From a single search of “Emma Brown” I can find thousands of other people with my name, many of whom are more famous than me. There is Emma Brown, the Washington Post reporter. Emma Brown, the actress. Emma Brown, the runner whose death made headlines in 2019 and 2020 due to her battle with anorexia. Emma Brown, the gymnast at the University of Denver. Emma Brown, the title of an incomplete manuscript by the late Charlotte Bronte. Results for Emma Brown, the University of Michigan undergrad? None.
As a person who shares my name with thousands of other people, dead and alive, my data identity is relatively private unless someone who already knew some basic facts about me were to search specifically for me. And, even then, my social activity never appears, only my voter record, high school achievements, and career-focused activity from college. This paints a narrow and idealized picture of my personality and my life that does not adequately reflect the qualities that make me the person I am today. In fact, the majority of the information I can find about myself relates to defining qualities I had in high school, which are vastly different from the qualities I would use to describe myself now. My data identity, while positive, has little to do with my own agency in sharing information online and is centered around my high school self rather than who I perceive myself to be now.
In my hometown, I was one of three Emma Browns in my school district alone (with one slight spelling variation). I am used to going by my first name and last initial in nearly every group setting, because the first name Emma is so popular in my generation. The only way I was able to find any information about myself online was by searching my name plus keywords that I thought would provide accurate results. Otherwise, the other Emma Browns of the world took prominence in the search results on both Google and Ecosia search engines.
The sheer number of results containing my name that were not me was disappointing at first. I expected this result to an extent - I am keenly aware of the lack of uniquity of my name, as I spent my entire childhood being confused with the other Emma Brown who was a grade below me and whose birthday was exactly a year and one day after mine. However, as a student intending to go into UX Design, I have a public website attached to my github account which features my name and email, and as a young adult who grew up with social media at my fingertips, I have multiple social media accounts attached to my name. But, due to the massive number of users on those accounts with my exact name, my profile is deeply buried in a list of Emma Browns from around the world, not to mention the Emma Browns who are public figures in other industries.
Narratives and Keywords
Emma Brown + my hometown
When my name is attached to my hometown, my data identifies me as a high-achieving high school student who was heavily involved in theatre. Strangely enough, it also defines me based on my late grandfather, whose obituary was published online. The images associated with these search results show me rehearsing for a musical where I share a stage kiss I would much rather forget, along with an image where my then-real-life-boyfriend, onstage with me, hits my character with a fictional car and kills her. While these images were entertaining to look back on, they were not exactly the material I was hoping to see.
The most interesting information I found when looking at the search results for this keyword was the Michigan Resident Database. Here, I could see my home address, voting district and location, as well as the profiles of my mother, father, and brother. I was aware of the fact that my address was likely online, but the ease of finding this information was a bit of a wake-up call. I recently received a surprise package of baby formula at my home address (terrifying my dad, as you can imagine), and when investigating who signed me up for this service, I was only considering friends from my hometown who would be interested in pranking me and also knew my home address. Now, I realize it could be anyone who was able to find my address on the Michigan Resident Database.
Emma Brown + my high school
To see if different results appeared, I further specified my search to include my high school’s name, rather than my hometown. With this information, the narrative of me being a high-achieving student heavily involved in theatre was even stronger. More of my scholarship awards appeared, in addition to multiple articles about a computer science award I received. In the realm of theatre, my name and high school appeared in two more sites, including programs from school musicals and announcements of awards from theatre competitions.
These results were funny to me because I am no longer studying computer science, nor do I participate in theatre productions or competitions anymore. In this way, my data identity is not an accurate representation of my true and current identity. Rather, it reflects a past identity that no longer exists.
Emma Brown + University of Michigan
Searching my name and my current university led to far fewer results, but results that reflected somewhat more accurately who I am and what I do today. My LinkedIn account appeared at the top of the list, along with a couple of student organization events and publications I participated in.
These results were a more accurate representation of who I am today, but were far less interesting. And, overall, there was little content that I had personally created. Aside from my LinkedIn, none of my personal social media accounts were accessible, nor was my personal website.
The keyword associated with my name in a google search makes a significant difference in the results that show up about me. When using keywords like my hometown and high school, the results are definitely dated and do not reflect the way I view myself today. However, the results associated with my college activity are few and relatively uninteresting, not capturing the way I view myself now simply because it is very one-sided. I was largely unable to find any of my personally curated social accounts, which I feel more accurately share my whole identity, and demonstrate how it has evolved. But maybe my relative anonymity is not a bad thing! Now, rather than defining myself by my academic achievements and clubs that would contribute to my college admissions, I try to define myself by my personal hobbies, my values in life, and my loved ones.
Agency of Identity
My data identity was largely created by outside sources rather than by me. In that sense, I have very little control over my online identity, for better or worse. My data identity is truly defined by what other people and organizations choose to publish about me - and that has been consistently good things from high school on. My failures were never published, as large and important and crushing as they may feel in my head.
I don't mind the idea that the more genuine parts of my personality aren't available to the public. To me, having a detailed narrative describing the kind of person I am today would make me feel as though I have less agency of my identity. Because it is rather difficult to find current information about me online, I feel a greater sense of freedom to change who I am and what I value without needing to share it online. Social media used to feel like a really important aspect of my life and I used to focus a lot of energy into crafting my identity through it - but it feels far less important now.
Implications for Personal Privacy
My personally created social accounts now feel more like small communities of people I know and care about, rather than public displays. I feel a sense of relative privacy online simply because no information is available about me without specific keyword searches, and even then, for the most part, positive events from my somewhat-distant past appear. This is not what I expected to feel after taking a deep dive into my data identity, but it would seem that to a basic search engine, there is not a lot to reveal about me. That being said, I am not stoked that there is a picture of me kissing a man freely available online. If I had been in costume it might feel a little less embarrassing.
I also feel slight discomfort at how easy it was to find my home address and family members on the Michigan Resident Database. However, simply by being a Michigan resident and a registered voter, this information is published online, so I cannot do anything about it. So, it seems that anyone can send me free subscriptions to baby formula samples and I can't do anything about it!