Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

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Last week The New York Times stopped charging a subscription fee to read its major op-ed columnists online. After two years, the Times finally figured out what everyone else already knew. Online publishing is different from publishing on paper. In the print world, loyal readers are prized above all else. The more subscribers you can sign up, the better you are going to make out on advertising. In cyberspace, the loyal readers who come back day after day are largely worthless for advertising. It is the far greater number of surfers who wind up on your pages, not by design, but because a search engine put them there in pursuit of some specific bit of information. Those interlopers are much more likely to click on ads because the ads often relate to something they were actively searching for. By putting some of its most popular pages behind a pay-only wall, the old gray lady was basically keeping those prime eyeballs of its web site. Welcome to the 21st century, New York Times.

I’ll confess that I was one of those who was paying good money to read the Times columnists the past two years. I didn’t feel nearly as good about it as I would have in the heyday of writers like James Reston and Russell Baker. Is it just me or are the Times columnists increasingly shrill when compared to their forebears? Tom Friedman and David Brooks write on a variety of topics and are generally interesting. But some columnists (Paul Krugman, Frank Rich) seem to just write the same column week after week. Maureen Dowd can be quite entertaining, but I am afraid more so during Democratic administrations than Republican ones, when she tends to get as one-note as some of her colleagues.

But I’m not really here to critique the op-ed page of The New York Times (well, at least not exclusively anyway). This whole search engine culture that the internet has spawned sometimes creeps me out. Like all new technologies, it has its share of unintended consequences. For example, nearly a decade ago I saw a series of short films at the Women in Cinema film festival in Seattle. On my web site, I wrote only a few lines about each one. One of them was a student film by a young woman that dealt with very painful issues in her own personal history. And that was that. But no, that wasn’t the end of it. Something I absolutely did not see coming was that the name of a new Silicon Valley high-tech startup that would incorporate a few months later would become a common verb to describe something that millions of people would do to their own names and those of people they wanted to know more about. For years, whenever the woman who made that film Google-ed her own name, invariably the second result would be my few lines mentioning her and her traumatic personal history. After years of this, as she progressed through her life and her career, she was increasingly bothered by it. She finally emailed me, explained the situation and wondered if I might be willing to do something about it. I thought carefully about it for a while. After all, zillions of years ago I worked for newspapers, and journalists like to think they have some sort of integrity. Here was the subject of a story asking me to go back and alter something I had accurately written about more than nine years before. But, in the end, it was no-brainer. She was not a public figure and I was, however unwittingly and with good intentions, violating her privacy on an ongoing basis because of having those few lines on my web site. I expunged her name from my site, without a moment’s hesitation. If she had legitimately been a public figure, I would not have done this. But such a thing would never happen anyway because, in such a case, my few lines would be lost in the multitude of results that a search engine would deliver to someone famous. So don’t get any ideas, Quentin Tarantino! (As of today, if you Google “quentin tarantino overrated exaggerated adulation,” my lowly web site comes up as the second result.)

But it’s not just the way search engines can dredge up things I wrote years ago and deliver them to people I hadn’t really considered as looking at them years later. It’s also the way search engines look into our souls by observing and recording our web searches—something that many people simply assume is an anonymous exercise. And the search engine companies do assure us that, while they accumulate data on our searches, they do not connect it with us individually. I guess we just have to take their word for that. But it does give me a Big Brother-ish shudder to think that someone somewhere out there is seeing the strange and weird things I might be searching for on the web—even if I trust that they are not attributing them to me personally. On the flip side, it is weird to see what other people are searching for. Because I can. I certainly cannot tell which individuals are landing on my web site, but I can see which words they are doing a search on when a certain search engine delivers them to one of my pages.

A recent look at the data revealed that, in that moment anyway, the most common word search to deliver eyeballs to my site was, strangely, “movie comments,” with slight variations on that theme peppering the overall results. I guess that is normal enough. Some of the other results were also predictable enough. For example, quite a few people found me while seeking various versions of “cannes pronunciation.” Apparently, this is something that many more people than I would have thought worry about. Also predictable are the searches for particular movies, especially ones that have had limited or no releases and so have few published reviews. I take a bit of pride that I turn out to be one of the top sources for info on those movies (the ones I like to call Cinema Obscuro) that are hard to find anywhere else. But sometimes the search engine sends people to me when I haven’t written about the movie in question. Like the several searches for the Canadian movie (which, as far as I can tell, has only played at the recent Toronto Film Festival) Breakfast with Scot. That may have something to do with the fact that many of the searches incorrectly add an extra “t” at the end.

Inevitably, a number of the searches are of a sexual nature, although not as many of them as I might have thought. The one that really perplexes me, though, is the strangely common search (few people searching many times or many people searching few times?) that consists of the name of a certain female actor and the word “nude.” Now, the name isn’t any of the ones you might think it would be. In fact, I don’t think she is particularly well-known by most people at all. But apparently, people wanting to see her in the buff land on my site because I mention her name on the same page as a review I wrote of a movie called Live Nude Girls—even though she has no connection to that particular film.

Things like that happen because I tend to have lots of movie reviews grouped on a single page, meaning that there are lots of words on one page that can get connected with each other in unexpected ways—thanks to the robotic logic of software. How else to explain how people found me with searches like “novels with one word titles” or “boring part of the movie cabaret” or “did vincent spano get a nose job?” or “french aristocracy movie a lot of sex” or “im 12 i fancy i a lad who is twelve as well but he has a girlfriend”?

That last search illustrates very well an interesting phenomenon that I’ve noticed among other people’s searches. Quite a few people apparently type whole conversational sentences into the Google search field, as if either it were an artificial intelligence program or there was a real, live person on the other end reading and acting on each search. How else to explain searches like these: “it is rumoured that the dr. evil character played by mike meyers in the austin powers movies is based on this director. what is his name?” (plus numerous variations on this same question; I always thought Dr. Evil was a bit like Otto Preminger) or “who played the father in the original movie (filmed in 1950) ‘father of the bride’?” (Spencer Tracy, of course) or “in the begining of the movie shrek, which of the songs below is the one that opens the movie:” or “a begiging statement or comment attractive and interesting catching the reader’s attention in count of monte cristo” or one that particularly intrigues me, “movie + watch clips of their past lives + falls in love and chases train.”

The above examples are merely the tip of the iceberg. A person could go crazy reading all the collected searches and trying to figure out what was in the heads of the various people who typed them. Even more mind-boggling is trying to anticipate what weird searches this page is going to attract, given all the strange strings of words it includes. And what effect this column might have emotionally on any of the people who have initiated these searches and now unexpectedly find them discussed here?

I am guessing that these issues do not bother certain above-mentioned New York Times columnists since, after all, they mostly write the same thing week after week. But at least they’re not charging for it anymore.

-S.L., 27 September 2007

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