What prompted this rambling post is that I made a Prince-themed picture for a Facebook friend. I made some graphics and ended up with something unusual and personal, as she was a major Prince fan. I used a high school yearbook photo of my friend that she didn’t even own. It is true that I had to use hop-scotch and logic to surmise her maiden name and geography, but I’ve done this so long that it was overwhelmingly obvious that the picture was indeed her when I encountered it. When I did an ancestry.com search, even though my Facebook friend is still alive, the amount and breadth of information was staggering. (PS: The more unusual your name is, the greater the likelihood that you can be found with much more speed and volume of information.)
I often forget that not everyone understands the sheer magnitude of the internet. There is nothing it fails to touch. Regardless of the number of posts I write above privacy and data volume, I routinely surprise someone with pictures of their junior high year book, their birth date, relatives they never knew they had, secret marriages and divorces divulged, or comments they wrote 15 years ago on a “We Love Axes” message board.
I’ve had situations where people assume I am stalking them or somehow have done something untoward to access information or pictures of them. While I don’t condone stalking, I hate to admit that I am still shocked at this reaction. Stalking requires effort and dedication to match the twisted mind of the person motivated enough to actually stalk another person.(My Facebook friend didn’t believe I was stalking her, to be clear, but she was definitely surprised…)
Since I live among normal human beings, I go back and read a reminder I wrote to myself in an old blog. The reminder tells me to pretend that the person in question just started out on the internet – and therefore is honestly surprised. Even when someone is a writer, actor or lawyer in real life, they are still prone to misunderstanding the reach of the internet in their lives. Once I can imagine the person involved honestly feeling exposed to it for the first time, I am once again sympathetic and feel uneasy at being the one to show them. It’s not my intention to ‘out’ them to the internet or make them feel violated.
The internet is exactly like a room full of stacked and folded newspapers. You might need a year to go through them to find your name, but it is a certainty that your life is described somewhere in those papers. Over time, someone reads, indexes, and scans all those papers, page by page, thousands and millions of them. And so, your life gets increasingly searchable. You don’t get to vote on whether it happens, or even to what extent.
We sit in a seemingly infinite pool of data. It’s an inhospitable place if you want to feel like you live a protected and quiet life.