Joining in 2012, I consider myself an early traveler on the social media train. Over the next six or so years, I used these platforms heavily, uploading pictures, liking posts, and providing my networks with frequent updates on my life. But as I turned 18, I hit a pivotal realization. Confused, depressed, and desperate for something to change, I withdrew myself from all forms of social media. While my physical accounts still existed, they sat idle, gathering dust on any relevant information that could be gathered on my personal identity.
While my online data presence articulates bits and pieces of my identity, I believe that the negative shift in my relationship with and perspective of social media greatly contributed to the incomplete snapshot of my online data identity and the lack of authenticity behind information available about me online.
Although I accumulated a moderate amount of data (both past & present, true & false, and complete & incomplete) on myself, I must highlight my surprise regarding the vast quantity of information I found on individuals other than myself. With a surname as unique as “Taketa”, I assumed that data would be specialized towards my specific identity. However, I believe the combination of my common first name and unique last name led to such diverse search results.
As Google breaks down each search query, phrases are broken down into individual words. These words are then assessed for potential spelling mistakes and alternative interpretations . So, as I searched for “Caroline Taketa”, Google instantly assessed the possibility that “Caroline” was misspelled and actually intended to be “Carolyn” or “Carol”. Additionally, “Taketa” was assessed as “Takata”, “Takeda”, “Takoua”, and “Take” (among several other variations). This combination of a common first name with an uncommon last name left room for hundreds of thousands of possible variations of my search query phrase, and thus, hundreds of thousands of search results on data that had nothing to do with me.
I believe this algorithmic flaw is a possible reason for the variety of information that can be found when searching names. Even data brokers and privacy-protected search engines displayed significant inconsistencies in showing results that related directly to me. For example, when searching "Caroline Taketa" on DuckDuckGo, only 8 of the first 30 results were related to my individual identity, despite the company’s avoidance of autocorrecting search queries and dedication to supplying "very exact" results. And while significant information can still be gathered – such as my home phone number, address, social media profiles, relatives, etc. – there is also a significant amount of misinformation that is associated with these searches.
My Social Media & Online Identity
My relationship with social media began as a preteen when I first realized lying about your birthday provided easy access around the age requirement of many social media platforms. I dove directly into Facebook, quickly following with the creation of profiles on Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter. Obsessed with portraying a ‘perfect’ social media profile, I filled each platform with hobbies, likes, and interests that hardly represented any truth of my actual identity. My naive 12- to 13-year-old self prioritized a list of “Favorites” composed of things I believed I should like, rather than things I actually did like.
But I mustn’t completely discredit my younger self. More “factual” information provided on me did speak to many aspects of who I was when I originally created these accounts. Accurate details about my past athletic, educational, philanthropic, and travel endeavors could be found. However, outside these areas, data displayed in my profiles showed a consistent pattern of falsity. While some of this inaccuracy can be attributed to my own faults of listing hobbies, interests, and other activities that I had no real interest in, I believe that a great quantity of the misinformation stems from incorrect conclusions social media algorithms made about my identity. Look specifically at 'The Jacks' listed under my favorite music on Facebook. While I do follow the band’s page, I have never interacted with it nor listed the band in the “likes” portion of my account. However, due to the fact that I follow the band’s page and the geographical connection between the band’s members and myself (we all share the same hometown), Facebook assumed that The Jacks would be my favorite band.
With the exponential growth of social media and online networks in the professional world, it has become virtually impossible to not present your educational and professional identities online. In search inquiries of "Caroline Taketa" on both Google incognito mode and DuckDuckGo, the first results revolve entirely around my identity as a student and young professional. My LinkedIn and WayUp profiles displayed the same information that I myself had inputted in my profiles. Data on my hometown location, university, future aspirations, past experience, and even my current hobbies appeared on these pages.
My present social media usage provided an accurate identity identical to the one listed on my resume. It spoke of my high value of education, detailed work experience, and surface-level aspirations of my career. But this identity was nothing more than that: surface-level. The information gathered by these sites concluded as much as an AI-resume scanner could concur. This identity of mine was my application without an interview; it was merely the tip of the iceberg. It failed to represent me as a complete version of myself.
My unplugging of social media stemmed from an internal psychological spiral. As I sculpted a ‘perfect’ social media identity, I lost touch with who I was in the physical world. If I could attribute my feeling to words, it would mirror those of philosopher Luciano Floridi: “The increasing re-ontologization of artefacts and of whole (social) environments suggests that soon it will be difficult to understand what life was like in predigital times and, in the near future, the very distinction between online and offline will become blurred and then disappear.” What I was unaware of is just how quickly this divide would disappear.
Not even a decade after beginning social media, I left it. The temporary escape social media provided from the physical world turned into chronic anxiety of my identity in the digital one. An image of myself was being painted not only online, but in the physical minds of every individual my profiles encountered. As social media shaped its depiction of my identity, it erased anything and everything I knew about who I was. Feeling confused and alone, I came to a difficult realization: in order to find myself, I must prioritize being present in the physical world rather than the digital one. I needed to forget about the image social media painted of me and begin painting my own.
It was not easy. I frequently felt alone without weak online connections to rely on. I experienced urges to mindlessly scroll through Instagram or check where friends were on Snapchat. However, as time went on, these urges weakened and became less frequent. I started to become more secure with who I was, no longer relying on likes and other online interactions to validate my feelings. I realized that the individuals who cared about me kept in touch through other mediums, and those who didn’t, never really cared about me in the first place.
While my online data presence represents a part of my identity, it fails to encapture any complete picture of the person I am. With the exception of my educational and professional identities whose online presence has become required in the modern-day recruitment and hiring process, my data identity embodies versions and pieces of my past self – versions and pieces that served only as the foundation for which I have built my present self and identity upon.
With this being said, it is vital to be aware of the depiction that is presented of me online and on social media. While those who know me in the physical world understand the disconnect between my digital identity and true identity, this variance is unclear to individuals I interact with virtually. Any person around the world with access to my name and the internet can find me and thus formulate a picture of who they believe me to be. As Floridi suggested, the growing integration of the physical and digital worlds will soon, if not already, make distinguishing what online information is true and what is false more difficult than many are prepared for. Soon, our digital identities – regardless of how inaccurate or incomplete they may be – will be the ones associated with us in the physical world.
While I hold new concerns over the perception of my online identity, it is unclear if this concern is great enough to affect my current relationship with social media. Ever since deciding to keep social media at an arm's length, I have been able to formulate a better idea of who I am as a person, an image I fear will blur if I become more invested in social media and my online identity again.
- Google. “Search Algorithms: How Search Algorithms Work: Meaning of Your Query.” Retrieved February 19, 2021.
- DuckDuckGo. "Results: Number of Results", DuckDuckGo Help Pages. Retrieved February 19, 2021.
- Floridi, Luciano. (2010). “Ethics after the Information Revolution”. The Cambridge Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics. Cambridge University Press.
- Jesuthasan, Maureen. (12 April 2018). "The human side of digital transformation: Shaping consumer demand with business capabilities". West Monroe. Retrieved February 19, 2021.