My data identity gives a fairly basic, but accurate representation of who I am and what I like to do. A quick scan of my Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter will uncover plenty of my interests and passions, along with where I’m from, who some of my friends are, and even my sense of humor. These platforms may have information that’s a bit outdated because I’m not very active, but with not a ton of work, one could find out a lot about me even without subscribing or creating an account on any of the platforms I just mentioned. Additionally, more personal information is available with slightly more effort put towards searching.
Jacob vs Jake
Jacob was actually the most common name in the U.S. for baby boys born in 1999 so inevitably, when I was in third grade, there were three other kids in my class named Jacob. Naturally, two of us took nicknames to make differentiating easier and this led to the birth of “Jake Leslie” at the ripe old age of 9. After that, every year in school, I would spend the first week deciding whether it was worth it to ask a teacher to call me Jake instead of Jacob and as I grew older, I became more assertive and attached to using Jake. Now, I’m really only occasionally called Jacob by my grandparents or my parents when they’re mad. This preference for Jake has carried over to my online identity (with the exception of my first year on Facebook as Jacob), so all of my public accounts are accurately under the name “Jake Leslie”.
One thing that could arguably make my data identity slightly more private is the fact that my name is quite a common one. However, with the amount of information web browsers are constantly collecting and using, it seems as though anonymity amongst the masses is becoming less viable. An example of this is that even when I google “Jake Leslie” in an incognito window (so the computer doesn’t ‘know’ it’s me), the first result is a long list of Facebook profiles sharing my name, of which I am 17th. Additionally, I don’t appear in the Google photo section until around the 10th row of results. These are both indications that I may be somewhat hard to find if you only know my name, but Google is more clever than that.
Google can see my location and it seems as though that was used to populate the rest of the Google results. Of the next 4 results in Google, 3 of them are links to my specific account on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram. Interestingly, two Twitter accounts that are not mine show up next in the results. My theory is that Google recognized my location as Ann Arbor and suggested my LinkedIn and Facebook pages because both have multiple posts about the University of Michigan and then suggested the Instagram account that is linked to the Facebook account. My Twitter account, on the other hand, has notably less of a connection to the University (both in terms of content and network of followers/friends) which could contribute to why it doesn’t appear on the first page of results.
What About “Jacob Leslie”?
As expected, when I use my full first name the results are less personal to me. Again, a list of Facebook profiles comes up, but I don’t appear on the first page of results. My specific Facebook profile does appear as the second Google result, however, likely because I first created that account under the name Jacob. Other than that, the first page of Google doesn’t pertain to me and the same goes for the image results.
Getting More Specific
For my next search, I decided to include my hometown, Chicago, in addition to my name. This additional detail only slightly changes the Google results. Turns out specifying an association with one of the largest cities in the country doesn't actually do much to single me out amongst the rest of the Jake Leslies. The results are nearly identical to the search without "Chicago" when it comes to website links (except the wrong Instagram account has replaced mine), but my picture does appear much earlier in the images tab. A photo from my High School soccer team shows up as the second result, however, it is still my only appearance in the first number of scrolls. If I change from "Jake" to "Jacob" but keep Chicago, the Google results don't change much. Persistent as ever, my Facebook and LinkedIn profiles appear, but I am still only featured once in the image tab and it's actually a different picture than for "Jake".
In general, I don't take a lot of pictures, so I especially don't post a lot on the internet. This can explain, in part, why the first couple of links Google puts out are always more relevant to my data identity than the first page of photos. That being said, it could also be because sites like Instagram and Twitter don't ask for nearly as much personal information upon creating an account.
Public Vs Private
One major decision every person has to make when creating social media accounts is what level of privacy to put on their account. Each service provides different levels of customization when it comes to privacy, but they all can essentially boil down to the question of public or private. My accounts are all public (or default in the case of Facebook and LinkedIn), which makes my information all that more accessible. On Instagram and Twitter, this means that anyone (with or without an account) can view all of my posts, how many followers I have, and how many accounts I’m following. All it takes is to be logged in to an account to be able to also view who is following me and who I am following.
Facebook and LinkedIn have more flexibility in terms of what is viewable by whom, but the default settings make it so my profile on each platform has certain basic information that is shared with anyone regardless of whether they’re logged in or not. On LinkedIn, logging in gives one access to pretty much the entirety of my profile, but Facebook still keeps my posts private until I’ve accepted a friend request. Interestingly enough, despite Facebook and LinkedIn keeping the most data private by default, they are still the only links that showed up every time on Google no matter the exact wording of the search.
Fast People Search
While Google and social media sites are probably the easiest ways to search for people online now, online data brokers provide all sorts of personal information for free access. I decided to search for myself on one of these sites as well. I searched for both "Jake Leslie" and "Jacob Leslie" on fastpeoplesearch.com and obtained, unsurprisingly, a very long list of people who share my name. Once I added Illinois to the search, my profile immediately showed up. This site publishes my age, home address, home phone number, and a very accurate and long list of relatives. The only thing the site gets wrong is my middle initial and it also thinks my name is Jake but I go by Jacob. The availability of this information is probably the most worrisome finding of this exercise. I'm not entirely sure how they got this information and the fact that anyone can find it definitely doesn't feel great. However, there are other profiles on this site that are much more extensive than mine. For example, I don't appear on searches in Michigan despite living here most of the year and it doesn't have my cell phone number. While I wish this information weren't so easily available, I kind of see it as a symptom of the times and don't find it super surprising or stressful that my address is public information.
Given the privacy settings on each of my main social media accounts and the capability of sites like Fast People Search to fill in information gaps, my online data identity is fairly complete and accurate. Even though sites like Facebook and LinkedIn protect my posts and information from parts of the internet, these accounts aren’t very active, so it’s protecting some outdated information. My Twitter and Instagram accounts, which are only active in comparison to the previously mentioned dormant accounts, share much more personal information about me. In fact, all you need is a Twitter account to see every tweet I’ve liked. This availability always lives in the back of my mind when interacting on social media and I think that’s been a good way for me to make sure I’m aware of my online identity. Overall, this meant I wasn’t very surprised by anything I found and I’m pretty comfortable with what a basic search for my name turns up.