The Search For Self: The Churning Data Seas
We might only compose a few drops of water in the data lakes of transnational corporations, social media platforms, and governments, but those drops compose a representative image of ourselves for those entities. This representation reflects the content we post and consume, and the metadata detailing our habits when interacting with online platforms. The way that those entities then decide to use that information, and to what ends, are largely unknown to the average technological consumer. More than this, it is the norm for such consumers to sign away any right of being compensated for the data which lines the pockets of the platforms which monetize it. Concerningly, there has been little legislative and industry effort to combat or alleviate this lack of transparency and to properly account for the transfer of value. The sovereign individual continually strives to exist in the world, but how can they properly be if they do not have sovereign control over the way their data is used?
I have long known that my information is not entirely my own, but in exploring more on and around the internet I begin to realize just how expansive my footprint may be in terms of the metadata I produce. I’ve had a highly diverse set of experiences online, though I think myself to have curated images of myself that I find suitable for exposure to social media. While I cannot know each and every possible metric concerning the embodiment of myself from the perspective of the platform, I wish to know, from the outside looking in, how I present myself and how much critical information can be extracted from my online presence. I wholeheartedly do not expect my embodiment to reflect more than that which I curate on social media platforms, though, perhaps more importantly I expect to find doxx (personal documentation) in places I would seldom think to visit or actively curate.
Locations of InterestWithout access to hyper-specific metadata about my personal habits online, I’m forced to examine the aspects of myself which have been made clear through social media as well as finding sparse connections related to my past and present institutional connections. I find myself most active on the likes of Twitter, Instagram, and Linkedin, so I decided I would see to what extent these avenues provide the outside world information concerning my person. In searching on Google for my name, then the handles for my main and alternative accounts (respectively), plus “Instagram”, I was provided with no result for either account! At first, I was surprised, but upon reflection, the main has been locked due to lack of use and the alternative is private, so in this sense, I do not exist on Instagram when googling my name or handle. However, Twitter and Linkedin are open books in representing my person. Both of which display a progression of my interests and a profile of my person in relation to the cultural institutions which I (purport to) engage with online.
For Twitter, this looks like a college student who is politically third positionist, heavily interested in the world of decentralized ledger technologies (DLT), and with opinions that are antithetical to mainstream thought concerning Covid, finance, and the effects of globalism on nature. The relative impact of what I do tweet is minimal, I don’t have a mass of followers or anything viral. However, one would be able to gain information on my person based on which accounts I follow, many of which are within the realm of geopolitics, DLT, traditional arts, and nature. Based on what is shown in my profile, one is told my join date, birth date, location, and the blurbs which I personally added to detail my interests. Everything is on the up-and-up in regards to portraying a portion of my being that I have deemed acceptable socially and consider fair to the portion of my person which I wish to portray through the technology of Twitter, though, certainly not a complete version of my person.
Linkedin tells a different tale, and frankly, a much shorter one. Whereas twitter provides a running reflection of my opinion on a range of topics over time, allowing the online representation of my person to grow and morph in a fluid manner, Linkedin remains static for longer intervals. Linkedin is similar to Twitter in the manner it fills gaps about my online person for the public eye. Detailing my interests, technical experiences, and educational background/interests more clearly, Linkedin provides a centralized locale for my world of interests. Little more is found on Linkedin beyond personal connections. Though Stable, LinkedIn, like Twitter, is not an accurate visage of my complete person.
When typing only my name into Google and exploring the results, I find I am not the first result, there are a few other Noah McGuires, one of which was shot in a firearm accident as a young teenager; most of the top results are of that Noah McGuire. But if I add my middle name or my city, I’m able to find results that bring me to voter records and to a residential database for Michigan. In exploring both, I’m able to find information concerning my previous residence, my family members, date of birth, and information about publicly disclosable ID forms (voting info, etc). The in-depth reports appear to be behind paywalls (or, at least, require signup of some kind), and these would be able to ring up any court and employment records. The last avenue I pursued were groups of affiliation in highschool. From a direct search in google (name + association) I was able to find a few links concerning my involvement in extracurriculars in highschool such as the Jeter’s Leaders program. Beyond this and my sports record, I was able to find little concerning my person in highschool.
Absence of the Whole
In the cases above, on social media platforms such as Twitter and Linkedin (and even Instagram, from Instagram’s perspective) I exist as an embodiment of the content which I post and the metadata that defines my actions on each platform – each niche of information representation. This representation provides entities in the business of buying and selling personal data an incomplete representation of my person, which is then used to cater advertisements and recommendations to accounts on these platforms, and beyond. In each case, I'm a different person to some varying degree: on Twitter, I'm an informal, "tongue in cheek" lad who appears to enjoy DLT and engaging with posts about nature, art, and being. From a LinkedIn perspective, I'm an engaged student who appears to be interested in brain-computer interfaces and doesn't have a very active profile. If someone had access to one of my Instagram accounts – better yet both – they would yet again see a schism in portrayed person, the depth, interests, and mode of being, all of with shift within each distinct social media frame. In none of these cases is my personality complete or accurate beyond some fractional sense, though some facts such as technical information about educational background and living circumstance are stable.
Who am I Really?
A data broker will only be able to understand what I have presented to them and attempt to extrapolate out from that base of information my potential behaviors, likes, dislikes, and forms of mind as a living, breathing person. This is not to say that these such brokers and their associated entities are not all-pervading or effective in this task, but it is to say that they are going about it in a way that entirely actively denies the world they interact with information true to my personal being. Personally, I find this preferable given the increasingly authoritarian capacity of these entities, but I worry that no matter the extent one portrays their authentic self online, this domain of predictive technologies will either cut one’s embodiment completely out of network society or understand them in such a core way that their “suggestions” soon become coercive psychological guardrails for the development of one’s mind.
In the end, I will never be comfortable sharing the whole of my person with these entities until I have control over my labor (data), and where and how it may be used. However, in this technological and highly networked world, I wonder to what extent I will be forced to conform in order to maintain a path of social and economic relevance. The curation of my information over the past years of use has taught me one thing, that is that I am not who I am online, nor the other way around; not wholly, at least. And so, as proven in this search, the avenues for finding critical information about my person are few for the layperson, but numerous for the data broker. I do not fear being misconceived by the projects and peers I interact with online, but I do gravely fear that representation being nefariously misconstrued for an actual person – Me – by coercive, authoritarian technologies and algorithms in an increasingly technological world. In such a world, both lack of and presence of a stable, accurate, and complete version of myself online can chain together untold consequence for the globalized, network world feeding on my – and many others – online persona.