I love alaska
2006 AOL search data snafu spawns "I Love Alaska" short films.
Who knew that AOL search logs would prove such a muse to artists? Two Dutch filmmakers follow the odd search engine entries of user 711391 as she tries to find love, escape from Houston, and kill those annoying birds in her yard.
AOL's release of millions of "anonymous" search log records in 2006 has been the gift that keeps on giving--not just for researchers, but for journalists, playwrights, and now even documentary filmmakers.
Several of the search histories released by AOL are just so gloriously odd that they cry out for artistic interpretation. What kind of person would search, on a single day, for "how to kill annoying birds in your yard," "people are not always how they seem over the Internet", and "pimple that gets whitehead on it that never goes away"? A team of Dutch filmmakers has tried to answer to answer that question through a set of 13 short "documentary" pieces about user 711391.
The "I Love Alaska" videos are short and stark. Each shows a barren landscape while a narrator reads through the actual list of search queries. It doesn't take long before the searcher's personality takes shape. Her husband snores. She has apparently met someone on the Internet. She searches repeatedly for Alaska information despite living in Houston, Texas, which one search query describes as "one hot place to live."
The woman who emerges from the search records is, in the words of the filmmakers, a "somewhat obese middle-aged lady in her menopause, who is looking for a way to rejuvenate her sex life. In the end, when she cheats on her husband with a man she met online, her life seems to crumble around her. She regrets her deceit, admits to her Internet addiction and dreams of a new life in Alaska."
Sounds like the stuff of bad blog posts, no? But watching the episodes is nothing like watching a similarly convoluted storyline in a film or soap opera. The reality of the searches, and the woman behind them, is hard to escape; a feeling of voyeurism is palpable. The first weird searches might bring a smile, but the obvious longing for acceptance ("online friendships can be very special," "I'm so proud of you"), the search for "gay churches in Houston, Texas," the queries about liver problems and hair loss, can combine to make it tough to continue.
It's real pain, stripped of a human face, filtered through text strings typed into AOL's search engine--a curious mashup of the disembodied and the intimate. Puzzling out the person presented eventually gives way to thinking about our own search and browser histories, the trail of cybercrumbs leading through the forests of the Internet on paths that our own friends and even spouses may not know we tread. Submarine's short films
The young directors of the project, Sander Plug and Lernery Engelberts, have worked in Dutch TV and as graphic designers; both are also contributors to BUTT magazine (which it turns out is not a Dutch word for something else, so searching at work is probably not a good idea).
The "I Love Alaska" videos were initially meant to be sold to recoup some of the production costs. Dutch production house SubmarineChannel funded the films and offered the first two episode for free, charging about a dollar for the rest of them. But the company tells Ars that this model didn't fare well; some films just ended up on BitTorrent, while projects like "I Love Alaska" failed to generate much in the way of revenue.
SubmarineChannel has therefore thrown all the videos up free of charge on its own website along with video-sharing sites like YouTube and Vimeo. There's no business model here; the group is funded with public money from the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture, & Science, among others, and it made a good bit of money when HBO bought the rights to its "Molotov Alva."
The Dutch public's expenditure is now the world's gain. While watching the complete series will test the patience of anyone not in love with barren landscape shots, watching the opening episodes is worth the time, if only to lead us all to reflect again on just how much of our lives are now catalogued by computers around the world, and how search engines are becoming the new confessional.