- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2008


They are an unquestionably bizarre set of Internet search terms:mange; human mold; white camellia; dying Elmo. Could those words also be clues to finding a missing person?

That’s the premise behind “User 927,” a new production in Philadelphia that blends fact and fiction in the tale of a disappearance from a small Midwestern town. “It’s the world’s first play based on a search log,” director Michael Alltop says.

The story’s central clue is the real-life online search log of an AOL subscriber - identified only as User 927 - that was released to the public two years ago in a well-publicized privacy gaffe.

Mr. Alltop says he was astonished when AOL intentionally released about 19 million search requests made over three months by more than 650,000 subscribers. The logs were meant to help academic researchers, but they were posted on a public site and quickly circulated once a blogger discovered them.

Although AOL had substituted numeric IDs for the subscribers’ real user names, there were enough clues for two newspapers to track down two of the users and identify them by name.

The identity of User 927 is still unknown, but Mr. Alltop was fascinated enough by that subscriber’s freakish queries, including some disturbing sexual imagery, to commission a 90-minute play around the search log.

Mr. Alltop’s friend Katha rine Clark Gray, 30, crafted a story of a mother and her 14-year-old daughter who move from Brooklyn, N.Y., to fictional Osterville, Ind., in search of a simpler life.

Shortly after arriving in their new home, Mom declares an “analog” summer for the two of them - no Internet, no e-mail, no computer.

Daughter Deena, however, sneaks off to the public library and uses a computer there. With two friends she quickly makes online, Deena begins exploring an actual Web site that has copies of the AOL search logs, one of many created in the aftermath of the release.

Audience members see the queries on screens overhead as Deena and her friends delve into the logs, getting a glimpse into the lives of some users. The trio’s interest in User 927 is piqued because previous visitors to the site gave that log high ratings.

“It’s time-travel spying,” Deena says during her amateur sleuthing.

Their searches in the library become important later when someone from Osterville disappears; Mr. Alltop does not want to reveal who.

“User 927” runs June 11 through 22 at the Studio at St. Stephen’s Theater, an intimate venue in a downtown Philadelphia church basement.

In real life, AOL has apologized for the search logs’ release, which the Time Warner Inc. division blamed on a researcher who had failed to gain proper clearances. The researcher and another AOL employee were fired, and the company’s chief technology officer resigned.

The continued existence of the logs, and people’s interest in them, leads to the play’s key question: Are you what you seek?

Fictional investigators must grapple with that issue as they try to find the missing person by tracing User 927’s identity.

“This search log, to me, is a character,” Mr. Alltop says. “It’s like a guided tour through a polluted mind.”

Miss Gray, the playwright who this week was awarded a Pew Fellowship in the Arts for Philadelphia-area artists, says the story is about the analog and technological connections people make in their lives. The mother-daughter bond “is 100 percent analog,” she says, but it is also perhaps the strongest connection two people can have.

Steve Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, sees validity in exploring whether you are what you seek. He questions whether one’s personality really can be gleaned from one’s searches, noting that when retail sites such as Amazon.com Inc. recommend products based on past queries, they are not always on the mark.

The concept of “User 927” continues a pattern of integrating technology into the arts, Mr. Jones says. Analog communication devices served as creative fodder when they were newly invented, such as plays centered on a telephone or poetry written to resemble telegraphs, he says.

Mr. Jones says they all show “the degree to which the public’s imagination is captured by these technologies.”

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