Volume 77 / Number 32 Jan. 9 - 15, 2008
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Talking Point

Know thyself: Personal information in the Google Age

By Katherine Mangu-Ward

The irritatingly vague Oracle at Delphi famously exhorted seekers of wisdom: “Know thyself.” Easy to say, hard to do. At least, it used to be. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, about half of Americans have gotten a little closer to knowing themselves by typing their names into Google, according to a survey out from the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

This figure is up from 22 percent just five years ago, suggesting a distinct trend in this particular stripe of self-awareness. Yet the last five years have also seen the rise of the “kids these days put the craziest stuff online, and they’re totally going to get raped and murdered, or — worse — be unemployable” genre of scare stories.

It turns out, though, that people are surprisingly unconcerned about what Google throws back at them. About 60 percent of Internet users say that they’re not worried about what they find about themselves online, and a similar percentage say they have taken no steps to limit what’s available.

Right now, about 38 percent of self-Googlers don’t find anything relevant. But those who manage to turn up the self-knowledge they seek are pretty pleased with what they discover: 87 percent of people who find info about themselves say that it’s accurate, up 13 percent from five years ago.

The survey captures a cross-section of all Internet users, of course, including Aunt Ester, who just forwards squibs about angels and checks the golf-specific weather forecast for Boca Raton, Fla. The younger, richer and more educated you are, the more likely you are to have Googled yourself, further suggesting that self-Googling figures are still on the rise.

A full two-thirds of Internet users living in households with incomes over $75,000 have self-Googled, and younger people Google themselves in higher numbers and more often, with 54 percent Googling themselves against 47 percent of adults overall.

Despite all the concern that the MySpace generation is setting itself up for a fall, only 4 percent of all Internet-savvy adults say they have had bad experiences because “embarrassing or inaccurate information” was posted about them online. Presumably that 4 percent includes the men profiled on Don’tDateHimGirl.com.

Of course, the reason lots of people aren’t surprised or concerned about what they find is that they put it there themselves. Some people do so in a Machiavellian attempt to manipulate what the world believes they are.

But you don’t have to be a self-obsessed geek or a corporation on the verge of failure to worry about what your top 10 says about you. The Pew survey found that 11 percent of Internet users have a job that “requires them to self-promote or market themselves online.” Reputation matters — as well it should.

The massive flow of information can help screen terrible dates and irresponsible potential employees, but it can also protect the innocent when the stakes are even higher. Hasan Elahi, a Bangladeshi-born American citizen, found his name on an F.B.I. watch list and started putting his whole life online to create an ongoing virtual alibi. He carries a G.P.S. tracking device in his pocket, obsessively posts snapshots of his world, and has remained unmolested.

But what about the minority of people who don’t like what they see about themselves online and didn’t put it there? Of course, people can be hurt by exposure of intimate secrets or defrauded after identifying data is leaked or pinched.

But sometimes it’s better for the general public if information someone would rather not have online winds up there (through legit means, of course. Peeping Tom footage and the like is not in this category). A video of a man being beaten by a bunch of teenage girls on a New York subway was watched by thousands after being posted by another teenager who recorded that attack on her cell phone camera. Victim and attackers were identified after the video was picked up by The Smoking Gun Web site.

The 17-year-old videographer’s lawyer has said “she feels bad that she posted it on YouTube. … Looking back, she realizes the appropriate response should have been to turn the tape over to authorities.” But the fact is, she probably never would have taken the video to the cops — she’s charged with a subway assault of her own. And neither would the embarrassed victim, since he escaped relatively unscathed and, well, it was a video of him getting beaten by girls. But even if they had taken it to the cops, not much would have happened without the thousands of eyeballs which helped identify the players.

And then there’s a third group, the true elite of the information age: These are the good people who capture video of themselves in the midst of illegal acts and promptly post it online or send it to people who are likely to do so — the people who have tripped and fallen headfirst into the digital divide.

Consider the case of Pamela Rogers, a middle school gym teacher in McMinnville, Tenn. The woman has sex with a 13-year-old student, goes to jail, and soon finds herself out on probation. The terms: No contact with the student. Fair enough. She carefully ponders the various courses of action open to her and all of the possible consequences of her behavior, and then sends the student a camera phone video of herself dancing in her skivvies a couple of weeks after her release.

Naturally, the kid sends it to friends, and it winds up on Badjocks.com, a Web site that bills itself as the place “where COPS meets SportsCenter.”

It might be hard for any of us to look into our souls deeply enough to satisfy the Oracle at Delphi, but it’s easy as Jell-O Instant Pudding to type your name into Google. For better or for worse, the legit information will be intermingled with a breed of modern mega-gossip, sped up and broadcast. But at least it’s not behind your back.

And if you Google yourself and find that one of the hits is TheSmokingGun.com, Badjocks.com or Reason.com, you might want to consider taking the oracle’s other famous message to heart: Nothing in excess.

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