My first awareness of having an internet presence perceivable to others was in early middle school. I had stumbled upon Instagram on the App Store while playing around with my first exciting new iPod Touch and downloaded it thinking it was merely a picture-sharing app. My first and only followers were my best friend and sister, and my username was ‘lilyjinstagram'. Assuming this was my entire audience, every post I uploaded was a photo of my cat. Reality hit when someone from my school followed me. When I visited her profile, I discovered that many of my other peers were also on the app and did not use it purely to spam two close friends with cat pictures. I quickly realized Instagram isn't an intimate extension of my camera roll like I thought, but instead a medium people use to portray the best version of their lives. Consequently, I promptly deleted all of my cat posts and changed my handle to something I thought was less cringe.
I tell this story because it reflects two themes of internet engagement I still wrestle with today: whether I want a virtual portrayal of myself to exist for anyone to find and my struggle to accept the actual reach of anything I put online. Digging for information on myself from a third-party point of view has forced me to face the fact that a pretty representative depiction of myself on the web is only a few clicks away.
Searching for Myself, Private Investigator Style
I decided to take a more methodical, breadcrumbs approach to Googling myself by piecing together an online profile with only information slowly revealed by subsequent searches. In doing this, I wanted to find out how high up my information is shown (thus how easily I can be found) and how complete of a profile one can put together. I was especially curious about the second factor. I anticipated that finding basic information on myself would be a given provided that we live in the Digital Age, but I wanted to see how much implicit information one can gather knowing nothing about me. How close you can get to know who I am as a person without ever meeting me.
Basic Information Search
A Google search of my full name reveals a doctor whose first name is my middle name. However, if someone were seeking me out specifically, they would easily see my picture next to the doctor. More disturbingly, a link with my permanent address is listed next to the name 'Rona Jin,' and identifies my parents and me as relatives in the text beneath. I was not surprised that this information was publicly available, but it shocked me that it was right there on the first page. I had always operated under the assumption that I am relatively hidden on the internet because of many other Lily Jins who are older, more established, more accomplished. Thus, having a more prominent online trace than I did. My insignificance to them meant that I was happy living in my little corner of the internet while being shielded by their online presence. However, a simple initial search announces where I live, the names of my immediate family, and a fairly recent photo of what I look like-- with the key to unlocking this being my unique middle name.
Using a data broker site, similar basic information popped up about me. Although if someone had the same idea as I did to look through my parents’ pages to fully take advantage of Instant CheckMate’s $1 trial, they would also be able to find my phone number, the make and model of the car I drive, and how much our family house cost when it sold. What surprised me the most is how much implicit information one could yield from this Zillow profile. By seeing what kind of neighborhood I lived in and which schools I went to, anyone could uncover my socioeconomic status as well. This finding is eerily significant because SES is a pretty accurate predictor of life trajectory-- what colleges, jobs, and other opportunities to which I’ll be exposed. Not only is my past and present online, but also what my future could look like too.
Puzzling Together My Online Persona
From my Twitter, you can tell I’m roughly in line with people who have the same demographics as I do: a Gen Z college student. A quick scroll gives a pretty good idea of my sense of humor, political views, personal values, and some of my interests. Although I scarcely tweet, my retweets form a narrative with dumb observational comedy, slam-dunking on political figures such as Ted Cruz with scathing jokes, and the anxieties of a young adult navigating a fast-paced society. My bio even lists my height as the punchline to a joking statement about myself. I wouldn’t describe my Twitter as a diary, but it gives a solid sense of who I am, or at least the good parts of myself I have no issues with projecting to the public.
Even though I actively participate on a site that can often be a raging trash fire, I do think I have an increased sense of hypervigilance on what I post on social media. Since I have teachers, coaches, and younger relatives who follow me, I’m careful of what I put on my profiles and keep all of my content PG and fairly school and work appropriate. While I like to think I have control over my self-generated image, I again didn’t expect to see my small account as the third hit from a name and school search.