Introduction and Context
As an introduction, my name is Oliver and I was born and raised in Rochester Hills, Michigan. I am of Chinese descent and I spent the majority of my childhood playing tennis with the intent of playing college tennis. Right now, I’m attending the University of Michigan pursuing degrees in the College of Engineering and the School of Information. Interestingly enough, I was always against social media use for some reason. I never really began using it until high school where it became necessary to talk to friends and participate in online groups for school. Despite a late start with social media, there is still abundant information regarding my identity across various Google queries, data brokers, and social media. After sifting through all this information online, I have come to the conclusion that while my online identity is somewhat accurate, it unintentionally presents a misleading, fragmented image of actual identity.
Search Query: "Oliver Li"
With a quick google search with simply my name “Oliver Li,” a few things come up in Google and Google Search. Despite how common my surname is, the first and most relevant result is my LinkedIn profile. My LinkedIn profile makes me seem composed and successful. Under the surface of all these experiences and lengthy descriptions, I continue to struggle professionally and question what I want to do. Additionally, the fact that this is the only relevant result makes it seem like all I care about is my professional life. While I do care about my professional work and put a lot of effort into it, it is a small portion of my life. I can understand why Google put this as the first search result: the information is rich, personal, and marketable. However, it does not represent my true interests and values. LinkedIn and other sites like this do often have nuggets of truth that implicitly demonstrate my core identity. For instance, my current job title as an Instructional Aide for SI 539: Design of Complex Websites demonstrates that I am deeply passionate about teaching and education. In the future, I would like to pursue a career in education. However, that is hard to understand just by simply glancing at my LinkedIn profile and current job title description. If you look closely enough, I actually listed some of the extracurricular activities that I’m most involved in on campus. One of the first ones that pop up is Club Tennis. This leads us to look at the results that have popped up from Google Images. If we look at Google Images, we can find some funny-looking pictures of me playing tennis in high school after the first few results. I played too much tennis as a kid, and I chose to pursue another path in life in higher education instead of continuing to grind out tennis every day. However, I think it’s still deeply fascinating the change in results if we simply switch our query from “Oliver Li” to “Oliver Li Tennis.”
Search Query: “Oliver Li Tennis”
If you add the term “tennis,” Google suddenly becomes a very detailed database of my history as a tennis player, whether it be actual records, or multiple different articles about important matches that I played. The interesting part about this tennis data is that I didn’t ever consent or choose to post this data unlike the information on my LinkedIn. Websites like USTA and Tennis Recruiting automatically post and form these profiles for you, rank you, and give the rest of the world a glimpse at how good you are. Looking back, it is weird that all this information was public. However, it was the norm to look up your opponents before matches and see who they have played before.
Search Query: “Oliver Li (on Facebook) ”
When I search and look at my profile on Facebook, it portrays an idyllic version of myself. Besides the profile pictures that I update once in a blue moon, the photos are flooded with information from other people tagging me in them. A lot of the pictures and information constantly shows me as being really happy with a lot of friends. There’s a lot of pictures where I’m grinning or smiling at various locations in Ann Arbor for the past four years. But it doesn’t show the countless, stressful late nights I spent studying for exams and doing homework. It also doesn’t show the times that I’ve struggled to make connections and find my place at a bigger school like Michigan. Social media naturally highlights the best in our lives because that’s all we want to share.
Unfortunately, if we were to try to construct an identity and a picture of what my life looked like during the past 4 years in college, it wouldn’t be inaccurate. Rather, it would be better described as biased and unbalanced. I’m not saying that we should always be posting status updates when we aren’t feeling the greatest; it’s just that when we try to recreate others’ identities with social media it can be a distorted view of who they actually are and what they’ve experienced in life. It can also have a negative and cannibalizing effect on each other on society; if our personal social media only contains the best, does that then begin to become the standard we hold ourselves to? That seems really unhealthy to me, and I hope there becomes a social media solution to portray a more authentic version of ourselves to the world.
Data Broker: Instant Checkmate
I used “Instant Checkmate,” a free broker website to search the publicly available data on myself. It was interesting to see what types of data had been publicly available for this broker to collect. It gave me a prompt of a few different people to narrow down its search, half of whom were the names of my actual family (Bo Li, Fang Hua, and Youyang Li). Not only that, it had a lot of data on the places I’ve travelled in the United States. Instant Checkmate knew where I had visited before, both by car and by flight. It knew the time that I visited my ex-girlfriend in Minnesota, and the fact that I had an internship in Des Moines, Iowa that same summer. This seems like a direct violation of privacy: when did I ever have the option to conceal information? If they have this much surface-level information readily available, I’m wondering what would be considered valuable. And if they do have valuable information, I want to be the owner of it.
Online Identity Analysis
There are several interesting takeaways that I’d like to share below from this data identity exercise.
- It makes sense that online identities can never truly represent the entirety of a person. They are usually very small, skewed pieces of information about a person, and no one piece can make up the whole.
- Online identities tend to portray a very unrealistic, idealized image of ourselves that is unhealthy for both others and ourselves. This might be due to the nature of how our information environments have been initially constructed, or the way that we as humans tend to use them.
- Despite these fragmented pieces of information, there are relevant stories to be told and stitched together using our data identities.
My digital footprint has left different crumbs of who I am as a person. For now, I don’t think that data identities should ever be used as a way to authentically portray myself or others. Our data identities usually, naturally compartmentalize, separate, and highlight the best portions of ourselves. It gives us an unrealistic preview of who somebody is without displaying their vulnerabilities and struggles. Over time, I’m hopeful that information environments become more authentic and realistic, and that this philosophy of authenticity will bleed more into our real lives as well.
“Self-Understanding.” The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere Is Reshaping Human Reality, by Luciano Floridi, Oxford University Press, 2014.