I am addicted to the internet. From a young age, an unfortunately large amount of each day has been dedicated to the web. Whether it is scrolling through Reddit at 3 AM, watching YouTube while eating lunch, or talking to my friends on Facebook I am constantly online. Even with my dependence on the internet, I have always tried to limit the information that is available about myself on the internet. This is not because I think any of the information is going to damage me, or is too personal. Instead, I've tried to limit what was shown just because it makes me more comfortable knowing my Facebook information is only seen by people I know and trust. As much as I've tried to limit what is available, I have always been worried that what little privacy settings I have control over were not enough to actually limit the available information. Through this project I was able to see that my efforts to stay private have worked. In addition, what little information is available represents me, however limited of a representation it is and the more in depth information is restricted to those I know.
Google SearchTaking all of what I said into account, I knew that a google search would not be effective. In fact, searching for just my name did not reveal any data on me after looking at the first 10 pages. This was not totally surprising, given my not unique name. I then tried adding my middle name, Brandon which resulted in a new problem. The vast majority of results were related to the character Bran (or Brandon) Stark from Game of Thrones.
All this time, I had been waiting for the moment that I would find my Facebook or Instagram account. For both accounts I had limited the information shared to the public, but given Facebook’s track record with privacy I was almost expecting to find them anyways. I decided to search these websites individually instead of through google. I still found neither. Overall both were behaving exactly as I had hoped they would. I tried looking for my accounts on other websites. Using Youtube and other search engines yielded no new information as well. This was almost shocking. No matter how hard I tried to control my privacy online, I figured that it would be futile. Seeing that going through these settings actually impacted my identity on the web was not something I expected to find. For some websites that don't have direct search options, I tried searching the website title and my name (ex: Snapchat Jeremy Stark). This also did not reveal any results. I also tried searching with other identifying information on these websites. My name might not be searchable, but you could find my email and phone number on LinkedIn. Maybe this would show results as they were what I used to make my accounts. Yet again, there was nothing.This was almost disappointing in some ways. While I had hoped that my data was being kept private, I felt like I was on a treasure hunt. As my goal eluded me, I began to almost wish it was out there for me to find.
Searching for Usernames
Wanting to find information about myself, I decided to search for my usernames. These usernames are not necessarily private, as many of my friends know them, but to someone searching online as I had been doing, there was no way to match my name to these usernames. This revealed the most amount of information besides LinkedIn, however none of it was very personal. While using these accounts I had been careful not to say anything that could be used to identify me specifically. What I did find was accounts for games (such as League of Legends and Beat Saber), blank Github and Twitch accounts, my Twitter account with 1 retweet for a giveaway, and my Reddit account. Out of all of these, the Reddit account was the only one with any real information on me. This was the only account I was actively worrying about as it is now over ten years old.From my post and comment history, you could find that I play a variety of video games, and enjoy technology. Nothing very earth shattering. Even then, there was still no way for these accounts to be linked to me.
What the available information says about me
With the little information I found you can still learn a lot about me. Firstly, the absence of information itself shows that I am data conscious. One could assume that I am a Luddite, but once they saw my LinkedIn account it would be clear that I wished to be private online. It also shows that I hope to be seen as a professional person online. Very little is about my personal life when compared to my professional life. My accounts also showed that that I enjoy technology and video games, as well as support both Michigan and UCLA. None of these facts misrepresent me. However, the more specific the information, the more inaccurate it gets. Some of these accounts are from long ago, for games I no longer play, while others I continue playing to this day. You would not be able to tell the difference using only the information found online. Some may also think that I do not use social media, which I would disagree with. Most of my interactions are liking and reading posts, rather than making content of my own. This assignment has made me wonder, can those actions be described as being ‘active’. If nobody can see your actions are you still participating? Reddit is the only account that I comment or post on. However, seeing the frequency of my interactions could lead people to believe that I don't use it often. In reality, I have used it nearly every day for 10 years. My online identity does paint a generic picture of myself that is accurate. The few details that can be found, and only by those that can identify my usernames, are misleading.
Why I choose to limit public information
While looking for information I realized two things. Firstly, I have done a decent job limiting publicly available information. Secondly, the more recent the information the more lacking it is. As I have realized the importance of controlling my appearance online my viewable actions have shrunk. I still want friends to see information about me, or prospective employers to see my resume, but I feel more comfortable knowing that it is not easy to obtain. Also, I feel better knowing that most information came from a username that you cannot publicly link to me. Of course it is possible for someone to make the connection, but with enough dedication any information that was online can be found. It also makes sense that the most personal information came from Reddit, a website known for not being fairly anonymous. Even with my inability to find much that I wish to change, I have learned some important lessons for the future and about how I’m perceived online. Firstly, if I want to engage with others on social media, I will do so with accounts not tied to my name. Secondly, what is out there is not stuff that I feel the need to take down. It does not misinform people, yet it cannot be used for specific information about me but instead general trends. It is important for me to remember that while to the public it might seem as if I haven't given out much information, companies like Facebook still have it all. I am still unsure if my desire for privacy is one for control over my public persona, or information held by companies. To me there is a distinction between the two. Currently it is still not enough to warrant me deleting my accounts to stop these websites from obtaining this information, but that could change in the future. Even with these looming questions, there is one thing I am certain about. If I want my kid to be anonymous online, all I will have to do is name him Tony Stark.