My attitude towards my online identity rests on the dichotomy between pathological prudence and meticulous curation. I’ve tread the sphere of social media with two accounts, zero posts and plenty of caution. On the other hand, eager to develop my personal brand, I’ve consolidated and showcased a small army of publications and professional personas. My data philosophy then, was naively simplistic: I am the subject of my personal information and I have the ultimate right and responsibility to control who has access to certain pieces of it, and to protect it from abuse to the best of my ability.
Learnings and Revelations
With each step of this assignment, the false safety of having a carefully curated identity on the internet fell apart as I discovered dormant spam accounts that were started as a joke, news clippings about projects and competitions, and privacy statements that reflected none of my values. My online identity was an amalgamation of posts and articles by the people around me, organizations I was attached to and cracks in privacy policies. In short, I learnt that my online identity isn’t created by me, it is created for me.
With the rise of social identity providers, such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, and many others, there are several contributors to a growing portrait of who we are online. These contributors stretch beyond our social and professional circles, and can significantly alter what we might intend for our internet audiences. What privacy controls, statements and initiatives provide is an illusion of control; while in fact our online identities are at the mercy of our environment and the people, organizations and institutions that reside in it.
My first Google search presented a satisfactory list of public profiles that I have worked hard to curate and maintain. The first link was my LinkedIn profile that details my professional work history, the second is my public Goodreads profile, where I’ve proudly written nerdy book reviews for over four years and the third is a link to a TEDx talk I gave back in high school that has garnered a modest thousand views.
It is beyond these links, I find articles written by local newspapers about a small business that I ran in high school, a profile page on the website of a global competition I won over five years ago and most embarrassingly, blog posts by people I don’t know about the same competition. Google’s web crawlers are built to feature the most accessed links and websites, which may not necessarily be from the most authoritative or authentic source. And this results in an identity curated on popularity not on authenticity.
On Facebook I was initially pleased to find a clean profile. I created my Facebook account a few months before my freshman year at university with the purpose of accessing resources on college groups. In doing so, my Facebook page has no profile photo and lists no additional information about me. It is on shifting to the posts tab that I find my name mentioned in fundraiser posters by organizations, the same high school competitions announcing winners and participants, and tags in posts by friends and family. I found that the mere mention of your full name can permanently tie you to Facebook posts you have no association with and you often have little ability to change that.
Despite never owning a Twitter account I’ve found my name in a few Twitter posts in association with clubs, charity organizations, publications and competitions. While neither of these tweets can link to a specific profile, they include snippets of a personal bio that I might have submitted to them or quotes from a presentation. This prompts the question of how many other platforms contain information about me that I am unaware of and have no control over. Several of these coalesce into my online identity and often without my personal knowledge.
Google Ads Personalization
Casually tucked under the moniker of ‘Data & Personalization’, I found a suite of unsettling, accurate tags attached to my google account that are worth mentioning as part of my data identity including my age and location demographic, my education and relationship status, my personal interests and preferences. At the top of the page, Google states in bold, “we do not sell your personal information to anyone.” But for targeted advertisements to work, Google has curated an identity for each of us and that is what it sells to advertisers.
If asked whether my online identity is accurate I will have to answer in the affirmative. All the information I’ve found about myself online are facts: the TEDx videos contain speeches I have given, the facebook posts contain messages about competitions I have participated in, the blog posts contain words that I have written. But it is not an authentic representation of my real identity.
An identity created in collaboration with others includes their perception of my actions and behavior. If my identity is the sum total of my actions and values, my online identity is the sum total of my actions and values as projected by me, and as perceived by others. It reflects what they believe they know and understand about me. The more distant these sources are from me, the less authentic the information they share is. As a consequence, when their perspectives contribute to my online identity, it immediately reduces its authenticity.
My online identity is missing information that I chose to withhold and amplified by information others chose to notice. My initial google searches highlight news articles from competitions I’ve participated in and won five years ago, yet contain no mention of publications in the last year that I take pride in. There is a stark distinction in what my friends may choose to post on a private spam account on instagram and the pictures that I retain on my phone. Google may want to aggregate my different personas into a single identity to help them monetize user interactions, but despite their algorithms, the identity they create places a disproportionate emphasis on the things I search for on the internet versus those that I actively think about. My collaborative online identity is incomplete without my full participation.
Our real identity is in a state of constant flux as we grow, learn and develop. The attributes attached to me are different from those five years ago and different from those five years from now. But my online persona fails to reflect a critical component of identity: timeliness.
It focuses on events that might have garnered attention from others in the past but have no relevance to my identity today. On the other hand, it neglects current happenings that might not have garnered significant hits on a webpage. In a way, our online identities function as a time capsule randomly filled with items from our past by a cluster of individuals and organizations. But we have little control of what goes into these time capsules.
For years I’ve trusted that I alone have access to my personal information and it is my responsibility to be its diligent custodian. I’ve been careful about what I chose to share online, mindful of unusual clicks and mentions, and checked and rechecked my privacy settings. Yet, my digital identity consists of thousands of data points that make up a profile of who I am and my preferences. It is scattered all over the internet, where Facebook owns my social identity, retailers own my shopping patterns, credit agencies hold my creditworthiness, Google knows what I have been curious about since the dawn of the internet and my bank owns my payment history. In building our online identities we have distributed access to several parties and as a result the final product that we find online is less intentional and controlled than ever before.
I feed terabytes of personal data into mobile apps and online platforms. I decide which photos I want to share and which should remain private. I accept or reject invitations, control tags, and think twice before publishing a post or a comment. I am critical and selective about the content I like or share. Why shouldn’t I be in control?
When it comes to my digital profile, the data I choose to share is just the tip of an iceberg. The personal online identity is a myth which encourages an idea of control, access, and most importantly: self. But instead our digital profile is a collaborative document with information, analysis and presentation by parties other than ourselves. If one thing is certain, it is that our online identities aren't created by us they are created for us.