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Social Studies

Searchin'

By Vincent Williams | Posted 1/31/2007

I had the most interesting conversation with my sister a few weeks ago. It seems that she's never Googled herself. Now, for a young, urbane woman on the go like her, that struck me as a little odd. It was kind of like finding out she doesn't own a cell phone or something. As far as I'm concerned, now that most of us have gotten comfortable in the Information Age, you should always know exactly what type of stuff is floating out there about you--because you can be sure there's something out there for people to look at.

And, often, it doesn't take that much to find out about folks. I try to Google myself at least once every couple of months or so, just to see how much is out there. Yes, it's partially because of my huge ego, but I'm also fascinated about the manner in which a person is documented and just how far that documentation goes. I'll never forget, about six or seven years ago, I got a pretty passionate e-mail from a guy in Finland who disagreed with something I wrote about Tupac a couple of years prior to that. It was just a totally random incident, but it peeped me to how I needed to watch what I put out into the electronic ether. Because you never know.

Just ask Ghyslain Raza. Don't recognize the name? OK, maybe you'll know his more familiar moniker: the Star Wars kid. Just in case you forgot, Raza was the unwilling star of one of the internet's crueler jokes. When he was a young teenager, Raza videotaped himself pretending to fight with a light saber. After the fact, some of his classmates found the tape and found Raza, overweight and awkward in the footage, to be an entertaining spectacle. If they had just showed it to their friends, you could count the incident as yet another example of why it's best to just keep your head down and get out of high school as quickly as possible. However, the classmates uploaded the footage to the net instead. Millions of viewings, a couple of lawsuits, and a period of therapy later, Raza has found himself with a legacy of notoriety that he may never get away from.

The irony of my relating that dark side of the world we now live in is that, for the most part, I got the aforementioned facts from one of the brighter spots: Wikipedia. Although it's frowned upon by "legitimate" journalistic and research institutions, let's be real here: It's a great starting place when you're looking for something. In the above example, I typed "Star Wars kid" into Wikipedia and got enough initial information to lead me to other, more well-documented sources. And, as a clearinghouse for random facts, Wikipedia serves a wonderful purpose. When you add something like Google or YouTube to the conversation, this postmodern resource that we all contribute to is actually pretty awe-inspiring.

In fact, the manner in which the internet has evolved is downright egalitarian in a way that the eponymous "ordinary man's use of technology" novel, William Gibson's 1984 Neuromancer, only hints at. For the first time in history, this type of information gathering and dissemination power is being held by common people, and, as much of a cop-out as it may seem at first glance, I tend to agree with Time's estimation that we were all the Person of the Year in 2006. I would actually extend it to the entire 21st century thus far. All of us are contributing to the concept that Peter Morville calls "ambient findability." Whether it's footage of Stevie Wonder on a 1972 episode of Sesame Street, the track order of Joi's unreleased second album, or the text of Richard Nixon's resignation speech, more of the collected knowledge of humanity is available to us than in any period of history, and we all had a hand in providing it.

Still, for all the Up With People-ness of this thing, I still maintain that a large part of the electronic experience is the potential voyeurism and gradual dissolution of personal space, because a great deal of that collected knowledge is knowledge about you. And I conduct myself accordingly. For instance, while I talk about my family in this column all the time, I never use their names, and I'm particularly careful about details concerning my daughter. It's funny, speaking of Neuromancer and novels that depict future societies, it looks like the granddaddy of all of them, 1984, was right all along: Big Brother is watching. The only difference is that Big Brother isn't some shadowy organization; Big Brother is us.

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