Ever since I was allowed to access a computer, I have put time into creating an online presence. My first introductions were to MySpace, LiveJournal (and its dead counterpart), and YouTube. I remember creating my own websites using site builders, chatting on AIM, and filling in every online profile without concern for my personal information. Over time, I have preferred to go by variations of my name, from the proper “Madison” to different spellings of "Maddy." And yet, searching any of these variations on Google will produce incredibly sterile results. Relying on any one of these identity fragments alone presents an incomplete vision of who I am, and it is by my own design. However, the piece that rounds out a fairly complete summary of my real-life identity, is personal information available via data brokers.
Initial Impression via Google
Searching for my full name returned only two applicable first page results: my LinkedIn and Medium accounts. As I have created many social media and blog accounts over the years, I was shocked that these were the only profiles someone would immediately find. The information available on LinkedIn is mostly professional and bland, such as my education and work histories, but it also shows my location and my current occupation. My Medium profile only contains the assignments from this class. Other than these profiles, I found almost nothing at all using full name and nickname variations except a single, desolate Pinterest page with one pin about crocheting.
From first glance, one would assume that I am a very private person who doesn’t often engage with social media outside a professional sphere. This is both an inaccurate and incomplete portrayal, but it is self-imposed. As I have progressed through my college career into the professional world, I made the choice to curate my online image to be neutral and employable. However, I intended to lightly obscure my personal posts, not make my social media profiles unfindable. This led me to try narrowing my searches using targeted keywords to see what else I could find.
Social Media Keywords
The first keyword I tried was Twitter. This led me to rediscovering an old account I had during early high school. The account did not contain any sensitive information like location or age, but was oversaturated with random and meaningless posts. It was embarrassing to read down the page because of how childish and attention-seeking the old posts made me out to be. After this discovery, I actually deactivated the account because it was so different from my current identity.
Next was Facebook, which did bring up my active account. I was not able to access my profile at all without logging in, so I utilized the “View As” feature to see what parts of my profile were public to other logged in users. As my privacy settings are quite strict, my personal information is not visible at all, though I do have a fair amount of public posts. These are mostly shared posts about social issues or my basic interests, in addition to art pieces I’ve done. The interests featured here include art, cooking, and animals, all of which are quite generic. It is important to note that making these specific posts public is a decision I sometimes make when I deem them “safe” for my public image.
My Facebook account was also findable under my nickname. My active Twitter account only came up using my nickname, but I noticed solely by links to older tweets when my display name included my last name. Most of my posts are retweets of funny images or jokes relating to my more personal interests, as opposed to the more common ones seen on my Facebook. For example, it is obvious that I enjoy programming, playing video games, and watching popular YouTubers. This account is the closest representation to my authentic identity because I engage with it the most freely. However, it is the least accessible of my accounts, despite the posts being public, because it currently is not associated with my full name (just “Maddy”) .
Separation of Identities
As mentioned before, I transitioned to using my nickname more often in recent years and this is what majority of my active social media accounts are under. This was a choice to separate my professional and personal online identities, but I did not anticipate how effective it would be. While both names yield few Google results, the results exist in isolation except for Facebook. “Madison Ericksen” is an academic-focused young professional with old, unused social media accounts lacking meaningful content and an unremarkable Facebook account. “Maddy Ericksen” is more eclectic and geeky, tweeting unabashedly at influencers and posting memes. Facebook is the only bridge between the two identities, acting as more of a preview of who I am.
Diving deeper, the stark contrast between the two halves of my online identity is exacerbated by the perceived privacy levels. It is not simply that my academic information comes up first under my full name; it is an influence on my online behavior. The nuance is that the division of my identity preceded the polarization of these two personas. Whereas the relative privacy and disconnect of my Twitter account encourages me to post whatever is on my mind without thinking deeply on the consequences, the public nature of my LinkedIn adds the burden of perfecting every engagement.
This also highlights an interesting question: why do I, and others, feel the need to curate an online identity in the first place? I believe this is related to the type of connections we desire. For example, as a teenager I was interested in personal connections, like looking "cool" and growing my friend lists. Today, I put effort into networking to build professional connections, but I also enjoy interacting with friends. By separating my identity spheres, I have enabled myself to pursue both types of connections with limited overlap.
Data Brokers and Content Agency
To determine how much of my sensitive information was easily accessible, I took advantage of the free insights available using data brokers. The first data broker I explored was Instant Checkmate. The information available for free included my age and a previous address inaccurately labeled as my current. Most information was partially censored, but I could see from the previews that family phone numbers and addresses, as well as my email addresses, were available and accurate. I later confirmed this using FastPeopleSearch.com which had all of the same information but uncovered for no fee. This service had my current address correct and more relatives listed than the other.
It was unnerving how precise and thorough my sensitive information was for anyone to find if so inclined. However, feeling uncomfortable was interesting because I generally claim to be unconcerned with my data being online. I believe this divergence from expectation comes down to agency. When I agree to social media terms and conditions, I make the choice to share my data, as I do when posting and filling in profile information. On the other hand, in the case of data brokers, the information they provide is not something I knowingly agreed to make public. This made me think of other cases in which someone's information is out of their control, like doxing. Even with the inclusion of data brokers, I maintain primary control over what others can find about me online. For anyone of note, such as a celebrity, this is likely not true because of the sheer number of potential content creators.
Conclusion: A Conflict of Power
There exists a power struggle in my complete online presence. By creating and maintaining distinct personas for professional and personal use, I assert my agency by controlling the ease of data access for different groups of people (employers versus friends). In a way, I have increased the effort it takes to find all possible online data about myself. In direct contrast to this, data brokers accomplish the exact opposite by enabling quick access to the most sensitive data, like phone numbers and current addresses. In its essence, this type of service sells a product it doesn't own: a piece of someone's identity. For just $5, you could own 30% of Madison Ericksen's online presence. So while my total online identity is what I consider to be a fairly accurate summary, it is fragmented both by myself and by the theft of agency by data brokers.