I set out to determine what my online identity looked like, and to do this, I asked myself the following question: “If someone were to stalk my internet presence to learn about me, what information would they be able to accurately determine?” I thought about what we define as core information about people, and I found myself considering what information is typically put in biographies. Information like place of birth, date of birth, place of residence, educational history, relatives, personal interests, and work history. Additionally, I was curious as to whether information about people in my life like my friends, coworkers, and relatives would be easy to find online. Could more things be learned about me through the accounts of people I associate with? I decided to search myself on search engines, as well as search myself on various social media platforms that I use to see what others could possibly find out about me.
First, I went onto the search engine Google. Searching my name on Google results in two prefilled options with pictures attached due to the notable accomplishments of my namesakes. “Noah Goldstein audio engineer” is the first suggestion and “Noah Goldstein UCLA” is the second suggestion. The first Google results all involve these two people, one a Grammy Winning Producer for Kanye West and Frank Ocean, the other a management professor at UCLA. Between the tons of results for professor and the producer, I essentially don’t exist. I don’t appear anywhere within the first 20 pages. I believe this has to do with the newfound prominence of my namesake producer, as well as the increase in scholarly articles and university-related press published by the professor. The producer has gotten a flurry of news articles and song credits. UCLA seems to have a lot of webpages featuring the name of the professor, as colleges do tend to have expansive websites. This is a change from several years ago before they gained as much prominence, when my personal social media accounts would be on pages 1 or 2 of Google. Additionally, I looked myself up on Google Images, and no images of me appear. Once again, I am drowned out by my namesakes.
I was largely relieved to see that Google yielded nothing about me when searched, but this is more due to circumstances out of my control then my own decision making. Notably, my own attempts at online privacy didn’t have anything to do with this, I just seem to have gotten lucky. It's a strange feeling knowing that much of my online privacy is due only to chance.
Next, I went to the social networking website Facebook. Searching myself on Facebook yielded many people my age with similar names. Without clicking on my profile, and only viewing myself from the search page, my profile shows an image of myself from last year in New York City. It also shows my education as the University of Michigan and place of residence as Ann Arbor. Viewing my profile to see who could see my posts, I was surprised to find that my posts were viewable to “Friends of Friends”. I had believed that my posts were viewable to Friends only, and quickly changed it. Additionally, I found that anyone could look me up by phone number, a feature that I was again surprised to have active, given that it could make it easy for someone to confirm my personal phone number. Visible on Facebook to the public is my hometown and current city. Visible to my friends of friends are my current workplace and my education, as I figure the bulk of my friend requests come from Friends of Friends, and I want it to be easier to identify my profile as belonging to me given how many other similar profiles with my name exist on Facebook. I maintain no relationship information or family information on Facebook due to security concerns, as many security questions involve family-based questions. My birthdate was visible to Friends of Friends, which I changed to Friends for security reasons. As someone who is very aware of social media privacy, and the prevalence of social media stalking in our age group, I was surprised how much of my information could be accessed given that I had felt I’d set up my account with privacy in mind. Additionally, many of these features were not available when I first made a Facebook account around 10 years ago, and I’m curious to whether some features defaulted to public when they were introduced.
With all my posts now set to friends-only, I feel much better. I view Facebook as a more professional platform, given that everyone uses their real name, and it provides work information. Most people I know, including myself, have parents and other relatives on their Facebook, so they tend to post less-frequent and more professional content on it. Additionally, Facebook is easier to find people on given that real names must be used, so for college and employment purposes, I like to ensure my Facebook only displays clean and positive content.
Next, I jumped over to Instagram, the image-based social networking website. On Instagram, a search for my name shows my account and a thumbnail of a profile picture. Once someone clicks on my account, they can see my biography which includes my home state, my university, the letters of my Greek Organization, and an ambulance emoji which signifies my work as an Emergency Medical Technician. I also keep my preferred pronouns in my biography. Given that Instagram is more image based and more popular among my friends, I tend to be more active on it. I keep my Instagram on private because the content is less professional and I don’t want that information visible to relatives or employers. Additionally, social media stalking is quite prevalent, and given that my Instagram is more active, it serves as a good indicator of who I’m currently socializing with. To prevent myself, as well as my friends, from being stalked, I keep my posts private. I am tagged in some public posts on the accounts of friends, but my friends know to ask for my approval before posting public images of me or tagging me in images, so I’m okay with that content.
Additionally, I searched myself on the music streaming website Spotify, which blends some aspects of social networking into the listening experience. My profile was hard to find, but could be found far down on the list of users with my name. It shows a profile picture of me, and some public playlists, as well as some friends who follow my account. Overall, not much to see here, but an observer can very much figure out my music taste and a handful of close friends. I don't feel that Spotify provides anything about me that couldn't be learned on Facebook or Instagram.
Lack of Other Content
As for other social media websites that are popular in my age group, I actually don’t use many. I don’t maintain a presence on Twitter, but I do lurk on the site without an account. I do this because I don’t feel like the ability to broadcast my thoughts to the world constantly is something that the world needs. I also lurk on Reddit, but without an account. This is because through the anonymous posts and comments on Reddit, it encourages you to be much bolder and people tend to reveal much more personal content. Additionally, Reddit is a text-based site which means that you tend to broadcast a lot of specific information about yourself if your account were ever to be identified as belonging to you. In essence, text-based platforms tend to broadcast far more information about users than an image-based platform does.
Accuracy and Closing Thoughts
Overall, the wealth of information about me available online was about what I expected it to be. You can get a reasonable read about my background information and some interests of mine, but cannot determine aspects of my personality or any notable life events. You can determine some of the people I associate with, but not all. My online identity is certainly stable, especially with regards to profile pictures, in which I use a similar one on every account. I feel that my online identity is accurate, but it only shows surface level information. Additionally, finding me online was harder than I thought, and it takes a lot of effort to find me on a search engine. I’m quite happy with my online identity, it gives people what they need to know about me, but doesn’t reveal too much.