I was an early traveler on the social media train, forming Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat accounts in 2012. Over the next six or so years, I used these platforms heavily, uploading pictures, posting updates, and providing my social media networks with frequent updates on my life. But as I turned 18, I hit a pivotal point in my life. Confused, depressed, and desperate for something to change, I withdrew myself from social media. While my physical accounts still existed, they sat idle, gathering dust on the relevant information that was present on my personal identity.
While my online data presence articulates bits and pieces of my identity, I believe that the shift in my relationship with and perspective of social media greatly contributed to the incomplete snapshot of my online data identity and the authenticity behind the information available about me online.
While I accumulated a moderate amount of data (both past & present, true & false, and complete & incomplete) on myself, I must note my surprise regarding the vast quantity of information found on separate individuals. With a unique last name such as “Taketa”, I assumed that data would be fairly specialized towards myself. However, I believe the combination of my common first name and unique last name led to such great search results.
As Google breaks down a search query, phrases are broken down to individual words, and words are assessed for potential interpretation of spelling mistakes . So, as I search “Caroline Taketa”, Google instantaneously assesses the possibility that “Caroline” was actually intended to be similar words such as “Carolyn” or “Carol”. Additionally, “Taketa” was assessed as “Takata”, “Takeda”, “Takoua”, and “Take” (among several other variations). The 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.
Due to this nature, I believe this is a possible reason for the variety of information that can be found when searching “Caroline Taketa” both on Google, DuckDuckGo, InstantCheckmate, and other search engines and data broker services. And while significant information can be gathered on me–such as my home phone number, address, social media profiles, some relatives, etc.–there is also a significant amount of misinformation that is associated with such searches. Most commonly, these services listed relatives of mine that I am not at all related to as well as search results on individuals that have similar names to mine, but are not me.
My Social Media & Online Identity
My relationship with social media began as a preteen when I first realized that lying about your birthday provided easy access around the age requirement of many social media platforms. I dove directly into Facebook, quickly following with my creation of profiles on Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter. Obsessed with creating a ‘perfect’ social media profile, I filled up each platform with a combination of hobbies, likes, and interests that hardly represented any truth of my actual identity. My 12- to 13-year-old self prioritized a list of “Favorites” composed of things I believed (at the time) I should like, rather than things I actually did like.
But I mustn’t completely discredit my young self. The more “factual” information provided on me did speak to many aspects of who I was when I originally created these accounts. These platforms listed data on my past athletic history as well as my past educational and philanthropic endeavors. However, outside these two areas, the data on my accounts shows a consistent pattern of being inaccurate. While I believe part of this is due to my own fault of listing hobbies, interests, and other activities that I really had no interest in when first filling out my profiles, I believe that part of the misinformation was gathered from the social media site's prediction of my identity. Specifically, The Jacks listed under my music “favorites”. While I do follow this band’s page, I have never interacted with it nor is it listed in my “likes” when I log into my actual Facebook account. However, due to the fact that I follow the band’s page and the connection between the band’s members and my own hometown (The Jacks members all attended the same elementary/middle school and a nearby high school to me), Facebook assumed that The Jacks would be a band that I consider one of my favorites in music.
With the exponential growth of social media and networks in the professional world, it has become virtually impossible to not present your educational and professional identities online. In both search inquiries on 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 career aspirations, past work experience, and even my hobbies appeared on these pages.
My present usage of social media provided an identity identical to the one listed on my resume. It spoke of my high value of education, experience, and surface-level aspirations of my career. But this identity was nothing more than that: surface-level. The information gathered on these sites spoke about as much to me as a person as an AI-resume scanner could concur. This identity of mine was my application without an interview, 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 formulated a ‘perfect’ identity on social media, 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.” Written in The Cambridge Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics (2010), Floridi was unaware of just how quickly this divide would disappear.
Not even a decade after beginning social media, I left it. The temporary relief of escaping the struggles of a physical world turned into a chronic anxiety of my identity in the digital one. An image of myself was being painted not only online, but in the minds of every individual my profile encountered. As social media created its depiction of my identity, it was erasing anything and everything I knew, or thought I knew, about who I was. Feeling confused and alone, I knew that in order to find myself, I must first be present in the physical world rather than the digital one. I could no longer worry about the image social media was painting of me and begin painting my own image of myself.
While my online data presence represents a part of my identity it fails to encapture any sort of a complete picture of the person I am. With an expectation of my educational and professional identities whose online presence has essentially become required in the recruitment and hiring process, my data identity embodies versions and phases of my past self; versions and phases that were merely the foundation for which I have built my present self and identity upon.
However, this being said, it is vital to be aware of the depiction that is present of myself online and on social media. While those who know me in the physical world understand the disconnect between my data identity and true identity, 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 based on my online presence. And, with the growing connection between the physical and digital worlds, it will soon be difficult to distinguish between what is true online and what is incorrect. Your digital identity will soon become the identity people believe you to hold in the real world, despite the incompleteness and inaccuracy of the identity in general.
While I hold new concerns over the perception of my online identity, it is unclear whether or not 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. “How Search Algorithms Work: Meaning of Your Query.” Retrieved from: https://www.google.com/search/howsearchworks/algorithms/ Google.
- Floridi, Luciano. “Ethics after the Information Revolution”, The Cambridge Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics, 2010. Retrieved from: http://assets.cambridge.org/97805218/88981/frontmatter/9780521888981_frontmatter.pdf
- West Monroe. "The human side of digital transformation." April 12, 2018. Retrieved from: https://www.westmonroe.com/perspectives/in-brief/the-human-side-of-digital-transformation-shaping-consumer-demand-with-business-capabilities