I had low expectations for my online presence coming into this journey. Uncovering my data identity was like raiding a tomb that had been picked clean ages ago, leaving nothing behind but unassuming bronze trinkets and dusty statues. There wasn’t much left to see, and I think that fact has kept me shrouded in a healthy layer of anonymity.
I’ve cleaned up my digital footprint a few times in the past. Firstly, as an assignment for an internet literacy class and later on my own to ensure I still had control over my digital persona. I knew almost exactly what information about me existed online before starting this journey and I find comfort in how little there is to be found. My data identity is authentic, because almost everything available online was put there by me. It’s stable, because I control the flow of most new information. And finally it’s incomplete by design. I believe an incomplete data identity is safest for someone like me who values privacy and embodies identities that the algorithms influencing our daily lives could use to disadvantage me.
Searching for Me
The first step in my data identity journey was searching my name in Google, Yahoo, and Bing. There are obviously plenty of people in this world that share my name and I don’t particularly want to be found so finding links that actually pertain to me takes a lot of work without including specific details in the search, like the university I attend.
Searching for ‘Kayla Wiggins’
Google is by far the best at finding my information based on a simple search for my name. It managed to pull up about one relevant result per page for the first five pages of results. My LinkedIn is the third result on page one. My Department of Anthropology Student Spotlight and my project folder for the class Animation for Non-Majors on Vimeo are the fifth and sixth results on page two. Pages three through five house my Medium profile, my first website on WordPress, and my resume on Github respectively. What few relevant links exist are scattered throughout Google’s results and other engines are even worse gathering information about me near the front page. This is discouraging for anyone trying to gather a comprehensive picture of me from my data identity. I knew which links were relevant in Google’s results but anyone else would be left confused as to which links held information about me or another Kayla Wiggins. As Safiya Noble points out in Algorithms of Oppression, “In general, search engine users are doing simple searches consisting of one or more natural-language terms submitted to Google; they typically do not conduct searches in a broad or deep manner but rather with a few keywords, nor are they often looking past the first page or so of search engine results, as a general rule.” I imagine most searchers curious about me would give up before getting a complete picture.
Searching for ‘Kayla Wiggins University of Michigan’
Searching for ‘Kayla Wiggins University of Michigan’ brings all my scattered information to the front page of Google’s search results. It even brings up some content hidden deep within the internet, like a Youtube video about my work in the University of Michigan’s Academic Innovation lab. There are other videos about me on the internet but I’ve made them unlisted. This more detailed search pulls up my old WordPress website first on other search engines which is not ideal because it’s incomplete and hasn’t been updated in years.
As the face (so to speak) of my data identity I’m satisfied with the information available on Google, and to an extent, the other engines as well. I like the fact that you need to start with more than a name to get useful information to compile and what you do get is sparse, accurate, and produced by me. In other words, it’s stable, authentic, and incomplete. Based on these results you get the image of a young black woman majoring in Information at the University of Michigan. Boring, yes, but in my opinion having my race and gender exposed online are sacrificial enough without also disclosing details from my personal life like my political affiliations and opinions, social groups, buying habits, etc. Noble argues that “Because Black communities live in material conditions that are structured physically and spatially in the context of a freedom struggle for recognition and resources, the privately controlled Internet portals that function as a public space for making sense of the distribution of resources, including identity-based information, have to be interrogated thoroughly.” By maintaining a data identity that is largely nondescript I can attempt to avoid the technological racialization that might otherwise see me associated with negative stereotypes or boxed out of certain resources.
Nothing that I use to interact with my friends in a public space, share or distribute content, or otherwise be myself, has any of my personal information connected to it. My Facebook still exists but only because I think deleting would make my distant family members assume I’ve died. My Twitter account, which I created last March, has a photo of me as the profile picture just like the other seven people I follow, but unlike my friends I don’t mention where I go to school, live, or work in my profile description. I’m careful not to post about my workplace or politics and I don’t engage in discourse no matter how much I may agree or disagree.
Keeping my political affiliations offline as a black woman is particularly important to me. I realize that they’re easy to guess if I’m being singled out due to my race, but they should never be explicitly stated so that I always have the benefit of the doubt if I ever get into legal trouble. Historically, black people have been arrested, beaten, and killed for exercising their right to protest. So by deciding to engage in these acts in person I knowingly put a target on my back, one that is only intensified by exposing myself online. The police have been known to use any means necessary to identify and target activists. For example, in 2016 ACLU revealed that the police had used a social media surveillance company called GeoFeedia to track black activists through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. These social media sites quickly revoked access but the damage had already been done. An unknown number of activists had already been flagged by the police as a threat.
The problem with living in a country founded on the institution of white supremacy is that the definition of terrorism can come to describe the activism I engage in no matter it’s severity. My very existence is politicized, so by protecting my identity on social media I’m protecting my freedom and my right to engage in politics without fear of being silenced.
At the end of this journey I tried to reflect on how my incomplete data identity could possibly disadvantage me in the future. The biggest downfall for me would have to be the lack of exposure. I have no followers and no audience, so if there’s ever something that I need to promote or share to people outside of my immediate circle I’ll most likely have a hard time gaining traction. It feels as though I’ve exchanged my voice for my privacy.
Another thing to consider is my career. As social media screenings becoming an increasingly common part of the hiring process, the black void of my online presence could be disconcerting to employers. They may think that I’m not social media savvy, that I have something to hide, or that I have nothing to offer. However, most of that concern is offset by my LinkedIn and personal website, which prove that I do something to offer as long as I never try my hand at social media marketing. Maintaining them is how I keep data identity stable and authentic to my professional image.
Overall my incomplete digital identity involves less risk management than a complete data identity and allows me to engage in communities online without them being used by algorithms or other humans to make arbitrary determinations about my worth. According to Cathy O’Neil in Weapons of Math Destruction, “An algorithm processes a slew of statistics and comes up with a probability that a certain person might be a bad hire, a risky borrower, a terrorist, or a miserable teacher. That probability is distilled into a score, which can turn someone’s life upside down.”Hopefully, by taking a preventative approach to my data identity I’m denying algorithms the data they need to make worthwhile predictions about me, or at least the kind of predictions that could be disadvantageous.
It’s impossible to know how many actors have access to my data or what they’re using it for, but it is possible to maintain control over my data identity as long as I continue to regulate the flow of new information. Through this journey I’ve realized that maintaining an incomplete data identity isn’t just about protecting my privacy now, it’s about guaranteeing myself the right to choose how I’m perceived later.
Levin, S. (2016, October 11). ACLU finds social media sites gave data to company tracking black protesters. Retrieved March 3, 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/oct/11/aclu-geofeedia-facebook-twitter-instagram-black-lives-matter
Noble, S. U. (2018). Algorithms of oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. In Algorithms of oppression: How search engines reinforce racism (pp. 162-261). New York: New York University Press.
O'Neil, C. (2017). Weapons of math destruction: How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy. In Weapons of math destruction: How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy (p. 16). Great Britain: Penguin Books.