My Data Identity
My name is Brant Verlinde. I have a pretty unique name, so it’s very easy to find me on the internet. I also have a very large digital footprint. I’m on dozens of different social media platforms and have been posting information about myself for years. As a result, I believe that I would be pretty easy to identify on the internet.
Before Googling myself, I assumed that their algorithms would be able to pick up my name with relative ease, and return pages and pages of results for anyone who wanted to access it. I believed I would be able to get a holistic, accurate perception of what I would be like in real life. However after only a few minutes of looking, it became clear that this wasn’t the case at all. Random tidbits of information about my past were interspersed with various publications by some other Verlinde, with the occasional oddity showing up. What I realized from this was that my online data identity encompasses most aspects of my life, in addition to small amounts of mostly irrelevant information, which if found by others, could misidentify as a person.
When I google myself, all kinds of social media links present themselves. LinkedIn, Twitter, Spotify, SoundCloud, Medium… and my address?? The very front page of google lists the location where I live. I don’t even have to click on the link to see my home address. The Michigan Resident Database is a website that uses voter registration to make all the information much easier to access. Clicking on the link brings up even more information. My birth year, my home mailing address, my voter ID number, people who live near me, and family members. All at the click of a button. After a little more digging, I found an opt-out form for the database, and you better believe I filled that out as fast as possible.
My social media accounts were much more standard. Everything that wasn’t private, was available with a single click. My employment history, though it hasn’t been updated in a while, was available on LinkedIn. My twitter posts, which I thought were private, also came up. I switched my account to private shortly after. To my surprise, I found two SoundCloud accounts. I must have forgotten my password and made a second at some point, as one didn’t have any kind of activity on it. Interestingly enough, the comments we made for blog posts 1 and 2 also showed up, but the actual stories did not. I’m sure I would find them if I dug deep enough into the Google search results though.
Deeper Search Results
As we delve deeper into the Google query, the results become less pertinent, but sometimes more interesting. A 2016 document outlined the plan our high school advisory council came up with. A roster for my high school lacrosse team, a page listing honor’s students also from my high school, more lacrosse stuff, tennis roster, an old college blog post, etcetera. If I had to guess, I would say that Google search results are prioritized by how recently the page was created.
On the third page, the only relevant finding was a middle school writing prompt that had the names of everyone in the class. On page four, there’s a research paper about string theory and quantum particles. I wish I could say I was involved in that, but the authors are other Verlindes. Maybe I can reach out and have an interesting conversation with them. On the fifth page, my address shows up again! After opting out of that page as well, I decided to do a little more research into the topic. These websites use public, but very difficult to read voter records, turn them into much more readily accessible information on the internet, and oftentimes charge the user to remove the content. It appears being a responsible voter has caused me to become a hostage to internet ransoms. From pages six and on, information is very scarce.
The occasional, ancient article about lacrosse or some other club I was in pops up, but the links are few and far between. All the way on page twelve yielded a result that I found to be quite funny. Back in 2014, as a fifth grader, I “researched” and made a YouTube video about a location in Russia called the Berezniki sinkhole. An investor on seekingalpha.com found my video somehow and credited me as an amateur author regarding the incident. Kind of fun to think a fifth grader’s slideshow could have sparked some Wallstreet investments.
Google Ad Preferences
If you didn’t know, you can visit adssettings.google.com to see how Google’s algorithms interpret you as a consumer. They create these tags based on your search history and from other Google platforms (like YouTube) to generate more relevant personalized advertisements for users. The sum of all of these tags can be used to create a picture of who Google thinks I am. Let’s start with the basics. Google thinks I am a 25-34 year old man currently working towards a bachelor’s degree in the technology industry, single with no kids, upper middle class, and currently renting a house. Pretty accurate so far, though I’m kind of worried why they think I’m 30 instead of 21. The fact that they know I rent a house is also a little bit creepy.
They seem to have my technology side pinned pretty well too. “Business and productivity software, computer education and hardware, data management, Java, web design, apps, and hosting, and scripting languages” are all included in the long list of tags on the webpage. Like most programmers, I tend to Google every bug I encounter, which is probably what allows the tags to reflect a number of classes that I’ve already taken. They seem to have a lot of my interests and hobbies correct too. “Action, adventure, and sci-fi movies, American football, philanthropy, video games, investing, classical music, investing, dogs, and japanese cuisine” are all accurate portrayals of my interests. Additionally, there seems to be lots of representation of movie genres on the list, disproportionate for the amount of time I spend actually watching movies.
What they got right (and not so right)
All in all, it seems that Google knows me pretty well. The majority of my results were very relevant, whether it be my social media accounts, studies or my hobbies. Even more so considering the data is primarily from things that I’ve searched on Google. It’s apparent that a number of rogue interests have been pegged to me, and I think that’s understandable given the nature of algorithmic classification and how I use Google searches.
Being automatically generated, my internet footprint also had some anomalies. Despite football and basketball being the only sports I watch, baseball and soccer also made the list. Those are probably derived from the “sports” tag being present or a single Google search on the subject at some point. As for hobbies, they have “autos and vehicles” and “cycling” listed, both of which I wouldn’t call accurate. “Celebrities and entertainment news” is another tag which I actively avoid in my life, so I’m also not sure where that came from. Strangely, “Bollywood and South Asian film” makes an appearance. I have no idea where this came from, maybe I was looking up Parasite when it first came out. Additionally, “Vietnamese cuisine.” I don’t even know what Vietnamese cuisine is.
The sum of these parts encapsulates my interests very effectively, and I think my experience on the internet is probably tailored for the better as a result. The majority of my most readily available internet footprint consists of links that directly correlate to me, which is for better and for worse. An employer finding my LinkedIn on the first page of Google is a big bonus, but Google’s power is also a drawback in that random internet people can find my home address a few links after it. The oddities I uncovered don’t seem to have any sort of lasting impact on me either. Finding an article about string theory when searching my name doesn’t sound like a bad thing to me, especially if it were a prospective employer. My advertisement tags aren’t even that big of a drawback either. I wouldn’t be mad at all to get pictures of Vietnamese cuisine popping up on my sidebar. I think Google has done a pretty good job if I’m being honest. All of my important information appears on the front page, which is exactly what I would hope for in a digital identity. The drawbacks are considerable (really only my address), but I can’t fault Google’s algorithm for falling for a predatory link that specifically abuses their system. So while my identity could be somewhat misidentified purely from Google, I think we live in a day and age where our perceived personalities aren’t entirely derived from online information, and where I still have the opportunity to mould my identity to my liking.