In my personal experience, having a common name has been frustrating at times. I’ve always wanted to have a more unique name for myself, but when it comes to online data and privacy, I realize having a common name sometimes has its perks. Hi, my name is Kevin Zheng.
Introducing My Name
Some of you may think, “how is ‘Kevin Zheng’ a common name?” Well, this may be simpler to understand if you're of Asian descent—Chinese, specifically. There are two factors to this. First, my last name, ‘Zheng(郑)’, is a popular family name in China. Secondly, Asian families typically tend to choose very common English names for their kids in America where ‘Kevin’ is probably one of the more common names you'll see among Asian Americans. As a result, I am likely one of many 'Kevin Zheng’s that exist.
Now onto my Google search results:
Searching... 'kevin zheng'
Since my name is pretty common within the Asian community, the idea beforehand of doing a Google search on my name seemed like an impossible task to try and find myself. To my surprise, doing a Google search on ‘Kevin Zheng’ yielded some interesting results.
The search results weren’t completely accurate in pinpointing information particularly about me as I got a lot of results for a different ‘Kevin Zheng’. The weird thing was that this ‘Kevin Zheng’ was another ‘Kevin Zheng’ that went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. So even though Google didn’t pinpoint me, it instead found another person by my name that went to the same university as me. I was shocked.
So was Google tracking my location and somehow knew that I went to the University of Michigan? If so, then did Google think that this other ‘Kevin Zheng’ was possibly me? I honestly don’t know but it's a terrifying correlation nonetheless. As I continued to look around, the entire search page contained mostly information about this other ‘Kevin Zheng’ and his online identity.
Oddly enough, Google still managed to at least return one piece of online information about me from this generic search and that my Twitter account. To no surprise, however, the image results were just as I expected: a bunch of random Asian guys. At this point, I think Google was giving me search results of 'Kevin Zheng' not just blindly but related to the data they've collected from me.
Now, I wanted to filter the search even more by doing a Google search on the username that I use for most of my social media accounts and see what I could further find.
This time, the top three search results were all social media accounts that belonged to me. This filtered search for ‘kevinzheng17’ allowed Google to easily find my Instagram, Twitter, and even my YouTube channel that I created when I was in elementary school.
Besides finding some of my social media accounts, another very surprising search result was a link to my friend’s Instagram page. Now my friend’s name is not even close to mine, but Google still provided his Instagram in the search result. Looking deeper, I found out that Google did this because my friend had tagged me in one of his posts (see Image 3). My intuition was that Google must have exhausted its primary searches for ‘kevinzheng17’ and now was looking for any extensions related to ‘kevinzheng17’ which probably pulled in my friend’s Instagram page into the search results. This amazed me as I didn't think Google had that sort of capability or reach in its search engine.
The remaining search results were again information about other users who were not me. The image results this time did change, however, but not by much. There were way fewer images being shown this time with more of the pictures being related to me than the previous search on just my name.
Searching... 'kevin zheng canton michigan'
And if not that was not specific enough, I decided to do one more final search on my name plus my hometown. This time, the search results were drastically more accurate than the previous search results.
Not only did my Twitter and Instagram show up again, but now also my Facebook, LinkedIn, and even my high school swimming profile were now all present. With just one additional filter, Google revealed a lot more information that was available online about me that I either had not seen so far or did not even know existed. Despite most of the search results being information related to me, the image results were still very inaccurate with still only my Twitter profile picture being the sole picture of me on there. I thought that maybe having been the most accurate search result so far that the image results would reflect that was as well but that wasn't the case.
In the end, Google finally found me. Right when I thought having a common name would prevent my information from being easily available to the public, Google proved me wrong. Still, it took Google a lot of filtering to be able to finally pinpoint me so I was not all too concerned with the results. At this point, if you want to find me online, it seems like you’re going to have to first know prior information about me in order to do a thorough online search of me.
From all these searches, I found that my online identity was not the most accurate representation of my real identity considering how little personal information was available online about me. My online identity suggested that I have a strong social media presence on various platforms, but that I have no other essential affiliations. Besides some information on my LinkedIn and Facebook, it fails to fully capture aspects of my personal identity as well as my professional identity. Overall, my online identity mainly reflects the online footprint I made for myself through my social media accounts rather than personal factors that more accurately describe my real self such as family and extra-curricular activities.
As a result, I think I’ve done a good job of keeping my personal information private for the most part as I found no information online that particularly disturbed me. The only thing that really bothered me was the fact that a generic Google search of me suggested a different ‘Kevin Zheng’ from the same school and most of his online data identity but not mine.
I was fully aware that finding Google search results on myself was going to be a challenge. I first began with a generic search and later into more specific searches through various filtering methods. Besides finding a lot of other ‘Kevin Zheng’s, I also realized how easy it was to access information about somebody through a simple Google search. Before now, I never would have thought that a person’s information, both private and public, would be so easily accessible. I feel like most people share the same thought and perhaps don’t even know that some of their own private information is out there for anyone to look up whenever they want. I certainly did not expect my swimming profile all the way back from high school to appear randomly.
Even though I didn't find too much information online about me to be concerned about, it still troubled me that I, as well as many others, had little to no control over what information got posted online to the public about us and in what manner. I never chose and definitely don't want my old YouTube account to show up when you Google search my name.
After spending a whole day conducting various Google searches on myself, I came to the realization that my online identity did not fully portray an authentic version of myself. I did end up finding some accurate information about myself, but that was only after an extensive and filtered down search. It did disappoint me, however, that my online identity painted me as an individual with not much influence. That was expected though given my name is pretty common, but I wished it recognized some of the more important things that I've done.
Since there are quite a few people with my name, it was expected that only very specific searches like my name with my hometown would give in-depth search results about me and my identity. Other than that, a majority of the findings online searching my name were not even related to me. Overall, I would conclude that my online identity provided mostly information about my social life with very little about my academic and personal life as a college student. As a student at the University of Michigan, academics have always been a crucial part of my life as well as family, friends, hobbies, and other extracurricular activities. All of these characteristics are what I consider to be most important in making up my real identity.