I’ve always thought my name was pretty unique. It was often the first thing people asked me about when they met me. “Oh ‘JJ’… Is that a nickname? What does it stand for?” I recite the same line I always do for this question: “Well, my full name is Johnny Jo. It was my dad’s idea to name me after both my grandmas, Johnnie and Joann (who usually goes by Jo), and call me JJ for short.” After this, I would often get a mixed response. Johnny Jo is considered a “boys name” so it seems strange to some. On the other hand, a lot of people have told me they like the name because it’s cute and unique. When we were told to search our names online and see what we could find, I was surprised that Google came up with over 55 million results for ‘Johnny Jo Wright.’ Clearly, my name isn’t as unique as I previously thought, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
With so much of our data being collected and sold across so many different platforms these days, blending in with the crowd seems advantageous. Anonymity ensures privacy and safety in today’s technology-driven world. Often, people are terrified of someone finding their IP address or social security number somewhere on the world wide web or having their private data unethically mishandled. Simultaneously, these same people want to make sure they have up-to-date social media profiles and that their online persona looks appealing to others. With this paradigm in mind, I was eager to see just how much data I had online and whether or not it was authentic, complete, and stable.
I started with Google. Using incognito mode so my Chrome browser wouldn't recognize me, I began my search. The first page didn’t yield much beyond a few obituaries for men named ‘Johnny Wright’ or ‘Jo-Jo Wright.’ ‘JJ’ Wright didn't help much either, but I did find out that a Grammy-award winning musician and I share the same name. I decided to expand my search and started using different variations, such as including in my searches my hometown and past schools. Most things I found were related to activities I’ve done in the past such as track and field, cross country, and girl scouts. I even found an LS&A article about my MRADS summer experience that I didn’t know existed. The most current thing I found was my staff picture and bio for the research lab I have been working at part-time since 2017. The most revealing thing I was able to find was my Facebook. I keep it private, but you can still see my hometown, college, and place of work. What I was able to find was accurate, but, since I didn’t find much at all, I wouldn’t consider my data-footprint very complete, at least not on the surface-level.
To dig deeper, I decided to try using a data broker. Data brokers promise to provide a plethora of personal information including the names of your relatives, past addresses, working colleagues, and a public record. This has the potential to be a very powerful tool, but of course no data is free these days, not even our own. Another downside to this is that these websites that store and sell our data are just like any other company and use marketing techniques to try and get you to pay. Some of these techniques include flashing success stories across the screen and making you wait a long time so you feel like it's too late to leave, you're already invested. Keeping this factors in mind, I decided to use BeenVerified. Even though I want to keep my data private, I was a bit disappointed to see that I wasn’t in the database.
Lastly, I looked at the social media accounts I currently use to assess their completeness and stability in presenting me as I am now. I’m confident that all my social media is authentic because it’s created and used by me, but whether or not it actually presents a clear picture of who I am today is a harder question. I would say the peak of my social media usage was between 2014 and 2016 during high school. This means my footprint shows a very different person from who I am now. My Snapchat, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Facebook are all relatively inactive now. When I look at them I see posts from over five year’s ago. Most of the posts and shared pictures no longer accurately represent me. Thus I can see that they lack stability due to my inactivity. I still check Twitter and Instagram multiple a day to this day, but those also ted to be inaccurate and outdated. The past two years, I’ve posted on Instagram an average of twice per year. In high school I would try to post every month or so to keep my profile aligned with my current activities, friends, and accomplishments. However, as I got older, I lost interest in doing so. Maybe it was that I recognized that social media was taking a toll on my mental health. Nowadays, I still check these accounts often and feel that social pressure to keep my profile updated. I will admit, after seeing how little data I could find about myself online, I’m tempted to create a more comprehensive data identity. Knowing what I know about the consequences and benefits of being more present on social media, the question of whether to reengage is more complicated than ever.
Overall, what little information I could find was authentic. However, it was severely lacking in completeness. Even though privacy and safety is what's most important to me, I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed to not find much public information about myself. Throughout the search, I felt very torn between the feeling of not wanting my data to appear publicly online and wanting to have an authentic, complete, and stable online persona for others to see. I also felt this mix of disappointment and relief when looking at my own social media. I used to be an active Instagram and Snapchat user, but now I rarely share anything. I’ve been active on Twitter since 2013, but I keep my profile private.
When I critically examine these feelings about my online persona, I begin to see the bigger picture and can appreciate just how much big data comes into play. As mentioned earlier, data brokers can be great tools, but, just like many other forces in the tech industry, they are guilty of trying to make money off of people’s data. Their advertisements were obvious to pick out and gimmicky, but, hey, I still fell for it, didn't I? Social media plays the same greedy games, except they just tend to be more inconspicuous about their marketing tactics. When we go on social media, our ads are carefully tailored to our interests. The people we interact with the most are bumped to the top of our feed. It feels like everyone is online and actively creating these intricate profiles of themselves, everyone except for me. But I know that so many others feel the same way.
I believe its social media's prime directive is to make us feel this way; that’s their key marketing tool. They want us to want to post. If we, as individuals, are feeling like the only one without an aesthetically pleasing, current, and accurate profile, we will feel more pressure to post. And that’s exactly how social media apps make their money. They hook us in and tap into the unreasonable social pressure to be online. Logically, I don’t want my data online and I don’t care about it being authentic, complete, and stable because, simply, I prefer privacy. Emotionally, I'm compelled by the social pressure to update my social media more often for those very same reasons: I want to have an authentic, complete, and stable online identity. In the end, I feel torn between the two, but I can recognize that the pressure to post more, be active, and share my data online to be a manipulation by the very companies that make money off pressuring me.
Looking at my online data identity was a fun experiment at first. By the end, I was faced with the cognitive dissonance of not wanting my data online, while simultaneously spending a lot of time on social media and feeling inclined to post more. This exercise helped me to see more clearly the manipulative nature of capitalist-driven tech companies. I would not say the data about me online is very accurate or representative. That might be a detriment to me when new friends want to learn more about me based on my Instagram, but I also have to consider my own values and what’s important to me. I know that I personally value privacy and security overall, so I will try to reflect that by being more conscious of my social media use and continuing to post the limited amount of data that I feel most comfortable with.