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Searching for Jeeves Atop a High Google Mountain

When a friend gifted me with my own domain name this summer, it felt like he had handed me the keys to a new car. was a URL I could share with contacts; it would be one of the first addresses an acquaintance might type when searching to see if I had a website. In that way, it was a vehicle for controlling my online identity, a tool to help me navigate the information swamp the web has become by preventing confusion with other “Nikki Leon”s. What’s more, it was mine — my friend’s purchasing the domain meant it would not fall into the hands of the porn industry, overseas phishers, or the other Nikki Leons of the world. I imagined that just as the Internet seems to have only one Barack Obama or Seth Godin, I was on my way to someday being the Nikki Leon ordained by Google.

Wishful thinking. I know, of course, that Google doesn’t always care if you buy your own domain name. If you search for Nikki Leon as of today, the “real” me is in the third hit, a Digital Natives Project blog post. My personal blog, to which currently forwards, doesn’t come until halfway down the page. The Nikki Leon favored by Google, it seems, is a twenty-one-year-old Go-Go dancer from Palmdale California whose MySpace profile features pink leopard print and whose latest blog entry is entitled “If He Really Wants You…”

I’m actually not too troubled by this (seems she was meant for the spotlight more than I). It’s better than having the first hit for your name be a Gawker article about the real you, claiming that you “Used to Smoke Opiate of Masses.” This was unfortunately the case for a freshman at Princeton University this year. The student posted a long message to the “Princeton 2012” Facebook group that featured such choice phrases as “we are the 0.0000001% of the world,” and “We are the anti-Christs to save the world from the mercy of God, the self-pity that festers within the masses.” Having read the full post, I’d like to think it was a well-intended, if unsuccessful, satire of the “getting to know you” messages some freshmen write in their class groups (as an undergrad I’ve seen this first hand). Gawker didn’t much care whether or not the post was serious or no. Instead, Gawker bloggers mocked the student and circulated information about her high school and career aspirations, along with a picture of her from her high school website.

On the subject of controlling one’s identity online, a recent New York Times article aptly stated: “If you don’t dive in, other people will define who you are.” That is, if you fail to update your website or social networking profile with current, relevant information, the data others provide about you or themselves will crowd out your own. Diana Kimball wrote a very informative post last February about how to take hold of one’s digital identity. There is of course, a limit to how much the average user can control, and the more of an online presence a young person has, the more information they give others to take out of context, as with the Gawker scenario described above. Viewed in this light, the digital age looks a little grimmer, despite all its possibilities. The freedom to define yourself online is also a burden. With visibility comes vulnerability, and controlling your image becomes a matter of preserving your personhood.

The need to craft an online identity seems, at times, an existential issue, albeit more in the vein of Ask Jeeves than Sartre. Who is Nikki Leon? Google has its answer, though it’s not the one I’d give. So how does one go about maintaining a digital self without getting lost in the shuffle or falling prey to Gawker types? For my part, I’ll continue strengthening my ties to websites and bloggers, getting people to link to my URL, and doing the only other thing I can: praying to the internet gods.

Nikki Leon

(In the spirit of this post, no links to the Gawker article. Their Google rankings are high enough. Cross-posted from my blog.)