Introduction and Expectations
Even before searching for my online identity, I know I won’t find much of anything. It’s not that I particularly care to hide myself from Big Data, or that I practice cutting edge privacy techniques to erase my online footprint. It’s just that, in an era of content creation and social media, I have, for the most part, abstained. Growing up, I was surrounded by a sea of online identities— everyone I knew was jumping on digital wave after wave. But for one reason or another, I never rode any of these waves. Though I have never really taken my privacy seriously, I’ve found myself mostly a ghost online. With the power of no-social-media in one hand and just-the-world’s-most-common-last-name-ever in the other, my online identity will be elusive to find.
The Google Search For Myself
I began by searching for just my name: Tony Wang. Surprising to no one, nothing about me came up. Information about a plethora of other people was offered: a restaurant owner here, a start up manager there, and a dabble of company owners. I made sure to check thoroughly, sifting through pages of Google search results and images. There’s a long list of Tony Wangs out there on the web, and I’m not sure if I’m on it.
Obviously, my search had to get more specific. I honed in a bit more with my searches: Tony Arthur Wang (my full name), and Tony Wang Canton (my hometown). These searches revealed a startling fact... I exist. What a relief, I was worried for a second. Aside from the Michigan resident database, white pages, and voter records, there still wasn’t much. Even with my hometown, only the first three results were relevant. After which, the results were about a different Tony Wang, again. Perhaps worth noting, though, is that my full name is enough to find my permanent residence, and regional information related to it.
Just a couple searches in and I was already almost out of ideas. I wanted to see if academia would return anything valuable, so I searched Tony Wang U of M, and every variant I could think of... I even looked for K-12 information. Nothing.
With no Facebook, no Instagram, no Twitter, and no Linkedin, I gave up my quest to find myself.
Where Am I?
My friends and family know that I have made truly no effort at all to be “off the grid”. Despite not really being on public search engines, I’m not sure I’ve ever set my phone down. There’s bound to be an identity somewhere in the few apps I constantly cycle through.
While the phone games I play are certainly financially predatory and built to be addicting, I’m not sure of the degree to which they curate identity as a product. I’m sure I’ve put my name in when creating accounts and, naturally, when purchasing things, but I’ve never really been involved in related communities or participated in chat. There could be a reasonable amount of information in a complete view of all the apps I’ve purchased, like some faux version of me abstracted into the things I like to play or view. Maybe Apple has a profile of me tucked away somewhere, maybe not.
You’d think after a few years of using an online forum I’d’ve built up an identity, even if anonymous. I haven’t. To me, Reddit is much more akin to a news source for hobbies than an online forum or social media. A handful of posts and a couple pages of comments is more to go off of than my app purchases, but still not much of an identity. Perhaps I’ve written enough that a semblance of a personality could be formed?
Similar to Reddit, YouTube is something I’ve been using anonymously for years, even though I’ve had almost no participation. Though my content is more curated because I’m more actively a part of the content consuming process, there’s still not much to work with. My online identity here is made up of whatever you can draw from the videos I watch: general viral videos, ASMR baking channels, video games I never play, and music.
This is where most of my time is spent. Technically social media, TikTok, to me, is more of a media viewing app like YouTube. Despite my lack of content creation, my account is attached to me in a way that Reddit and YouTube are not: my name. My somewhat less anonymous account on TikTok makes up a larger portion of the online identity pie because of the sheer volume of interactions I have with it on a daily basis. From the hundreds of likes I give out day to day, the types of videos I opt to see less of, and the videos I watch through multiple times, the TikTok algorithm has narrowed my identity down with almost surgical precision. Honestly, you could probably learn more about me through my TikTok feed than my words. That being said, I'm not too concerned with what TikTok does with this virtual me they've created. There's a long list of ads they've got rolling out onto my feed that I'm interested in, but I enjoy some level of plausible deniability in that nothing attached to this account of mine is explicitly me.
The one true social media that I’m involved in. Again, though, still not much outward content. Snapchat likely has the largest chunk of my online identity as a majority of my friends are attached to my Snapchat account, and the content I do put out is finally, undeniably, me. I think I have more photos taken of or with me on Snapchat than cameras in general. From group chats to stories to friends, there is an online identity here. The validity of this online identity is up for debate, though. Here, my identity is so individually made: only privately accepted friends can view my story/snaps, and only a select few receive a certain picture. Fragments of my identity are sent to people separately, but the aggregate is fairly true to myself. Unlike Tiktok, though, Snapchat seems to have had a difficult time piecing together who I am. While the pictures and videos I send to friends is what I consider an online identity, Snapchat as a company has not put those pieces together. I dug into the settings of Snapchat to see what groups and categories they had me filed under, and I found a few: Music, Science & Technology, Vlogging & Shortform_Media, and... Women's Fashion? Even with all of the personalizing ad preferences turned on, it seems I haven't given enough content to have a tailored page. Music may be the most broad category ever, followed by a couple generally applicable ones, then a group that I likely have been misplaced into.
What This Means
My relationship to the internet is a generally one sided one. I participate online in a more voyeuristic way, lurking the shadows of Reddit and on the underbelly of TikTok. Snapchat is the sole exception, but even then, the amount of snaps I send out pales in comparison to the received. Because I produce so little content through social media, or in general, for that matter, there is little available on the surface web: just searching for my name is not an adequate means of finding my online identity. Honestly, what my online identity really is is unknown even to me. Even knowing that there are photos out there of me on my friends’ social media, my anonymous usernames, and all my personal information, I still can’t find anything notably personal. There is no way for me to find posts or photos of myself on social media as there is no name or account attached to them. Because most of my presence online is generated by the consumption of media, who I am can only be pieced together by the bits scattered about here and there between apps. So, while there is information about me out there, it is inaccessible to most... but at the end of the day, I guess it’s better that that’s something between me and Big Data.