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Self-googling is the Latest Top Hobby

Suddenly everybody is doing it. Like the latest drug, fashion accessory or social hotspot, looking yourself up on Google is what ‘anybody who is anybody’ is now doing.

At least, anybody who is a celebrity, politician, sports person, journalist, known businessperson, controversialist or criminal. The commonality about people who engage in this habit is eccentricity, love of the spotlight, power seeking or a mixture of all those.

It is being described as a cross between an exhilarating egotistic high at one end of the scale to a masochistic, naval-gazing exercise in hubris and self-punishment at the other.

This hobby is now going under many different names besides self-googling: egosurfing, vanity searching, ego-searching, ego-googling, auto-googling, master-googling and google-bating.

People in the Public Eye

Hollywood actress Reece Witherspoon has done it and has declared it ‘a horrible feeling’. British actor Dominic West admits to regularly searching for himself on Google. More than that he claims to enjoy discussing himself with people, defending himself and using his own name, but ‘nobody ever believes’ him.

Daily Telegraph journalist Bryony Gordon bucked up the courage to do it (29 Feb 2012) and wrote a moving account, saying that if she’d stopped at the first ten pages, all would have been well. But as the results pages went on, it got more obscure, further back into her past, more tenuous links and potentially more dangerous.

Many employers routinely search applicants’ backgrounds on Google, as do, increasingly, border controls, immigration departments and inquisitive neighbours. All well and good in an age of the open internet and surfeit of data about people, but things from the past (often no longer relevant) can come back to haunt.

Confusions can easily arise between people of the same or similar names, some being more common than others. Innocent people may share names with criminals or porn stars and confusions can arise that are embarrassing, if not downright wrong.

Cashing in on Others’ Vanity

There is a case of one Alec Brownstein which may or may not be true (but it comes up on Google). He was a humble US copywriter who realised he was going nowhere.

He also knew that his favourite creative directors in the business who he would like to impress, were feverishly self-googling several times a day every day. So he bought their names from GoogleAdWords for 15 cents per click. That meant that whenever they auto-googled, Brownstein’s ad popped up on their results.

It read: ‘Hey (name), googling yourself is a lot of fun. Hiring me is a lot of fun, too’ and there was a link to his site. He reckoned it worked and all but one of ‘his targets’ called him back to use his business.

So vanity could get you somewhere, playing on the vanity of others. Equally importantly, monitoring what others are saying about your business is a justified and often worthwhile activity, provided it doesn’t become obsessive. If you can adapt to criticism and use it, you’ll be quids in. Most advisers recommend subscribing to your own RSS feed as a first step. Signing in to Google Alerts can also assist.

Is the Past Best Forgotten?

The old adage that ‘we learn from history that we don’t learn from history’ is not only true, but also a good reason to teach past lessons and retain certain memories and artifacts from the past, in order to inform the present and prepare for the future.

However, digitalisation has altered that whole concept. Now everything is stored somewhere by somebody. In George Orwell’s chilling novel of Big Brother, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948), the state controls all: ‘He who controls the past, controls the present. He who controls the present, controls the future’.

A book called Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age (2009) was published by Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger, Oxford Internet Institute’s Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation. He argued that all the personal information now available at a click is not good. He said our digital footprints, like memories should be permitted to gradually fade away.

We’re in an age of perfect remembering; indeed, digital technology will not ever forget anything. Every search ever made, every comment posted, every photo shared is the downside of the empowerment that digital has given the world. Mayer-Schoenberger wrote about the ‘important role that forgetting has played throughout human history, from the ability to make sound decisions unencumbered by the past to the possibility of second chances’.

He traced how the evolution of the written word enabled humanity to ‘remember across generations and time, yet now digital technology and global networks are overriding our natural ability to forget’. Now the past is ever present. His solution is simple, effective and probably impossible: expiry dates on all data.

Historians, social scientists and many people at certain moments in their lives may disagree with that, but the fact is history may view strangely a generation who thought that every single detail of their lives and thoughts should be preserved for eternity.

Of course, all this worry about ego-googling only applies if you are known enough to be on the Google radar in any case. If you’re a nobody, then you can now claim to be suffering from Non-Google Discrimination Syndrome (NGDS), or inferiority complex, if you prefer.

Just hang on. There’ll be a support group, an advice line, specialised counselling, self-googling addiction program along to help you any minute now.

Image: Google product logos