My name is Kelsey Burns. I am 20 years old, a junior at the University of Michigan studying Economics, and am from Southern California. This is normally how I would introduce myself if a stranger asked to know a little bit about me. If you saw me, you’d notice that I am blonde, 5 feet 5 inches tall, and have blue eyes and pale skin. But what if you wanted to uncover the “real” me? If someone took to the internet to do a bit of stalking about me, what would they find? I know I have done this to others on a few occasions, just as I’m sure someone out there has done it to me. I mean it’s pretty tempting to make sure the blind date your friend is going on doesn’t have a criminal record, right? But beyond that, is it really possible to get to know someone based on their internet persona?
I’ve worked pretty hard to keep my private life private. Even by looking at my Instagram – a place where I let myself be fun and casual – I know it’s not representative of my entire identity. When I look at my friend’s pages, I know that there is so much more to them than just what they chose to post. Unless you’re a criminal or a celebrity, I am pretty convinced that your digital identity is whatever you want it to be. For me, I've worked extremely hard to have all aspects of my digital identity represent my most professional and cleaned up self. Let’s head on over to trusty Google and take a look together at what is out there about me.
Let's Google it
Starting off with the basics, I googled my name: Kelsey Burns. I found my LinkedIn, Facebook, and Medium profiles as well as the Michigan FinTech website. My LinkedIn shows my hometown, University of Michigan, my high school, all of the internships that I’ve had, and my role as President of Michigan FinTech, a club here at Michigan whose website was in my search results as well. All that was on that website was my name. The articles on Medium that I’ve written are either for SI 410 or for Michigan FinTech when I was on their marketing team two years ago. My Facebook has some, mainly tagged pictures, and birthday posts. From this you would be able to see what I look like and find out that I am currently 20 years old turning 21 on April 20th. Overall, pretty unexciting and as i suspected, reflective of my professional self.
Kelsey Burns Jserra & Umich
I also searched my name along with my high school and university names. The only additional information that came up under Umich was my Instagram, probably because I have UMich in my bio. From my high school, there were a few articles about my student organizations and awards I had won in academic settings. As far as extracurriculars go my track times are available online (although the race I ran my 400 meter personal record was unfortunately nowhere to be found), some details of my tennis career, and a charity I worked with. Again, very professional.
I did try searching with my hometown and also birthday, but it yielded no new information. I decided to stop at just those terms because I do not believe much, if anything, would have been published outside of those. Additionally, there were some parts of my internet identity that didn’t come up even when I tried to find them - such as social media accounts I know I have (pinterest, twitter, vsco, dispo, etc.) or any personal information such as address, voting records, and other formal information as verified on fastpeoplesearch.com.
So, let’s see: how much information about me is findable on the internet and how much of who I am is encompassed in it? First off, you would probably need to piece together information from a few different sources to make sure you have the right Kelsey Burns. There’s a lot of them and you would need to know that I am not the yogi, basketball player, nurse, or teacher and that I did not die in 2019. But once you know it’s me you’re looking at, the information is pretty unexciting.
Expectations vs Reality
Everyone is always telling my that the internet is a scary place where everything about you can be found. But everything I found was stuff that I self-published or was aware of and consented to being published. These findings affirm my expectations going into this experiment: that your internet identity is whatever you want it to be. You can control how you wish to be perceived by others on the internet and what level of information you are comfortable having out there. For me, that means showing a nicely polished version of myself.
From a young age, my parents made it very clear to me that anything I put on the internet could be found if someone tried hard enough. My dad told me that when hiring people for his business, he’d do a quick Google search and that in the past it has made him not give people job offers that he otherwise would have. The most extreme example is when he found a DUI. But without any criminal record or major life events, I have managed to keep my digital image pretty professional. My parents follow me on all social medias and everything that I post is something I would be comfortable with a future employer, or other professional figure, seeing and knowing about me. Everything is done consciously and intentionally.
This got me thinking about what one source holds the most information about me. While I definitely am the most active on Instagram, I think my LinkedIn holds the most pieces of information that would allow someone to uncover my identity. So I did a little digging on LinkedIn privacy settings. What I found was actually quite comforting. While there are a lot of pieces of information on my profile, I can pretty much control who is able to view every single one. I can limit who can see my email address, last name, connections, jobs, and more. A lot of sites have two basic modes: public and private where you can decide if everyone can see everything about you or if only the people you approve can see everything about you. I like LinkedIn’s customizable privacy styles because I think my digital identity is largely reflective of my academic and professional lives with limited information about my personal life and interests.
If you wanted to get a glimpse of my personal life you could head over to my public Instagram. You'll mostly just see my smiling and having fun with my family and friends. Like discussed above, Instagram has less privacy setting options and I still chose to make my profile public because I control what is on there and I'm comfortable with anyone seeing it.
You see what I want you to see
All of the results I found basically sum up my resumé. It is information that I chose to publish or consented to being published, knowing that it would be available to anybody who tried hard enough to find it. It is a purposefully designed version of myself, manipulated in just the way that I want it to be. My personal life makes a slight appearance, but it definitely only shows the side of me that I want people to see. Just from looking at these results you wouldn’t know about my flaws or many of my interests. You might get a little bit of my personality from my Instagram photos featuring (what I think are) cute, funny, or witty captions. I don’t think that these results show the “real” me, but I do think the show the me that I am comfortable with the general public knowing. Maybe it's even the version of myself that I wish I was. But overall, if you want to know me, you’ve got to meet me.
Luckily for me, I don’t have any big secrets that I’m hiding so if something about me was on the internet, I’d be fine with it. Some things like my address or location sharing would make me uncomfortable, but I didn’t find any of that easily on the internet. I’m also pretty good at finding information about people on the internet, so I’m solidly confident that I didn’t miss any intrusive piece of information about me that’s out there. Maybe there is more data out there about me hidden behind paywalls and data brokers, but honestly I’m not that concerned. If there is someone out there who is trying so hard to learn details about me that they would pay to find them out – then I’ve probably got a bigger issue on my hands.