Back in 2006, I was mainly into Google for the cute stuff. Take one search session from October of that year, when I keyed in kitten, then sleeping dog, then leonardo dicaprio, then kitten with baby chick.
Then kangaroo penis.
And then BIFURCATED PENIS, kangaroo VAGINA, bifurcated vagina, double vagina, kangaroo vagina again, animal vagina, and kangaroo penis. Finally, like some teenaged cliché who shoves his Playboy under the mattress when his mom walks in, I conjured a funny cat picture and then casually continued my browsing as if I hadn’t just broadcast an interest in marsupial porn to the most powerful technology company in the world. I don’t remember doing any of it.
Google has always profited off swiping its users’ data, but in recent years, it’s gotten a little bit more open about its collection practices and laid some of its cookies on the table. The Network Advertising Initiative, a “self-regulatory association” of digital ad companies that includes Google’s ad outfit, DoubleClick, now gives Internet users the option to opt out of certain types of monitoring. And Google now allows users to download their full Google search histories dating back to the moment they created their accounts. From there, users can return to their regular Googling, or, if they want, delete their archive. Google introduces the feature with a stern warning that subtly winks at the consumer’s newfound power over their own history: “Do not download your archive on public computers and ensure your archive is always under your control.”
Advertisers may salivate over data like that, but parsing a Google search history is a tedious process for a human being. When CNBC data journalist Mark Fahey dove into his own search history, he deemed his results “mundane.” It turns out that “many people using Google are just trying to get to Facebook,” and others are mainly asking Google Maps for help getting off the Internet. But at least on my feed, once you read past the logistical searches, there’s a lot more where kangaroo penis came from. In the past decade, I’ve also Googled hippo penis, bonobo sex, every STD I can think of, david brooks girlfriend, and gruesome murder details. Which murder? Eh, just give me a grisly one.
Paging through my own history feels a little bit like preparing to defend myself in court. My mind flashed back to the Casey Anthony murder trial, in which the prosecution combed through Anthony’s computer search history and found a single “chloroform” query. (Meanwhile, I’ve Googled Casey Anthony eight times.) As I processed my results, I found myself making excuses for my own search behavior. Hey, I Googled milk nymphos for work! Google has all the data it needs to know that I am a reluctant nonsmoker (quit smoking depression how long does it last) who is sexually active (period five days late), cursed with a fear of tiny holes (trypophobia), and blessed with an understated Southwestern aesthetic sensibility (wolf dreamcatcher). Tens of thousands of little disclosures like that risk coalescing into what University of Colorado–Boulder law professor Paul Ohm calls “a database of ruin” just waiting to fall into the wrong hands and topple my reputation.
Still, Google doesn’t want to ruin your life; it just wants to sell you out. One major category of searches that I like to call “Google, am I normal?” demonstrates why the search bar has become such a scintillating resource for advertisers. Typical commercials work by trying to convince me that I need to buy a new product to solve a problem I didn’t know I had: A luminous Andie MacDowell poses for an anti-aging serum, and I search the mirror for fine lines. But for nearly a decade, I’ve been tipping Google off to all the real ailments and imagined insecurities that I already have, at a pace of about once an hour, every hour of the day: celebrity diet, pants are uncomfortable, migraine difficulty speaking, before and after plastic surgery, and worst cramps ever why.
Then there are all the other data miners loading my browser with cookies as I travel wherever a kangaroo penis search takes me. It’s hard to know just how closely Google is tracking me, but BlueKai—a digital marketing giant that boasts one of the most comprehensive collections of third-party data scrubbed from all over the Web—allows users to look up their consumer profiles to see how they’re being sold to advertisers. And given the depth of the disclosures I’ve plugged into the Internet, I’m actually a little surprised that these digital ad companies don’t seem to know more about me. My BlueKai consumer profile correctly guesses that I’m an unmarried professional female apartment-renter who buys hair products, makeup, deodorant, feminine products, and pizza. It’s also true that I’m interested in “meteorology and climatology,” if you count weather Googling. But the profile also pegs me as a fortysomething woman interested in nondairy milk, women’s plus-sized clothing, luxury cruises, and empty nest magazines. I am not that consumer. (Though I feel like we would be friends?) All of my weird-body searching amounts to a vague insight that I may be interested in buying “ailment products.” The company’s most specific insight about me is that I probably buy dry pasta. Who squealed?
Beneath the crude demographic casting, there are truly personal insights hidden in my history if you know where to look. One of my more surprising finds is that my searches for women’s names—celebrities, colleagues, characters—have far outpaced my search interest in men. Taken together, the history reads a bit like a slightly unhinged love letter to the women who have fascinated me throughout my life. When I was 21, they were fiona apple and janet Jackson. At 22, jenny holzer, ursula hegi, and agent scully. At 25, roxane gay, darlene conner, and then–power couple lindsay lohan samantha ronson. At 28, caity weaver, shonda rhimes, and shiloh jolie-pitt. Now, melora hardin and taraji p. henson. Other searches function like scraps pinned to a vision board, outlining the kind of woman I have wanted to be: cassandra’s room wayne’s world, robyn haircut, 70s boat woman, crystal castle she-ra, kristen stewart gifs, olive oyl president, elizabeth wandering through pemberley, short women, mean women, cool moms, condoleezza boots, katharine hepburn made husband change name, diane keaton in a bra.
“Imagine that someone has 40 years of your search history,” Casey Oppenheim, co-founder of the online data protection app Disconnect, told New York Times readers last year of the risks of big data. It was meant to be a discomfiting prompt, but the idea excites me, too. Google searches are records of the lives we’ve lived, as taken from a peculiar vantage point that nevertheless defines the time in which we’re living. Some searches read like diary entries and others like open letters to the hive mind. Personally, I have some searches I’d rather not see saved for posterity: I can live with come to my window lyrics and zayn removes blonde streak, but what shellfish jews eat looks pretty bad, though not as bad as how to blow job, which is at least better than random house starting salary. The very worst thing I have ever Googled was my boyfriend’s Klout score. When I die, please just tell my kids about the time I Googled carlos santana khaki shorts.