Generations in the past were able to more easily hide their lives from prying eyes. We no longer have such a luxury. With a simple search, a detailed digital identity can be constructed in just seconds for anyone anywhere. The ways that different people have reacted to this drastic change in privacy have varied. Many people simply don’t mind or even actively broadcast their lives to the world. Others have sought to maintain their privacy, perhaps by crowding out search results about their actual lives using carefully constructed digital alter-egos. Some people, such as me, take a different approach to achieve a similar result. I personally dislike having the spotlight on myself, and I like to avoid public attention by any means necessary. This extends to my online self, which results in me rarely posting to my social media accounts. I also like to avoid putting my name up online anywhere else to the best of my ability. Although it is not much, I liked to believe that it offered me just enough protection so that my digital self was completely separate and independent from my actual real world identity. To test out my belief, I tried to figure out what my digital footprint was. I wanted to know what sort of digital identity could be constructed about me from the internet by a curious stranger, and also how close said digital identity was to the real me. I started my search, like any other, on Google.
Why Avoid The Spotlight?
So why do I try to keep my digital identity hidden? I am not sure of the answer myself, but I think it might have to do with my name. A common point that I have seen many of my SI 410 classmates bring up is the relative difficulty of finding themselves online. Many of them have common names shared by hundreds. As a result, their search results are scattered with doppelgängers providing them with a blanket of digital obscurity. Anyone searching for them will first need to repeatedly modify and filter the search results until they find the actual person they are looking for.
In sharp contrast, I have a unique name. I am fairly certain that I am the only person in America, maybe even the only person in the entire world, named “Krithik Vallem”. As a result of this, I lack the “digital herd immunity” that my peers and classmates with more common names possess. If someone intended to dig into my digital identity, they would have absolutely no problems doing so. There is no need to append my name with “University of Michigan” or “Northville”(my hometown). When I looked myself up on Google, a simple search for "Krithik Vallem" made Google gladly point to me, and only me.
I may have subconsciously understood this vulnerability throughout my life, and taken subtle steps, sometimes without knowing, to limit the information about me online. Maybe the reason why I have avoided using my social media is because I wanted to keep my life as hidden as possible from prying eyes. Maybe I stay out of the spotlight because I am, in a way, always in it due to my unique name. I might fight back by secluding myself, safe within a shell of pseudo-privacy that I’ve slowly constructed.
A Cover Blown
The first result that showed up on Google was for my portfolio on WayUp, a job searching website. I thought nothing of it until I clicked and saw that my resume was publicly available to download. The big problem here was that my phone number and email, my personal ones, were stated at the very top of this resume. I was mildly disturbed upon seeing this. My belief in my digital security through obscurity was blown away with the very first search result, and I realized that I was not as safe and secure as I thought I was. My digital identity and my actual identity clearly shared the same contact information, and anyone with the will to do so could easily dial the real non-digital me.
The next batch of search results involved my clubs and extracurriculars from throughout my high school and early college years. Some of the clubs that showed up included Science Olympiad, Quiz Bowl, and Rubik’s Cube Solving. However, something interesting is that the trail ends cold in my mid-sophomore year. From 2020 onwards, all traces of my clubs disappeared from Google. My digital identity has likely been doing nothing but schoolwork for the past year it seems. This is fairly misleading because, on the other hand, my actual self has been more involved in clubs than ever. I have been joining new clubs left and right, and actively participating in them all. Something that might explain this disconnect is the difference in how these clubs communicated online. In the past, the clubs I joined had websites dedicated to tracking the people participating in them and keeping data and statistics about them stored online publicly. These websites show up high on my search results, and provide a detailed picture of what my digital self (and actual self) was up to in the recent past. Nowadays however, most of the clubs I have joined solely communicate through private Slack servers and limit how much information they post online about their members. This allows me to stay relatively hidden from Google’s spiders, and creates a major gap between my digital identity and my actual self.
Finally, the long awaited social media accounts show themselves. As previously mentioned, I am not an active user of social media, and these search results clearly indicate that. The first three social media accounts to appear are my SoundCloud, Twitter, and YouTube. All three of these seem essentially abandoned, with the most recent activity dating back to 3 years ago. My Twitter in particular has 0 tweets, 0 retweets, and 0 activity otherwise. Based on these results, it is possible to conclude that my digital identity is not a very social person. While this is true to an extent about my actual self as well, it is also somewhat inaccurate. My actual self spends a lot of time browsing sites like YouTube without logging in. In addition, the social media sites I spend the majority of my time on are Reddit and Discord, both of which are places where users are heavily encouraged to hide their identities. Thus, my activity on those sites is difficult, if not impossible, to link back to my real name, explaining its absence from my search results.
Something that I found particularly interesting is that my Facebook account does show up in my search results, but it is the Malaysian-language version, not the English-language one. In addition, there are several Malaysian people who share either the name “Krithik” or the name “Vallem” appearing as potential connections to me. Based on this strange occurrence, someone looking through my online search results might conclude that I have some sort of link to Malaysia. This is not that unreasonable, as there is a large Indian diaspora living in Malaysia. However, in my case, my family has no link to Malaysia that I or my parents know of. Thus, my digital self being a possible Malay is completely incoherent with my real self, who is very much not Malay. However, I very much welcome this misleading search result and the precious layer of digital privacy it provides to my actual identity.
For the most part, I am pleased with what I found. My search results paint a picture of a digital me that is fairly different from the actual me. Although there were some hiccups, my actual identity is quite safe and hidden for the time being. Whatever I am doing is clearly working, and I intend to continue along the same path for the foreseeable future. On to more pressing matters, I have learned that I need to be extra careful in the future when I share documents and information online. Despite all the effort and care I took to avoid spilling my personal information on my social media, the whistleblower turned out to be WayUp, a website I completely overlooked. With a single file upload, I unwittingly gave away my personal information to everyone on the planet with an internet connection. In fact, my low social media use indirectly led to my WayUp portfolio shooting up to the top of my search results because Google tagged it as the site on which I was most active. From their end, this is certainly a reasonable conclusion. I cannot blame the algorithm, I can only blame myself. Overall, researching my digital identity was a wonderful experience, and I learned a lot about not only my digital footprint but also myself as a result.