Googling Your Self
What can Google tell us about ourselves?
Posted Feb 08, 2019
In 1786, the Scottish poet Robert Burns wondered: “O wad some Power the giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us!” Transposed into contemporary prose, that would be: “Oh would some Power the gift to give us, to see ourselves as others see us.” Today, we have that power—in the form of Google.
At times, it may seem unproductively self-absorbed to google1 oneself, but it's actually a useful way to see ourselves from an outside perspective.
How often should we self-google? It depends, but probably no more than once a month. If you are job hunting, then by all means, google yourself. You can view an online self that potential employers might see.
Starting the Self Search
Keep in mind that search results depend on several variables, beginning with how you enter your name. Try different elaborations: your full first name, a shortened version of your first name, quotation marks around your entire name, including a middle name or middle initial. Your googled self will change with each iteration, at least a little. For example, if I enter only my first and last name, I inevitably get dozens of listings for the owner of the New England Patriots. (We share a name—but nothing else.) To prevent that, I insert my middle initial.
Depersonalize Your Results
Be aware that Google personalizes your search results, using browser cookies and personal information (if signed in to a Google service) to bring up relevant results. Results are tailored to you, based on your location, your search history, your buying behavior, and your search terms. If you want, you can conduct an advanced search to limit your results, especially to the most recent entries.
One valuable way to reveal a less slanted view of your self is to search in incognito/private mode. With Google Chrome, go to the top right corner, click the three vertical dots, and select “New Incognito Window.” Searching from incognito/private mode starts you off with a blanker slate and gives you more neutral results, similar to what someone else might see. Another approach is to ask a family member or friend to search for you.
If you want to present a different online self, you can work to change it. As with life in person, we cannot control what people say about us or how they interpret what we’ve done, but we can influence it. Remove posts of yours that do not characterize the professional or personal self you want to convey. Add posts that heighten your virtues. Be sure to amend images as well as written information.
Register for a variety of social media, and if possible, set up your own web page.
Note the Negative— But Don’t Dwell
After googling yourself, feel free to click on potentially unpleasant or undesirable results to find out what they are. If it makes sense, delete posts of yours that may have led to these unpleasant results. But limit your pursuit of unpleasant results. In fact, click on them only once. In general, it’s not beneficial to dwell on what a search engine thinks of your faults. More practically, clicking on a negative result only makes that result more prominent to the search engine. (This is analogous to what happens in our own memory system: Retrieval of an unpleasant memory only strengthens the pathway to that memory, making it more likely to be recalled again.) In any case, preoccupation with the critiques of strangers is not helpful. I once spent time considering how my Uber rating went from 5 to 4.76. (Someone didn’t like me. What did I do wrong?)
First Impressions Matter
We know that first impressions are influential and enduring in face-to-face interactions, and the same is true with Google searches. Probably even more so. The first page of search results defines you more strongly than any other page. Endings, however, are a different story. With real-world events, endings leave lasting impressions. But with Google searches, the last pages may never be seen.
Of course, our online selves will differ from our own self-concepts. Even offline, our self changes with mood and events and time of day. Most of us believe in the necessary fiction of a unified self, while also knowing that we consist of different selves. Indeed, the googled self may be surprising. A research article I published decades ago on the psychological effects of camera angle was cited recently to argue against body cameras for police—because different camera angles change the meaning of what we see. Which is accurate. But this extrapolation of my research went against my own beliefs about the use of body cameras in police work. And yet, once our work is accessible to searches, it is open to anyone’s interpretation and re-posting, contributing to our on-line persona.
Searching one’s online self can be healthy and productive, if done in moderation and for good reasons. Mainly, we want to answer this question: What kind of self do we present when someone googles us?
Searching one’s self can also be a proactive process, rather than a passive receiving of the results. We can change or delete posts and images that might be causing problems. Search results are not the final answer to what the world sees when it looks at us online. Google searches also provide questions for finding different answers.
Note 1. "Google" used as a verb is now considered a regular word and is in lower case. The name of the company, Google, is a proper noun and is in upper case.