Identity and findability on the web—some personal-historical notes

A little meditation on how it has changed for me to be a person on the web.

The hazy '90s

In 1996, when I was in 6th grade, the school offered a summer class on making websites. I learned HTML 2 and made an animated GIF of my name to grace the header of a personal web page. CSS and JS were not quite in the picture yet. We learned how to search the web (Altavista, Dogpile, Metacrawler, and Yahoo!) and visited a few corporate websites by guessing domain names.

Back in those days, I don't recall having a sense of what it would mean to have an identity on the web. Corporations had a web presence, and that was novel enough; I don't believe individuals having personal "home pages" was on my radar, although surely the folks who had been busy on Usenet and BBSes must have taken to it quickly.

The forthright '00s

By the mid Oughts, the notion of web identity was well-established. I had a domain name (this one, and an email address at that domain. With OpenID, I capitalized on that on sites across the web. If I commented on someone's blog, I could sign in with my *domain name* as an identity, and choose an email and a 'nym to use for the comment's attribution. Of course, I used my wallet name (that's "real name" for those of you for whom such things are uncomplicated). I liked that if you searched for my name, you found my blog, or my Wikipedia contributions, or my photos on Flickr or Zooomr or other sites. Where I didn't use my wallet name, I used "phyzome" as my handle. It was a made-up word that was guaranteed to be available on any service I wanted to sign up for. If you saw "phyzome", you knew it was me. My avatar was always the same as well.

People were starting to realize that information about them was being disseminated without their control, and on a global scale. There was some anxiety over control of image; a few attempted to remove the information, which didn't really work. I had control over what people saw simply by flooding the search results for my name with things I *wanted* to be associated with my name. I was findable, I had a strong web identity, I controlled the presentation of information about myself. It worked pretty well.

But even then, I wasn't thinking about professionalism. My domain name was a bit silly, maybe a little pretentious, but that was fine because only my friends were reading my blog. Employers weren't much looking to the internet to research candidates in the early Oughts, at least that I was aware of, so I used my blog mostly as a public journal. Sometimes I'd write about ideas I had, but I'd also post about travel, or about sickness, or responses to things other people had blogged about. (Pingbacks would ensure that they knew I had mentioned them, and thus the conversation continued.) So while I was ensuring that people saw what I wanted them to see, my wants were not forward-looking. I hadn't yet understood the sometimes-permanence of information on the web. So some of the things I posted about are mildly embarrassing to me now, both on the blog and on other social media.

As a nod towards web presence being increasingly assessed by employers, I started using "timmc" as a handle on new sites. Bland, but fairly uncommon, and easily searchable. I registered and considered moving to that as my main identity site.

The shitty '10s

Today, in the mid Tens, it is very clear that findability is often not desirable. The professional world has of course deeply invaded the web; bored people with ill intentions can easily use search tools to find the home address, photo, and phone numbers of targets for anything from mild to fatal harassment; surveillance outfits (commercial or governmental) suck down vast quantities of information in order to profile us and identify behaviors or actions of interest; mobs can form quickly and haul hapless individuals into the media spotlight for a few out of context sentences spoken between friends.

I find myself moving more to pseudonyms; posting behind walls; choosing my words more carefully. I can no longer post idle thoughts to this blog—I feel like each post must stand as a defensible thesis. I no longer journal here. "Blog" meant "web log", a casual sequence of idle thoughts and found links and the trivia of the day, but now it often means articles written for a professional audience. My web log, such as it was, moved to Livejournal. (Livejournal is now effectively dead, so I'm on Dreamwidth instead.) I recently created an account on Mastodon, and decided to use a brand new username. I'm not mentioning it here. It's not secret, it's just nice to have a little (illusion of) privacy sometimes.

What next?

What will it look like in my daughter's time? Will people even have personal websites, beyond professional portfolios? Will people find reason to seek findability and linkability again, or will they use unique usernames per site along with their (I wish) unique passwords? Maybe I'll encourage her to use a new pseudonym every few years as she grows up on the web, as I'm considering doing. I wonder if I will find myself even writing a blog anymore, or instead post all my thoughts and have all my conversations behind closed doors.

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