It goes like this:

    Ashes, Ashes, we all fall DEAD.

    Then again, maybe it’s just a circle game like they say. That’s the way we played it as kids.

  23. The Borden death house is now a bed and breakfast.

  24. The Borden death house is now a bed and breakfast.

    “Ax us about our specials!”

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