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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Stalking Your Digital Self

We are rapidly having to adjust to the new reality of our lives being in the public sphere and just how easy it is becoming to find information, and how integrated into our normal days it becomes. Where once, only the determined, the stalking (for good or bad) could find information, even online, it evolves into an everyday and we race to catch up. Even now, we joke (but only half) about Facebook stalking someone, but it really isn't stalking anymore when everything is shared freely and on purpose and easier than compiling a homework assignment. At some point it becomes normal. I don't know when it became normal, sometime between highschool and last Tuesday, but it did. Our lives, our digital fingerprints are all over the web now, parts logged without our knowledge in databases and directories, but vast, growing parts added ourselves with abandon. And not only online, but searchable, and findable and compilable also with growing ease. We can't even call it stalking anymore, the ability for people who want to know us to find us - let's say mostly friends and family, but of course also employers and undesirables - without even trying. And how fast can we get used to this surrender, this new reality? Maybe you haven't even thought about it yet. You should.

To share an example of just how easy, and inadvertent in the stalking, here is a simple chain of events on how I found out about a friend's change in job she hadn't posted or mailed about by random browsing, a few clicks and one association that brought her to mind.

I use Twitter. I am reading my Twitter feed. I follow a couple people who report a lot on tech. I find reading about tech interesting. One of the tweets is on 10 search engines to try rather than Google for a day. That is interesting enough. Decision 1, click 1. Browse the list, mostly boring, not Google-killers. One though near the bottom catches my eye: a search site called Pipl "The most comprehensive people search on the web". Generic self-praise, but I'm intrigued because I've tried to people search before for various reasons, never to any satisfaction. Decision 2, click 2. Simple boxes for people info. Obviously I try my own name first. I like the design. It breaks the results into categories which is helpful. Nice presentation, but it doesn't return anything a Google search hadn't. But your own name is boring. So who to try next? Immediate idea is a certain close friend, because I actually did try finding her address before via the web because I had wanted to surprise her for her birthday. That didn't work then and I ended up having to ask. So she's the first one that comes to mind. Decision 3, click 3. And her results pop up.

And there are the details. Clearly her, no doubt: age, city, profile pic, yup. 4 addresses, all nicely formatted (would have been very useful several years ago) and background reports avail for purchase. Profiles, like Facebook, etc, blah, blah, already know her there. Web pages, blog posts, documents on her. I skim down absently to see if it shows anything interesting. And wait, keep seeing that org name and "Director of Development". That's new. Seems my friend's got herself a new job, and one that is savvy and widely syndicated with press releases. That seems good. Click #4 to one of the press releases confirmed yup, she started last month. Well, well...

Three half-interested, half-absent-minded browsing decisions and four clicks of the mouse and I found a not-so-secret secret that a close friend I clearly have not spoken to enough has a plum new job. And a whole lot more about her I already knew, but maybe you didn't. And in 2 clicks, if I had given you her name, you would be able to know too.

Scary or empowering or just plain different? The jury is obviously still out and we're all still catching up to the idea, but I tend to feel it is a good thing. We'll learn new boundaries and new ways and customs of protecting and respecting those. We'll get used to each other's profiles being there and learn to be balanced in our Mutually Assured Knowledge. Maybe we won't expect each other to be so perfect or try to project such obviously silly perfect images of ourselves to the world. Maybe it is just a personal reaction of having a name that leaves crystal fingerprints, but I think we'll be OK with all this out there. It isn't so scary. 4 thoughts and 3 clicks and 1 congrats on a new job. I just hope my friend agreed. :)