Here’s a terrifying experiment: Look up your earliest available Google search history. While it’s well understood that almost everything you do online is recorded by large tech companies and then shared with advertisers and the government, it might be a surprise that some of that information is easily accessible. It’s absolutely a feature you should disable right after deleting all of your records, for security and privacy purposes. But, hey, maybe take a quick look into the sewer, before flushing it all away in shame?
It’s relatively simple. Go to MyActivity.google.com and click on “item view.” Then click “filter by date & product.” Then experiment with date ranges, until you find your earliest search. There, you can scroll through a few years of past searches you’ve long since forgotten. It’s like Memento, except with directions to a thousand taquerias.
The earliest recorded search I made was “seattle, wa TO san francisco” on May 13, 2013. Only three years ago, the last time I deleted my history in a panic. At the time, I think I was planning a trip, but I don’t remember. I never ended up going to Seattle. A few of your ancient searches are kind of boring like this. Most are inexplicably bizarre. The next few searches I made included “how many people killed by ak47”; “types of flies”; “morbid obesity”; and “spaghetti on macbook.”
My Newsweek colleague Zach Schonfeld had similarly odd results, including “beatles dead babies,” “bald man,” “baby with cigar,” “republican baby,” and “andy samberg joanna.” Regarding the last one: “That must have been when I first discovered that Joanna Newsom was dating Andy Samberg,” he says. “What a day.”
Go far enough back in time and the searches are baffling, the context of the original query eroded by time. All that’s left is the vague notion that, at some point in your life, you desperately needed to know the “types of flies.”
But it’s possible to retroactively apply some context. With a little creative filtering, for example, you can view all of your Drunken Google Searches.
Sifting through all of this data in a browser is a bit unwieldy, so I exported it. Google allows users to download their archives, providing it in a package of mostly incomprehensible .json files. After searching around on (uh…) Google, I found a detailed set of instructions by Lisa Charlotte Rost for organizing it in a handy spreadsheet. After getting it all in order, I had a 5.5mb file of every Google search I’d made from May 2013 to present.
I figured the best way to find my drunken searches was by using their time stamps. Any queries made between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. were most likely done while inebriated. It’s not an exact science. I certainly wasn’t plastered every single night between 2013 and present, but it seems a safe bet that if I happened to be awake googling anything past 11 p.m., it was probably under the influence. With this in mind, I sorted the spreadsheet in the order of the hour the searches were sent out.
My Drunken Search History consists mostly of looking for directions to/from bars, queries related to trivial arguments with friends (is x or y celebrity dead? how did they die?) and a gold mine of inexplicable curiosities. A few I’m willing to share: “things that make me uncomfortable”; “pile of poo”; “famous tombs”; “speed 2 cruise control.” I’m not proud.
Browsing your search history (drunk or sober) is sort of like reading through an old diary you never realized you were writing. It traces meals (searching “best subs brooklyn”), breakups (searching “best soul songs” on YouTube at 2 a.m.), bad dates (searching for their Twitter before meeting), and family deaths (searching for last minute plane tickets to Fort Lauderdale, Florida). It’s an unnervingly intimate dossier of your day-to-day life.
We act differently around the Google search bar, though we should know better. We ask it the questions we are too ashamed to ask our most trusted friends. It’s part library, part confessional, and part bar. Never mind that all of these allegedly private queries are stored in a massive data center in Mayes County, Oklahoma.
Ultimately, it’s an upsetting journey of self-discovery. You get a glimpse of a hidden version of yourself, usually seen only by the penetrating Sauron’s eye of a large tech company. It’s the creepiest, stupidest version of yourself.
It makes you feel a bit like Werner Herzog, listening to the horrifying audio tape of Timothy Treadwell getting mauled by a bear at the end of Grizzly Man. Nobody should witness this information. So: Disable the feature and delete all of the data forever. Then set fire to your computer and dump the ashes in a river. You’re free now.