Leaked AOL search logs take stage in new play

Search logs of infamous "User 927" form basis of play that asks the question: are we what we search for online?

Emilie Krause
Actress Emilie Krause plays 14-year-old Deena Letts in the new play User 927, based on AOL search logs leaked to the Web in 2006. Michael Alltop

Imagine every question you've typed into an Internet search engine suddenly appearing online for the world to scrutinize. What would the queries say about you? Would the world view you as totally mundane? Totally bizarre?

Would your search log be intriguing enough to draw thousands upon thousands of viewers?

Brat Productions, a theater company in Philadelphia, found one such search string more than compelling enough to form the basis of its new play, User 927.

The show--which opened Wednesday and runs through June 22--is based on a now infamous real-life search log that included queries ranging from "purple lilac," "happy bunny pictures," and "square dancing steps" to "cut into your trachea," "pee fetish," and "Simpsons incest." And that's just for starters.

"It was something that captured my imagination and seemed to suggest some type of dramatic story that could come out of it--a mystery or something about the Internet in general, and privacy," said User 927 director Michael Alltop.

In 2006, when AOL published the search logs of 650,000 subscribers, many people were shocked and outraged at what they viewed as a massive privacy breach. The logs, which were supposed to be used for research, were quickly withdrawn from the Web and three employees left in the ensuing uproar.

Michael and Katie
Katharine Clark Gray and Michael Alltop wrote and directed (respectively) the play User 927. Bob Pasini

But other sites had already gotten ahold of the data and damage control couldn't do much to curb the curious minds of the cyberworld. Mirror sites such as Splunkd allowed users to probe every query and even gave the means to compile lists of some of the most interesting logs.

So Alltop joined in the fun. After hearing that a customer involved in the breach had been identified by The New York Times, Alltop logged on to AOLStalker.com--which allows visitors to track the leaked AOL searches--to see what the fuss was about.

When he realized he had essentially stumbled upon a database of life stories, he called friend and playwright Katharine Clark Gray and pitched an idea. Why not write a play about the search logs?

"From that point we had a good year and a half or so of throwing all kinds of ideas around. How could she frame a whole bunch of search queries into a story that people would want to come see?" he said.

Since the play's conception, its creators were sure it had to revolve around User 927, AOL's anonymous ID number for the Web seeker at the center of the production.

"We always knew that the search records of User 927 had to be the core," Alltop said.

Playwright Gray explains that unlike some of the other leaked search logs, User 927's queries were anything but linear and also anything but conventional. Whoever User 927 was, he, she, or they topped the charts on AOLStalker because of their often peculiar quests for knowledge. Many users rated the search log a masterpiece, putting it in the top-10 rated users out of all 650,000 subscribers.

AOL did not return a call seeking comment for this story.

What made User 927 an object of such public curiosity was not only that his or her search results were highly sexual and even violent, but perhaps that he or she spent hours looking up song lyrics and researching flowers and then went several days looking up sexual topics that are downright illegal, or would at least be considered deviant by many observers.

The search log was made even more popular with an article on the Consumerist Web site.

Unraveling a mystery
Since the play is a mystery, Gray wanted to keep most of the plot under wraps. She would say that the story focuses on a mother and daughter who move from New York to Indiana in search of a new life.

The mother decides the pair is going to "go analog" for the summer and forbids her daughter from the Internet. So the girl uses the library to enter the cyberworld without her mother's watchful eye. The mother and daughter struggle over the Internet, someone disappears in the town, and User 927's search log might be the key.

"There are numerous scenes in which the actual search records of User 927 are used to illuminate what happened," Alltop said.

"Or what might be happening," added Gray.

User 927 actors
Appearing in the play User 927 are actors Peter Roccaforte, Conrad Ricamora, Emilie Krause, and Elena Bossler. Michael Alltop

Although digital and analog search forms the core of the play, Alltop and Gray said that the tagline, "U are what U seek," is the other concept they worked into the play. The question was: can a three-month window into the searches of a stranger really portray that person accurately?

"I don't believe that a search log can tell you explicitly, exactly who you are," Alltop said. "I got the sense, and hopefully you will get the sense in the play, that you may not be exactly what you seek, but what you search for reveals an incredible amount about yourself and you don't even realize what you are revealing about yourself when you're online."

Gray has worked that issue into the second act, when one character addresses search logs and their link to identity.

"They are a portrait of you in the impressionist style," Gray said. "Each little ingredient is like a dab of color here and a dab of color there, you have to sort of stand back and look at the full picture to see the portrait that you've painted."

User 927 runs through June 22 at Philadelphia's St. Stephen's Theater. At least one reviewer liked the concept of the play, but didn't much like the execution, slamming its "confused, condescending plot."

"You could possibly forgive the amateurish quality of Gray's script if the issues it misses weren't so fascinating," Philly.com reviewer Wendy Rosenfield said.

But Alltop said everyone from technophiles to florists would enjoy the play.

"And AOL users especially," he added.

AUDIO

What do our searches say about us?
User 927 director Michael Alltop and playwright Katharine Clark Gray talk about why they focused on User 927's search logs, and what our own search results might say about us.
Download mp3 (2.93MB)

 

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