Internet

Know Thyself

Or at the very least, Google thyself

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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 this week from the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

This year's 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. 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 My Space generation is setting itself up for a fall, only 4 percent of all Internet savvy adults say that 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 (See Clive's Thompson's "The See-Through CEO" in Wired magazine for the definitive corporate take on this phenomenon).

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. I've written elsewhere about Hasan Elahi, a Bangladeshi-born American citizen who found his name on an FBI watch list and started putting his whole life online to create an ongoing virtual alibi. He carries a GPS 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 (think: Washingtonienne's litigious johns) 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 online earlier this month 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.

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, Tennessee. 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 website 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 The SmokingGun.com, Badjocks.com, or reason.com, you might want to consider taking the oracle's other famous message to heart: Nothing in excess.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an assocaite editor for reason.

NEXT: By the Power of Signing Statements, I Have the Power!

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  1. What is up with the subway assaults by teenagers? Why didn’t someone help that poor guy? How much fun would it be to beat the living snot out of some mouthy teenager harrassing some poor guy? I doubt I am living well enough to have that kind of opportunity.

  2. John,
    It could be because engaging in fisticuffs with a teenager is “assault of a minor” and carries a far harsher sentence than fighting with your same age peer.

  3. What is up with the subway assaults by teenagers? Why didn’t someone help that poor guy? How much fun would it be to beat the living snot out of some mouthy teenager harrassing some poor guy? I doubt I am living well enough to have that kind of opportunity.

    When there are a lot of other people around, folks think “oh someone else will help him”.
    If theres only one or two people, they usually help.

    Theres a word for this phenomenon, but I don’t remember Psych 101 well enough to recall it.

  4. “John,
    It could be because engaging in fisticuffs with a teenager is “assault of a minor” and carries a far harsher sentence than fighting with your same age peer.”

    But if the little bastard is assaulting someone, you have a vicarious right to self defense for that person. Now, you have to be right. If it turns out they are just fooling around and he wasn’t assaulting the person, you are guilty of assault. But if he or she really is assaulting someone, you have a right to meet force with force and beat the living shit out of the little bastard.

  5. Typed my name. Well, now people know my politics, that I’m a hiker, and I am an adoptee. Pretty tame, considering some of the fun I’ve had.

  6. To all you pussies out there at Hit and Run comment land who use aliases out of fear…

    You are full of Bullshit!

    JOSHUA CORNING
    STENDEC@GMAIL.COM
    332 W Penny Road apt 4
    Wenatchee WA, 98801

  7. Thanks, Joshua. I’ll just need your Social security number for confirmation.

  8. Now, you have to be right. If it turns out they are just fooling around and he wasn’t assaulting the person, you are guilty of assault.

    Actually, you just have to have a reasonable belief that you are acting in (vicarious) self-defense. If anyone looking on would think its an assault, then you are entitled to step in without first grilling the participants on their intentions, family history, etc.

  9. Lessee:

    I’m dead.

    I’m a college basketball player.

    I know something about Belfast pubs.

    I make word usage errors based on derivations.

    And I am a recent graduate of LA police academy working in Redondo Beach, CA.

  10. Joshua:

    meow 😉

  11. My name is so rare that there would be no confusing it with anyone–except my father who has the same name. But that’s it.

  12. sixtring:

    You forgot to ask for his bank account number so your cousin in Nigeria can transfer the $14 million out and provide Joshua a generous commission!

  13. To all you pussies out there at Hit and Run comment land who use aliases out of fear…

    Fear is not the only reason for using an avatar to surf and participate in online communities.

  14. Joshua,

    Please don’t foget, your DOB, SSN and mother’s maiden name. Also, if you could just assist me in getting a few hundred million dollars out of my family’s frozen Swiss bank account, that would be great.

  15. Thanks, Joshua. I’ll just need your Social security number for confirmation.

    535-04-9383

  16. lol @ Joshua!

  17. I’m an actor, a Dick Cheney aide, a hall of fame football player, a research professor of historical theology, a furniture designer, former MSU president and stopped looking.

    When I was working on the then new Aegis Combat System in the Navy, I warned that there was so much info available that it would be easy to drown in it. Unable to make a decision because there was too much info. Googling a name, mine’s neither common nor rare, sure does lead to a shitload of stuff to sift through.

    There’s an element of privacy in all that clutter.

  18. You forgot to ask for his bank account number

    Don’t need it. If I were so inclined, the SSN would be enough.

    Funny thing with those Nigerians — they’re still around because the ruse still works. Greed can surely blind.

  19. I thought my name was uncommen until I googled it. Now I know there are country music singers (I bought his cd) and deep sea fishing captains out there with it. Worst is when I found out on Skype that there is a CEO of a tech company in my own town who has the same name. My sister keeps calling him and showing him her babies.

  20. Typed in my name and the first result from the google:

    Re: I want to build a bomb
    To: Patrick Joiner ; Subject: Re: I want to build a … On Thu, 7 Oct 1999, Patrick Joiner wrote: > All I need to know is how to …

  21. Fearless, foolish, minor differences

  22. When I search, it comes back with only my father–not me and not anyone else. I have managed to completely stay off Google’s radar (so far). Excellent!

    It also is a testament to how fucking rare my name is.

  23. I share a name with one of the richest men in the world and the victim on the largest divorce settlement in history. His wife went from being a belly dancer in London to getting a settlement in the billions. That is called marrying up.

  24. Oh, and since this isn’t much of a thread anyways, I want to let everybody know how nice it is to be on this site where there is absolutely no censorship. The content isn’t always the greatest, but at least there’s no moderators or constant bickering.

    I made my way over to the conservative website http://www.freerepublic.com/home.htm earlier this week and was met with quite hostility… They called me a troll when I responded to a post about gays being “purely evil”. My comment about teaching kids at a young age about homosexuality not being a horrible thing (since knowledge is a great thing, IMHO) was instead censored, and my posting privileges revoked. From there, the only possible action is to e-mail the webmaster… Yeah, like that lazy ass is going to do anything about it.

  25. Hey – I’m ahead of the curve. I did a column back in 2000 on Web-searching my own name.

    “Web hits include a painter of owls (pictures, I believe, not the actual birds); an executive vice president of Southwest Bankcorporation of Texas; a research director of MicroBioRhizoGen (really) Corp.; the assistant coach of the 1981 USA Men’s World University Games basketball team; an advice doctor on KPDQ radio; a simulation system expert at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory; a top designer of steeplechase courses; the past president of the Arkansas Biotechnology Association; the author of Trees, Shrubs and Woody Vines of Kansas; a swimmer at Oregon State University; and the honorary general secretary of the Fordingbridge (England) (Lawn) Bowling Club.

    Far as I know, none of these is me (although my memories of 1981 are hazy).”

  26. Well… it wasn’t much a thread when I was writing my post. Sorry gents!

  27. Danny,

    The worst troll on Hit and Run, and I am sure many would consider me one of them, is better than the average poster on a lot of blogs. This one and Althouse and Volokh tend to have pretty good commenters.

  28. Fuck you Danny, you’re out of your league.
    .
    .
    .
    .
    Sorry. Happy Festivus.

  29. To all you pussies out there at Hit and Run comment land who use aliases out of fear…

    Meriadoc Brandybuck
    brandybuck@hobbithole.ts
    123 Shyfoot Lane
    Crickhollow, Buckland, T.S.

  30. I actually did it early this week, just hours before I heard about the survey, wierd. My first relevant hit was joe agreeing with me about something, how embarassing.

  31. Brandybuck

    I’m often tempted to try something like that when I get a phishing e-mail.

    Haven’t done it yet. Only because I’d never get to see the results if they tried to use whatever dream up.

  32. .. hey, Brandybuck! .. we’re neighbors ..

    .. Hobbit

  33. I’ve got you all beat.

    I am Yukon Joe Boyle, Arctic explorer, organizer of a Machine Gun Company during World War One, and wearer of history’s greatest blonde handlebar mustache.

  34. I’m sorry, that’s Klondike Joe.

  35. Joshua Corning,

    I’m just 80 miles away from you in Moses Lake.
    I think Sage is a dry-sider too.

  36. I’m a famous guitar player and that’s about it.

  37. True story: I spoke at a conference in Florida in 1999, and one of the other speakers had the same name. The organizer was so amazed at the coincidence that she had us join her for lunch. I’m the superior version, I note–I could totally take him in sword fight.

  38. I only had to look through 5 pages of stuff about me. I sure feel sorry for Ron Paul. It would take him 2 lifetimes to check out everything that is said about him. (Did you know he accepts money fron NAZI’s!!!)

  39. NoStar: That’s a fallacy!

    Oh wait… That’s true… But that he is a Nazi because of it–that’s the fallacy.

  40. think Sage is a dry-sider too.

    Not hardly. My heart’s over there, but my home is in the Sound area. West sound, to be exact. My job is in the North end.

  41. I don’t know if that’s fallacy or not, but I know for a fact that he has accepted money from a former disreputable rock and roll drummer who has espoused radical anarcho-capitalism in the past.

    And I’ll be giving more money in January.

    Merry Christmas to all Reasonoids and Reasonettes.

  42. Sage, How far north? My sailboat is moored in Oak Harbor. I get over to see her about once a month.

  43. NoStar, I’m working in Lynnwood. When’s the last time you were up there? Is the situation with the ferries going to screw your plans up?

  44. Oh yeah? What kind of a set did you play? I’ve got a Tama Rockstar kit with Zildjian A Customs.

    Oh, and Merry Christmas to you, too.

  45. Sage, I drive all the up to deception pass bridge to get to the island. I was there last in early November.

    Danny, when I played professionally (1971 thru 1987) I played a set of chrome Slingerlands with 3 mounted toms on the bass plus a floor tom. 20 inch ping ride cymbal, 18 crash/ride, 16 inch crash, 14 inch New-beat (medium top, heavy bottom) hi-hat, all Zildjian.

    Nowadays, I have a cheap but servicable set from CB, but the cymbals are Zildjian. I can play cheap drums (I can make cardboard boxes sound OK) but great cymbals are imperative.

  46. Being Jon Kyle, screw that bastard senator from Arizona, Jon Kyl, for opening a flood of misspellings over what used to be an easy name.

    I could go by Jonathan, but that’s a bit too pretentious.

  47. Oh, and I play a cheap kit with Sabian cymbals. Zildjian always sounded washy to me…

  48. joshua corning | December 20, 2007, 4:37pm | #

    To all you pussies out there at Hit and Run comment land who use aliases out of fear…

    You are full of Bullshit!

    JOSHUA CORNING
    STENDEC@GMAIL.COM
    332 W Penny Road apt 4
    Wenatchee WA, 98801

    And now you’re a donor to the Hillary Clinton campaign!

    Remember to recycle, joshua.

  49. Naw, just kidding.

  50. After doing some serious sleuthing about “fish” I’ve determined that I have a fairly significant role in religion!

  51. Say, Josh. Was just looking at the satellite view on Google Maps. Did you know that you live in the middle of a freeway interchange?

    Close…zoom out pan west on penny and about where penny hits School street the east side of penny you will see a horse shoe of buildings one of those buildings is my big bros house and i rent one of his apartments….i am looking for a house and no i do not bum money from him for pot =P

    And now you’re a donor to the Hillary Clinton campaign!

    Remember to recycle, joshua.

    Actually that would be pretty funny.

  52. Actually, you just have to have a reasonable belief that you are acting in (vicarious) self-defense.

    john, as far as i know in nyc – legally – you basically are allowed to intervene so long as you do not escalate the situation. this does not mean someone or something else won’t escalate, which is what i presume bothers most people.

    i dunno man, last halloween i watched one of the deadest drunk dudes ever sit down on an imaginary bench that just happened to be the tracks; me and two other dudes rushed forward to grab him and pulled him back up (the train was coming, but a whiles away, it’s slow at night) and no one else moved. it happens though, and i didn’t see the whole crowd.

    on the other hand, they were girls! yay sexism, but really… i know a guy, a boxer, who gave a gang of seven high school girls twenty bucks rather than be faced with the decision to beat on high school girls. i can’t say i totally blame him. same with this dude. what’s he gonna do, punch someone out?

    “wow bro, you really showed her. someone won’t be participating in any spelling bees for a while.”

  53. …great cymbals are imperative.

    True that. True.

  54. Is it true that greatest gift you can give your children is a very common name, so that future snoopers cannot distinguish them from other, say, Ronald Pauls?

    But my guess is that by the time anyone’s children are grown, googling will be conducted by DNA samples or the like, and only by government agents. That, or the terrorists will have won.

  55. Sabians sound too bright to me.

  56. We have the makings of a fantastic Reasonoid Drum Circle. I can feel the liberty and the testosterone rising.

  57. And now you’re a donor to the Hillary Clinton campaign!

    Remember to recycle, joshua.

    Naw, just kidding.

    Hilarious, joe. If I’d have thought of it, I’d have signed him up for a she-male newsletter or something like that. Now guys, I’m joking of course. None of us at H&R would do anything like that. Right? Right???

  58. joshua — Lotta weird or nasty folks out there. I prefer to keep what little privacy remains, thanks. But feel free to expose yourself to harm if you like.

    I hope that was a fake SSN you posted. If not, I’d keep a careful eye on your bank accounts and credit card statements for suspicious withdrawals or charges in the near future.

  59. Hilarious, joe. If I’d have thought of it, I’d have signed him up for a she-male newsletter or something like that. Now guys, I’m joking of course. None of us at H&R would do anything like that. Right? Right???

    Of course not. I’m indignant you would even suggest such a thing. We’d sign him up for a shemale pornsite, not a frickin’ hardcopy newsletter. What, you think we’re technologically illiterate?

  60. Sabians sound too bright to me.

    More tinny to my ear.

    Not that I have a problem with tin.

    I have had quite a variety of scrap metal and duct work as part of my kit throughout the years.

  61. Actually, making all SS #s known would be the best way to stop their use as identification, which the Government promised they would never be used for. hahahaha.

  62. fantastic Reasonoid Drum Circle. I can feel the liberty and the testosterone rising.

    Love those anarchy drum circles…
    http://youtube.com/watch?v=3cnaG3BX3lw

  63. A weatherman, a saxophonist, and a kung fu (?!) actor. I gave up looking for myself after 10 pages…

  64. FWIW,

    The real me comes up as hits one two and three…

  65. I use my real name here. A halfwit could find my home if he really wanted to. That makes me special. Special Ed, as it were. Remember…when we use aliases, the terrorists have won.
    Are you listening, thx1138_10538?

  66. Flattering to be classed as a special case, however…

    http://www.grylliade.org/wikka/HitAndRunTrolls

  67. What is up with the subway assaults by teenagers? Why didn’t someone help that poor guy?

    [rant] NYC philosophy of self-defense is, don’t. You can’t get a license to even own a gun, much less carry one, because you don’t “need” to. (Turns out the only people who “need” to have that rare privilege are the politically connected.)

    If you aren’t supposed to protect yourself, what kind of a fool would you be to protect someone else?

    It’s the old, “If they want your wallet, give them your wallet. Otherwise someone might get hurt.” Somehow that leads to, “If they want to beat the snot out of you, let them. Otherwise someone might get hurt.”

    See: England. There you can get in a world of trouble if you make almost any effort to protect yourself. [/rant]

    googling will be conducted by DNA samples or the like, and only by government agents. That, or the terrorists will have won.

    Is there any difference?

    Google

    Turns out my namesakes include a posthumously heroic sergeant, the commanding general of NORAD on 9/11, a poet, an assistant professor of music, an actor with ten mostly uncredited movie parts, and a guy who writes books on spontaneous human combustion.

    They also list my novel and my firearm instructor website in the first two pages, so that’s good. The eerie part is that I’m a retired infantry officer, and an amateur musician and actor.

  68. Crimethink,

    I gave up looking for myself after 10 pages…

    Strange… when I google “crimethink” you show up at the bottom of the first page.

  69. We have the makings of a fantastic Reasonoid Drum Circle.

    Ooh, I want in! You have heard anything ’till you’ve heard me bang my Rock Band kit.

  70. “Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.” A.J. Liebling

    Huh? I believe it’s “freedom of speech”. Whatever.

  71. I’m more famous under my alias than under my real name, I guess. I’m surprised people in my real life don’t call me a pussy for not calling myself “crimethink” in real life!

  72. I am the only me, and I am very easy to find.

  73. I’m surprised people in my real life don’t call me a pussy for not calling myself “crimethink” in real life!

    We do when you’re not around…

  74. ^ hurts. Baaaaad.

  75. I googled me name and got nothing.

    much

  76. I’m apparently a French physician who’s published so many articles that the only positive review from that stupid rock band I was in is buried on page 15 or so.

  77. Question for Joe: Do you post on Alternet? If so, as Joe? I see that a lot and am always curious.

  78. Sweet! I’m an ACW wrestler!

  79. I just googled Dondero. His mustache made my year.

  80. i’m a porn star! w00t!

  81. Only three hits on my name.

    I’m a MD Ph.D, recent college grad, and sold property in September.

    Two of the three are me.

  82. Lamar,

    I’ve never posted on Alternet.

    And I never capitalize joe.

  83. good to know.

  84. I guess big-J Joe on Alternet is a real gem, huh?

  85. I Google myself every now and then. There are two namesakes who seem to have a higher profile than me–a musician in New Jersey and a soccer player in Australia.
    And no, Katherine, I can’t for the life of me imagine why my name would turn up on reason.com!!

    😉

  86. I just Googled and Yahoo’d myself and I’ve decided that I’ve said a lot of stupid shit in my life. (i’ve said one or two smart things as well, but those things will get lost in the noise.)

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