Oct 4, 2010

Owning your identity on the web

The web is an amazingly powerful communication means, and, as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility. You are responsible for what you put out there on those tubes. Just as in real life you cannot take back what you say because, as we all know, the internet never forgets. But you are also responsible for what you don't say, and, as we all know, the answer to bad speech is always more speech.

Not thrilled with what's on the first page of results when googling yourself? Maybe you need to start a blog, join some social communities, or invest in search engine optimization for your site. Of course, you could also just sue Yahoo! and Google for falsely representing you.

Thankfully, said idiot has been so far denied standing. A few thoughts that stem from all of this. Queue the rant theme.

The law of internet personal accountability

I'm sorry, but this should be a no-brainer: it makes no sense to blame a search company for you or others not talking enough about yourself. Nothing coming up about you? Some of it inaccurate? Doesn't matter. No excuse for not correcting it. The nature of a search service is not to create information but rather to index and search it.

Search engines these days are very sophisticated beasts. They’ve learned how to sniff out legitimacy. This is all based around algorithms, mind you, so it is not without its problems, but for the most part things jump to the first page because they are most often correct. Actually, it's more precise to say they are most often what the people searching for said terms wanted to find. Relevancy is king.

The fact that nothing relevant about you comes up can mean only two things: there isn't anything relevant about you or the search engine sucks.

Let’s start with the latter since most people will recoil at the very notion of the former. Search engines can suck if they lack a comprehensive enough index to search through or if they are intentionally monkeying with the results. The former can limit their potential value, perhaps detrimentally, while the latter can question their integrity. Neither is suable, though; the answer to either, if they are a problem, is to not use them. You should use a search engine because it is useful. Still, neither case is a guarantee of suckiness. You may like a narrowed search and you may like personalized results. You'll have to be the judge of whether it is, ultimately, useful to you or not.

Which brings us back to the original (and much more likely) problem: there ain't anything relevant about you to find. Complaining to a search engine company like Google or Yahoo! isn't going to make relevant results appear out of thin air.

You have two choices then. Either you start creating relevant information yourself (the hands on approach) or you do something worth talking about that gets other people to start creating relevant information about you (the indirect approach).

Most people only get fifteen minutes and it is unlikely enough to get you decently relevant results, especially if that fifteen minutes was you making a fool of yourself. So, unless you're in a movie, don't wait for others to talk about you first. Get out there and do something worth talking about. Let that be incentive for you to excel.

If you aren't talented or haven't got any ideas on how to revolutionize the world at the moment, then your only other alternative is to start creating content yourself. Start a blog, a website, or join something like Facebook. The more pages out there with your name on it that intersect the more likely they'll show up. And believe me, once they do they'll completely overshadow any of the stuff you objected to originally.

But the key is you have to take responsibility for your own online presence. Own your identity. Don't leave it up to chance.

(Those who are especially stalkerish with me, which is nobody, will know this isn’t the first time I’ve harangued about this.)

Doesn't this leave the door open for more targeted litigation?

The judge threw out her case (well, the Yahoo! one at least; she's quite litigious, so we'll see how the others fare) due to insufficient standing on account of her not having "commercial interest" to protect.

This begs the question, as some have pointed out: doesn't this mean that Tiger Woods or some other celebrity with a name brand and identity to protect with significant financial interest could successfully sue Yahoo! for having too many pages that depict him as an adulterating cheating maggot of a husband?

Well, yes. But I don't think he'd be successful either.

I agree that this is perhaps a weak and narrow ruling that leaves too much open to a new case with only a few small variables changed. But this judge isn't the Supreme Court. He wasn't trying to set any precedents I don't think.

Plus, this is a simple, if technically narrow, reason that quickly and easily discards an obviously stupid case. Now, sure, he could have waxed poetic for thirteen pages on a broader ruling and the merits of owning your own identity (*cough*) but do you really need him to do that? On your tax dime? Wasting everyone's time even further?

I agree it's an easily side-stepped ruling for the future, but at the very least it has the benefit of succinctness. Get the government out of the way and let the rest of us school her (with more speech!) on precisely why she's an idiot.

I'm reminded of Barbara

This whole case has me thinking "Streisand effect" but in an interesting and subtly different way. It's not the same, but it has the same kind of delicious irony (and I don't mean Alanis irony).

Streisand wanted something private kept private, but by pointing out and making a big deal of the fact that she wanted it private, it had the unintended consequence of having the opposite effect. Everybody then started looking at what it was Barbara wanted to keep so private so strongly. (In this case, it was her house. As you can guess, she wasn't successful in her pursuit of privacy.)

In this case, though, the lady didn't like what came up when she googled her name. Now, as a result of being a lawsuit whore, when you search her name you definitely get some results! And she may not like them even more than before, as now most of them are ridiculing her (rightly so). I'd say the relevancy has definitely increased, so she was successful in fixing the results search engines spat out, but… somehow I doubt she'd see it that way.

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