Internet As Octopus Cuisinart: The Logic Of Sanitizing For Vanity Searches

(Updated 2/15/09)

Well, here’s one for you. I just got the following message from a high school classmate on Facebook:

Hey Jill,
Hope all is well. I am starting a new job and they have asked my to try to clear up all of my internet references…once of which is on your site, the dancing sausages sidedish? Would you mind deleting the reference to me and updating the server info? I would really appreciate it. It is crazy how searchable one’s personal information has become in this day in age![…]
Take care and thanks,
Gia

The reference she’s referring to was in a comment posted by my friend Robert Durff. The original blog post was about a minor redesign I undertook on the site; the comment Robert posted was written in traditional Robert style — in other words, in a fit of complete, Monty-Python-esque absurdity:

The blog looks great on my humble orange iBook running OSX at 800×600 and Internet Explorer 5.2: large, flower-like rotating objects, pulsating vortexes of psychedelic color, and nonsensical text dominate the main column, while the right-hand column is plastered with doctored pictures of Gia [last name redacted]. I think it’s a serious aesthetic improvement over your last version.

Gia is a lawyer for the US g0vernment now; Robert works at Microsoft, not that it really matters to this story (except that he’s not actually a stoned Timothy Leary Scholar, as I joked in my subsequent comment; also, he might get fired for professing to own an iBook); and, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University, studying Internet literacy practices.

I’m… well, I’m bemused. My first thought was “Gee, there’s really little enough information about you online that some completely nonsensical comment by a high school classmate shows up in the second page of your Google results? Time to develop more of an Internet presence!”

I could delete the reference; it’s my blog, I’ve got admin privileges. Though hunting down and deleting the comment where it’s hosted on my old server — which is still live, and actually what’s showing up on Google now — will be significantly harder than deleting it from this hosting, seeing as the back-end was mangled by gigs of comment spam.

Of course, I didn’t write anything about Gia to begin with; Robert did. I’ve written him to ask if he’s ok with me taking the comment down.

But wait — it’s my server, and my blog. When you go about cleaning up your online reputation for your grown-up lawyerly job, don’t you usually stick to the things you posted yourself? If this comment was a serious critique of Gia as an employee (which it’s not), would I be obliged to take it down?  (Gia and I cycled between being cordial, indifferent, and mildly antagonistic in school, for the usual schoolkid reasons.) Would her employers want her to be sanitizing her web reputation in that case?

I guess that there’s always a hypothetical situation in which a friend, not you yourself, posted a compromising photo, and you might ask them to take it down. But this isn’t a compromising photo, or even a compromising anecdote. In fact, it’s not even Gia’s “personal information.” It’s not a reference to Gia, Lawyer In The Concrete Real World. It’s Gia, Platonic Ideal Of Our Former Classmate, Used Humorously and With Little Genuine Semantic Value, In The Same Way One Might Use The Words “An Octopus Cuisinart.”

I’m reminded of the time I was trying to write an article about Sesame Street and feminism for Bitch Magazine. I tried to get interviews with the original show creators through Sesame’s PR department, but the PR gatekeeper slammed an iron door in my face. Not a chance, he said. When I asked why not, he said “we don’t even want the words ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘Bitch’ uttered in the same sentence.”

Ignoring the irony in what he’d just said, I ran to Google. It turned up over 6,000 hits for the string “sesame street bitch.” (And I’ve just added one more.) Of course, his real objection was more political than linguistic, so he wouldn’t budge.

Most of what you’d turn up for “sesame street bitch” is probably pretty awful. Gia is luckier, in that her name is so unique (more so even than my own) that it doesn’t tend to show up on those bottom-feeding link-propagation blogs which go on about male bedroom concerns and blushing body parts in public view. The fact of the matter is that on the Internet, there will always be crap including your name which is horrible and has absolutely nothing to do with you. My site shows up in the second page of Gia’s results. If most information science research is correct, and people looking for her are acting like ordinary searchers, it’s highly unlikely that they will even get to that second page of results.

I’d hope that anyone interacting with lawyers would be clever enough to look at a comment like Robert’s and write it off as nonsense with no bearing on Gia’s ability to practice law. But I know one of my academic colleagues erased all traces of his blog when he began his professorship search. People are scared to the point of making themselves not exist publically on the Internet, which doesn’t seem right. And many people who make decisions about others’ careers don’t seem to understand the Internet as well as they should. Does their cautiousness mean I should delete old jokes from my personal website?

I think of my dissertation corpus; the odds of searchers understanding seem slim. The Internet so thoroughly unmoors language from context that a Pandora’s Box of interpretations is opened up to the reader.

Anyway. What would you do in this case, guys? I say se hace el camino para andar — by writing this piece with so many more mentions of Gia [last name redacted]’s name, I should have knocked the Google rank of the original comment page down far enough in “Gia [last name redacted]”‘s rankings that anyone looking for her should find this explanation of that comment first :D You can help by linking to this article using Gia’s name! NO I AM JUST KIDDING PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON’T DO THAT if you have any sense of what the wrath of the internet can wreak.

Ironically, I’ve also created the only hit on the Internet for “gia [last name redacted] bitch,” which is not at all the sentiment behind my posting of this essay — like I said, I’m much more bemused than anything else — and that result should give you a sense of exactly how little you should trust search engines to find you meaningful information.

(Yes, I do fully expect to have to take this post down within a week.)

UPDATE:

I’ve received a comment on this post which makes salacious claims about my nether regions, naming me personally (which is how I know it’s not spam, though with the language used I’m surprised Akismet didn’t treat it as such). The IP address is 75.47.188.161; I haven’t figured out who that is (I’m kind of thick about using WhoIs, but I think it’s telling me it’s someone using AT&T service; big help there) but as long as we’re drawing ridculous conclusions from the Internet, I’m going to guess it was my mom. She’s made more comments on my stuff today than anyone else.

I’m assuming the comment was made to test my resolve about leaving up comments which might have an impact on someone’s public image? Possibly to catch me out if I refuse to post the comment, yet leave the comment about Gia up? I’m bummed. I was kind of hoping for intelligent discussion about this, not ad-hominem attacks on my crotch.

I was mulling the post over further while working out, trying to think what the potential interpretations of what gets said about Gia in the original comment would be that she or her employers might be worried about. I can think of two. First, the implication could be that Gia is somehow associated with psychedelic drugs. That would be a strange reading. The comment only indicates that Gia’s altered picture appears next to some really unpleasant-sounding design choices. It’s a stretch to say that photomanipulation and bad design are 100% correlated with drug use. Not to mention that anyone simply looking at the page could confirm that none of these visuals are actually happening there. This implication has to revert to an absurdist reading.

Second, the implication could be that Gia is simply associated with weird people. Gia apparently knows someone who speaks as if he’s seeing her picture on a page where it doesn’t appear, alongside what sound like hallucinations. And in a subsequent comment, someone alleges that the hallucinating commenter is related to Timothy Leary, experimentation, getting stoned, and worse yet, yogic flying. This reading is easy to disprove. A quick search for “University of Experimentation and Yogic Flying” on Google shows that this is the only page which includes that phrase. Hence, the subsequent comment indicates that the comment mentioning Gia is a joke. The implication reverts to humor.

I kind of think the latter is probably why someone would feel compelled to sanitize such a comment off the Internet, in order to appear free of weirdo associations in the eyes of one’s colleagues. Part of why I’m bemused, then, is that Gia knows that I’ve never been interested in helping anyone conform to standards of social blandness.

And it’s not my job to purge the Internet of the kinds of free association it makes possible. Gia, it’s not your job either; we’ve just got to sit back and get used to it. We couldn’t if we tried. That horse is way, way out of the barn, and nobody knows that better than Bert from Sesame Street.

That said, it is my job to keep crap off my blog. My rule of thumb for that is usually keeping the funny and mind-boggling (even when it’s completely out of line or abusive to me) and ditching the unnecessarily sexually explicit (which tends to beget more of the same, which probably isn’t good for PageRank and definitely isn’t good for my server hosts).

And it’s probably my obligation to be nice to childhood classmates when it comes to trivial issues, and I’m still considering that. I’m just trying to balance it with my calling, which involves trying to educate people about how the Internet does and doesn’t work.

SECOND UPDATE (2/15/09):

So, Gia called me while I was eating breakfast the morning after I posted this article. (Flattering, I guess she’s reading my blog!/irony) She sounded harassed, and told me her husband had had to convince her to sleep on getting in touch with me.

She told me that ultimately, the reason for sanitizing her web presence was not, in fact, because of her peers. It was because as a government pr0secut0r, she regularly has to deal with wackos looking up her personal information, calling her with death threats and other unpleasantries. And ostensibly the reason her employer is asking her to clean the Internet up is to lessen the impact of these kinds of encounters.

Still not a compelling argument for taking down the comment. You can’t, you can’t, you CAN’T keep wackos off the Internet. You CAN get restraining orders, though unfortunately not until you know there’s a threat, right? Regardless, an offhand comment referring to Gia as a Platonic classmate stand-in is far less important to get off the Internet in a case like this than, say, her phone number or email address.

But ultimately I knuckled and told her I’d obscure the references to her (as I already have). I had to explain that wasn’t going to be as easy as it might seem. Not only would it take a while for Google to refresh its data about the page (and I was surprised to find THIS post had already made it into Google’s database; they’re updating a lot quicker than the last time I checked, but not quick enough to remove the original version with her last name in it!), but I was also going to need to take that original comment out of the old version of my blog. Which, because of the problems I had with spam crippling my install of MovableType, would definitely take a while, and possibly a distributed Amazon server again. More likely, I’ll just bury the old version of the blog, which I really ought to do anyway. It’ll just take a while.

Gia just sighed when I told her this, and said, “Well, it sounds like you understand all this a lot better than I do.”

Gia, I wish you’d spend a little time to understand it better. We all live on the Internet now. It behooves us all to learn about it: how it knows and doesn’t know who we are, how it publishes and searches and shares, how it stores and how it hides things.

When I graduate, I’ll write a book which hopefully will put all the important stuff in one place, in simple language, so it won’t take a lot of research to learn.

Comments 3

  1. Roger wrote:

    (1) It was a pretty crappy blog anyway, and hadn’t been updated for a year by the time I took it down. But, good point, and considering my results so far, being blogless certainly doesn’t seem to have helped.

    (2) This urge to “clear up” one’s “Internet references” (what on earth does either of those phrases even mean?) is a very interesting outgrowth of the Obamite fixation on a 100% sanitized public image, which values the public appearance of honesty far more than it values honesty itself. The idea that someone could or should control the context of every mention of their name is patently nuts to the Web-literate but presumably not yet to everyone in the world. But it’s obviously still your choice what to do; if anything more than courtesy required web sites to remove non-glowing references to personal names, RateMyProfessor wouldn’t last a day. You seem to have found a workable compromise between self-censorship and undue rudeness here already.

    (3) There’s also something to be said for anonymity, or not-easy identifiability, being the default for personal and non-work-related Web stuff. I think places like MetaFilter (and a lot of personal blogs, including this one) have struck a good balance between total, ironclad anon/pseudonymity and constant real-name searchability by mostly using pseudonyms, first names, and nicknames without disclosure of full identities unless expressly desired.

    (4) If it’s an attack on _your_ crotch, is it not, presumably, ad _feminam_? (Yes, I know Wikipedia’s even-more-pedantic-than-usual article says that that’s bad Latin because “homo” is gender-neutral — but crotches are never gender-neutral.)

    Posted 10 Feb 2009 at 4:41 pm
  2. Roger wrote:

    I was, of course, prompted by this to do some more Googling of my own full name. Discovered that it appears on what appears to be a Finnish Heath Ledger fan site. Cannot begin to conjecture why.

    Posted 10 Feb 2009 at 4:56 pm
  3. admin wrote:

    2) Going to update the story shortly for some further details on why she was doing this. “You seem to have found a workable compromise between self-censorship and undue rudeness here already” is totally my quote of the day now.

    4) Cmon now. There are gender-neutral crotches out there. Or at least gender-vague or gender-irregular.

    5) I have friends who speak Finnish! We can figure this out!

    Posted 15 Feb 2009 at 5:09 pm

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