rhizomes.06 spring 2003

My Google-ography: An Anecdotal Survey of New Challenges and Opportunities
in Subjectivity and Form
David Seiter

[1] Before we get to the meat of this thing, let me tell you how I came to think about it. I took a girl I'd recently come to spend time with to the neighborhood hangout. We went in, found a place to sit at the back, and then I went back up front to get drinks. While I waited, I overheard the bartender tease a girl about her old-fashioned plaid woolen frock, implying that she should have worn something less frumpy and more sexy. He knew her and thought he could get a way with it but she wasn't pleased. I took my drinks and headed back. Second round, I went back to the bar and sidled up near the girl in plaid.

"I love that dress," I said, and I meant it.

Her mouth gaped open. "Did you hear what he said?" she shouted at the bartender, and then turned to me. "And I love your mohawk."

[2] We continued chatting for a bit, exchanging names and more compliments. Under the pretext of being new to the neighborhood I asked if she frequented the establishment. She did. I told her I hoped to see her again. She hoped the same. She was cute but talking to her was unusually effortless because I had eavesdropped on her conversation and used the knowledge I'd gained to my advantage. Satisfied at my sneaky success, I collected my drinks and headed back to my girlfriend. When I sat down she asked me, "Do you like the word 'kidney'?"

"Why would you ask me such a thing?" I said.

"Because you used it in two stories."

"I did? How would you know?"

"I googled you," she said, barely containing a mischievous smile.

[3] Among the many things the Internet has given us is a new verb-google-a neologism canonized even by Wired, the authority in tech-pop culture. Google the noun is the preferred search engine by those in the know. At least 28 million visitors spend 15 million hours on the site each month to access its index of three billion websites. Nearly four out of five Internet searches happen on Google or on sites that license its technology. As a result, the name 'Google' has become a generic, like Kleenex or Band-Aid, except that it's used not as a noun to mean any search engine but as a verb that means to search the Internet. To google someone is to type their name in the input box at www.google.com, hit enter, and revel in the slightly transgressive deliciousness it returns. Innocent work diversion or insidious new vehicle for espionage? Put yourself on the receiving end (i.e. my shoes); I'd been spied on.

[4] I thought quickly. Kidney. Yes, come to think of it, I did like that word. It's a nice word. I had just learned that about myself and for that I was grateful. I would have never noticed otherwise. But I was suddenly nervous, and out loud I said, "You did what? What did you find?" I couldn't remember what stories of mine published online had the word 'kidney' in them but I was more concerned about what else the web might have revealed about me. Not that I expected anything especially damning but I, like most people, dole out information about myself when and how it seems most advantageous to me.

[5] I was frightened in the way you are when someone tells you they ran into an old acquaintance of yours. You run through your head: did that person like me? did we leave on good terms? does he or she know embarrassing or incriminating things about me? what would he or she say?

[6] I was also a little indignant. That's sneaky, I thought. At the bar, I was physically present. I could have been detected. I took a risk. But the Google spy is remote, anonymous, virtually undetectable. Villainous.

[7] And, to tell you the truth, I was flattered. I was worthy of being googled! And it could work to my advantage because she was finding things about me that otherwise would have required me to boast. Arrogance is unbecoming and braggarts are not tolerated for long, I knew. How boorish of me to impress upon her my publications. If I were to hand her a stack of bound volumes and say "Here, these are my stories," she'd resent me for that moment in which she had to muster at least a feigning of interest. But here she'd gone and dug them up herself and I could pursue as if simply curious about the archeology involved: "What stories?"

"Oh, I don't know," she said.

Disappointing. "Did one have a black background?" I prompted.

"I think so...yes...because that was the one I couldn't print out."

"You printed them out?" I was shocked and pleased beyond measure.

[8] It didn't take too much poking about like this to discover that she'd come across "Par Excellence" published in 5-Trope and "Ice Trucking" published in Diagram. The first contains the sentence "The women come together in kidney-shaped corners of shade." and the second contains the sentence "Kidney-shaped swimming pools in La Jolla threaded by deliberately, falsely, meandering sidewalk." Apparently, it's not just the word 'kidney' but the compound adjective 'kidney-shaped' that I favor. This was another revelation to me.

A New Form

[9] The two fictions that my girlfriend found are two chapters of a new form -- a mongrel, adaptive, electronic form -- that is comprised of the result set of a Google search. The form is a uniquely contextualized representation of an individual, but because it is written partly by that individual and partly by other entities and factors, it is neither fully biography nor autobiography. Even the more biographical aspect of the form is a hybrid of the authorized/official and unauthorized/unofficial. So what is it? A web-ography? A search-ography? An inter-ography? Perhaps 'inter-ography' is useful for its appropriately transactional and reciprocal implications. But Google, as the de facto player in search engine auto/biographies, is already entrenched as a generic, and usage is in the hands of the people not the linguists. So, though Google may not always hold the position it does currently, what we have now are Google-ographies.

[10] Let me pause at this juncture to alleviate any immediate concerns with my enterprise here. Am I making a mistake by taxonomizing the fruits of a mere research tool (albeit a powerful one) as an end product? The difference between process and product is only in the user's intention and, in this case, the fact that with a Google-ography the collation and organization is already done for you. In that sense, the Google-ography is already an end product. You will not reorganize your findings, embellish them with your own insights, opinions, and speculation, and write or otherwise present them again to others. But while you may use the results to your advantage, you may not use them to prove yourself to the world, convince others of your conclusions, nor accomplish something any other monkey with access to the Internet could do. Nevertheless, I'm going to pull a Duchamp and propose the Google-ography as a new kind of ready-made temporally granular biography, a record of one's operative activity in an increasingly public social structure.

[11] Even if one does accept the somewhat outlandish suggestion that the Google-ography is its own form, is that a useful distinction? Perhaps not. What is useful in describing the genus (and structuring the description in an annotated example of what is being described) is discovering the new directions in which it points us. Formal frontiers are being explored in contemporary poetics and while the old forms feel spent many of the new forms feel facile and already tired. Moreover, as regular people become increasingly public entities, the Google-ography highlights issues in our shifting notion of identity. Whatever the formal value in a set of search results, the searching for who we are and how that is represented in this digital age is significant.

Electronic Self-Assertion

[13] The online utopia has been sufficiently disproved already but allow me to flog a dead horse for a moment. The web is not a Walden Pond where one can go to live deliberately and in solitude. People have only limited control over what of themselves exists in that space and how available that existence is to their cohabitants.

[14] Never mind the myriad ways in which companies spy on consumers through the Internet. Privacy issues surrounding the gathering of usage statistics and other data through the use of cookies and applications that send info back to the mother ship have received much debate in public arenas. Frankly, the whole thing is boring at best; I don't really care whether or not corporations know what I do on the web. Since googling has become the en vogue method of light-duty surveillance, I'm much more concerned about the information and misinformation my associates have at their disposal.

[15] The web keeps a record of us that can perform identification functions that range from the utilitarian (proof, portfolio, resume, repository) to the nostalgic (scrapbook, memorabilia box). In this regard, the web has made great strides toward popularizing biographical data. Not everyone gets an hour on A&E, but anyone can be googled. Whether or not it returns anything of interest (or anything at all -- because even that is telling), it's perfectly egalitarian.

[16] People sensed this unprecedented accessibility from the beginning and took it as the cheap broadcasting opportunity that it was. It's interesting that individuals' first impulse when faced with the decision of what to do with the web was to make "home" pages -- useless proclamations of selfhood that include lists of likes and dislikes, hobbies, pets, and links to other equally useless pages that they endorsed. The allure was ubiquity. Once you stake out a corner of cyberspace and clutter it up with personal manifestos and advertisements, almost anybody anywhere -- even people you never knew existed -- can know of your existence.

[17] That craze hasn't subsided, but it has shifted shape and taken on weight. These days everyone with an inflated ego and a cable modem has a web log, or "blog," with which to enshrine and celebrate their quotidian existences through periodic anecdote and free-form rumination. Granted, some blog authors can be compelling. At least, more often than not, a posting with some human substance is more interesting than a list of favorite TV shows and links. More important than its relative ability to amuse or enlighten, however, is the blog's place in the taxonomy of forms. Somewhere between diary and autobiography, blogs attempt to craft the personal for public consumption, presenting exactly the face the author wants to the world in the most deliberate and convenient way, and thus they lose the titillation of espionage provided by a found diary and the cohesive reflection (or, 20/20 hindsight) and larger-picture relevance that an autobiography offers.

[18] The web affords a myriad of other more minor ways to assert ourselves. Amazon.com, for example, builds a loyal customer base by allowing customers to feel like they're a part of the product by providing user reviews and comments, creating lists and writing guides for other customers to read, offering advice to other customers, etc. Brick and mortar businesses may have their own tactile, spatial, and utilitarian charms, but they don't have the kind of helpful and expressive community that comes from people trying to be somebody in an ever-widening sea of souls. Whether commercially or non-commercially, the personal touches work. Not only do they serve as antidote to the impersonal absence of dirty bills changing fleshy hands, they allow folks to insert themselves into other folks' transactions. The web will always be an easy, endless, and widely available avenue to mark territory, establish identity, express ourselves, and even fabricate our social networks. The point is, we offer ourselves up for surveillance.

From Rogue to En Vogue

[19] One of the Internet's first big thrills (well, for some, at least) was the easy, anonymous ability to watch Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson having sex. The tape was procured ostensibly against the will of either and distributed to record numbers by sidestepping the geographical limitations and potential embarrassment of traditional distribution channels (i.e. the local porn shop) and there was no residual object to hide under the mattress or bury in the morning trash. Whether or not the leaking of that tape to web viewers was a publicity stunt, the public's own less-lascivious leakings are a kind of publicity stunt. And while the scandals come and go, the daily postings by and about The Average continue. Television's proliferation of so-called reality shows prove that where once we were titillated to see the stars in their private lives, we are now more interested in seeing each other. Tally the number of The Osbournes and Anna Nicole Smiths and compare that to the Joe Millionaires and Survivors. On the web more than any other medium, we buy viewing privileges with our complicity.

[20] The web has its own rules, and a strong you-show-me-yours-and-I'll-show-you-mine ethos has long been at the root of them. Before peer-to-peer swapping became popular with the likes of Napster, there were (and still are) servers, operated by anybody with a machine and a little know-how, that allowed users to download expensive software, music, videos and other contraband for free. The catch was that you had to upload something of value in order to get permission to the download area. Napster and its successors took that concept a step further by connecting people directly to each other. Peer-to-peer computing, as it's called, allows users to get free MP3 music files by putting their own MP3s up for grabs.

[21] A more implicit version of that agreement has allowed the Google-ography to become the phenomenon it is. We understand that we will inevitably find ourselves represented on a web page somewhere and agree to that condition in exchange for access to information about others. To see the world, we must allow the world to see us. Google is not only the du jour method of looking into our neighbors' bedrooms but also the method with which we throw back our own curtains. But Google is not peer-to-peer computing and so the exchange is not unmediated.


[22] The wondrously gawky sound of the word 'google' not only provides cover for its potentially insidious, invasive use but it also belies the company's world-domination-esque ambitions. The word 'googol' is the number 10 raised to the power 100, or the numeral 1 followed by 100 zeros. The term came from the mathematician Edward Kasner's nine-year-old nephew. Only a child could come up with something so playfully innocent. It's brilliant, obfuscating branding.

[23] The spelling the search engine uses comes from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams: "'And are you not,' said Fook, leaning anxiously forward, 'a greater analyst than the Googleplex Star Thinker in the Seventh Galaxy of Light and Ingenuity which can calculate the trajectory of every single dust particle throughout a five-week Dangrabad Beta sand blizzard?'" The ability to search over three billion web pages and prioritize potentially several millions of results in under a second is not too unlike calculating the trajectory of every particle in a five-week sand blizzard. It's a bit mind-boggling.

[24] Google began with a desire to not only rule the search engine world but to rule it righteously -- a utilitarian strategy as their righteousness was a major factor in Google's nascent hegemony. Google became the de facto search engine by deciding to be good to users and not being -- as their founders still put it -- "evil." Not being evil includes avoiding the sin of spawning pop-up ads and the sin of selling slots in the search results as do other search engines. Google bills its method of ranking pages according to the number and quality of links to it as "uniquely democratic," and the people-over-e-commerce high road has been appealing to users who have felt respected and have responded by staying loyal.

[25] That, in turn, has exposed Google to interests with which it never thought it would have to compete. The Church of Scientology's lawyers, in a huff over anti-Scientology sites, went after the larger, slower-moving target and managed to get Google to remove links to those sites. Even China has successfully battled the company over content it deemed threatening -- heady stuff for what one assumes (and what Google itself claims) is a mere conduit of information. But Google was never a pure conduit. Internal policy keeps Google from selling ad-space for cigarettes and alcohol (evil) but not pornography (not evil). That's problematic enough, but as soon as special interests start mucking about in the index and Google continues, however reluctantly, to fold under their demands, the conduit becomes increasing politicized and commoditized. With so much at stake, everybody's trying to get a say in what is evil and what is not, and that affects the content you receive and the content of your identity as it's manifest on the web.

[26] An October 2002 statement of issues and call for data in the Harvard Law journal stated that the authors had counted in their preliminary fact finding some 113 sites which were excluded from the French and German versions of Google due to governmental, NGO and private pressures over sensitive and illegal material, specifically white supremist sites or the auctioning of Nazi memorabilia. Based on that alone, one's Google-ography at any given point in time may be unabridged in the U.S. and a Reader's Digest condensed version in Germany (especially if he or she is a Neo-Nazi). Now we have concurrent Google-ographies based on the location of the reader, not the subject. The closer you look, the more the Google-ography comes into its own formally.

[27] Google's cache (its storage of once-indexed but no longer existing pages) adds another layer of complexity. Information considered out-of-date by its principal stake owners may subject Google to suits over libel, defamation, or copyright infringement. Consider too the tensions between readers/searchers and individual authors with more creative aims. Cached pages defy the will of their creator who has removed or allowed those pages to be removed for a reason. But Google-eers may cherish the cache as a sort of uniquely valuable marginalia. What other form comes with such whistles and bells?

[28] Both corporations and governments are fighting for control over something that should lie closer to the individual's domain, but even among individuals there's no unified front through which to enter the fray. And when Google goes public as it is poised to do, its shareholders will want ever-greater profits more than they will happy users, creating a four-way tug-o-war. Wall Street can only further jeopardize Google's already questionable unbiasedness.


[29] Newly worried over how the web was presenting me to people, I went into the office the next day and googled myself. I had done this before. In fact, so have other people I've known -- my new girlfriend was not the first. In graduate school, some not-so-well-meaning colleagues (you know how mean kids can be in school) googled me and found, much to my chagrin, my first website, which I had put up while earning my bachelor's degree. The centerpiece of the site was a gallery of artwork done by a young kid named Ethan who I tended occasionally. I thought he drew nice dinosaurs and cacti, not to mention a stunning portrait of his aunt Nanette. I scanned the images and coupled them with faux art criticism, which I thought was clever and generous of me (hoping that Ethan would appreciate the fame I'd bring him). But it wasn't fully removed from the here-I-am, look-at-me Home Page genre people were rampantly indulging in at the time. In another section of the site were some poems I had written and links to my favorite site for vegetarian recipes, my favorite lit mags at the time (The Quarterly, The Mississippi Review, etc.), and so on.

[30] I had deliberately kept it for years as a sort of historical document -- interesting (to me) partly for the contrast it was to the sprawling, functionally powerful and aesthetically pleasing six-million-dollar websites I now build for high profile clients. It remained as evidence of my humble beginnings and it gave me perspective on how far I'd come, but it was not something I wanted people to see generally. Its lack of self-consciousness ironically had me feeling like I'd been caught with my pants down and, yes, those mean boys laughed at me about it. I had long since lost the password to my student account and had to call the University of Utah, endure quite a bit of run around to get the right person, and explain that I was no longer a student so wasn't it time they removed my personal stuff from their servers? It took several long distance phone calls but they finally removed the site and I was able to erase that chapter in my Google-ography. Luckily, I didn't have to employ the strong-arm tactics of China or the Church of Scientology to regain control of my digital representation.

[31] When I googled myself anew, however, I found that I don't have control in all cases. Jazziz, a jazz magazine for whom I freelanced for a year or two, had me sign an agreement that gave them web publication rights to my articles in exchange for an additional, nominal fee. The extra money came in my paycheck but I never heard another word about it, so I was surprised when Google revealed that I had been published in magazines that I had never even heard of. My review of Jamie Saft's Sovlanut album has been reprinted in Mostly Music, on Amazon.com, and on Jewish music distributor Aderet's site.

[32] I hadn't realized that the magazine intended to sell my work to other publications let alone commercial entities; I thought the agreement only allowed them to publish my work on their website. While I was pleased to have the additional exposure and publication credits, it was disconcerting to be left out of the loop of my own publication. What if I didn't like the magazine or business and didn't want to be associated with it? I had lost control over my own writing and I couldn't call anybody to have it deleted if I'd wanted to. That entry in my Google-ography was written by somebody else.


[33] Avenues for personal publicity are increasing both in availability and importance. Many previously private arenas are becoming increasingly publicized, and renown is becoming more of a mode of specialization for which the question is in what way rather than if. This is a transition still underway. Many people's lives are filled with real and impressive social contributions and, as has historically been the case, they receive little notice. But as the media encroaches on ever more facets of our society that lack of record becomes only more obvious. A search on my mother's name, Honalee Seiter, produces nothing. Of course I think she's a wonderful and important person. The lack of web pages that include her name does not say anything about how good or productive a person she is, but it does say something about her position in a changing social landscape. Thus, the holes in a Google-ography are revelatory.

[34] Perhaps the most major way in which I exist on the web is through my professional work, but that remains totally undocumented. The most recent site I've had a hand in is the U.S. site for Mazda, but nowhere on that site or the other sites I've worked on is my contribution listed. (Small businesses and organizations may sometimes credit the company or individual(s) who built their website but this is not the case with larger companies.) Even if my first site had remained, the evidence of my trajectory as a web developer would be non-existent on the web. No Google search will reveal that I have assisted General Electric, Harvard, Atlantic Records, JPMorgan/Chase, Renault, a joint project with AOL, Yahoo and Cisco Systems, and others with their web presences. Because of their collaborative and evolving natures, sites like those are inherently anonymous. Work that gets seen by millions remains unaccounted for. In one sense, because I'm adding to and helping shape the web daily it might seem that the most obvious chapters of my Google-ography are missing. But because those sites don't say much about me, those contributions are irrelevant to my Google-ography. The Google-ography knows best how to be itself.

[35] I have newer personal sites that don't come up in a Google search either, but that's mostly deliberate. One of my websites is, in part, an experiment that relies on anonymity. Another, www.airhockeyfever.org, is the site for my air hockey club, which is too new to have garnered search-engine attention. Search engines have no way of knowing a website exists unless at least one other website links to it or someone volunteers its existence by submitting it to be indexed.

[36] Submission is a factor, but it's often not sufficient. Another one of Google's failures is that sometimes it just misses things. While Google gives the overwhelming illusion of completeness, not everything that's on the web gets indexed. After being the music columnist for the Salt Lake City Weekly (then called Private Eye Weekly), I was invited back in 1996 as one of five local critics to rate the best local recordings. Google doesn't know the results are on the web, but I do, and that page contains a lot of information relevant to my Google-ography (not to mention a lame Beatles reference): "David Seiter is a past regular contributor to Private Eye Weekly and English literature student at the [University of Utah]. Among his favorite artists are Soul Coughing, Led Zeppelin, Meat Puppets, Johnny Cash and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. 'I look for a backbeat you can't lose, any old way you choose,' he says. He is married to Eryn Berg-Seiter and has a weekend radio show on X96." My wife was invited to be one of the judges as well and from her profile, the Google-ographer can discover that she's a high school English teacher whose favorite artists at that time were Tom Waits, Pennywise, Nancy Griffith and Luscious Jackson. This omission is significant because it is the only place on the web that a Google-ographer can learn that I was married and had a radio show. I miss being on the radio, incidentally.

[37] Googlers have to be careful not to expect too much. I had a friend whose boyfriend told her fantastic tales of his band opening for Nirvana. She didn't trust him and Google couldn't corroborate his claims so she broke up with him only to find out later that everything he'd told her was true.

[38] Because Google-ographies will miss things that a biography would be unlikely to miss, its function is not to provide a digital biography but to provide a snapshot of how one lives digitally. That emphasis is important in distinguishing the Google-ography as a form. As publicity gains ground as a condition of our social existence, only the Google-ography gives us a contextualized reading of our relative place in the world at a specific point in time.


[39] Threatening Google's monopoly over the new social metrics is Alltheweb.com, an up-and-coming search engine that does a complete crawl of the Internet every 7 to 11 days compared to Google's 28 days and, in my case at least, finds things that Google misses. For example, it returns my contributor's bio from the issue of Quarterly West in which I published a story entitled "Helen's XXX Flowers." That bio, like the Salt Lake City Weekly bio, reveals important parts of my biography that Google does not: "David Berg-Seiter is a web developer in Manhattan. His work has also appeared in The Cimarron Review, The Quarterly, and Midland Review." Alltheweb also returns a page which lists me on the schedule for the "Constructions of the Human" academic conference at California State University (which I declined to participate in). I had forgotten that I had been invited, so finding it was a happy rediscovery. The invitation was in connection to work I'd done in 1997 with a team at the University of Florida on a humanities approach to social issues. Some of that work exists in severely decayed form on the web. After an introductory page there remain sections on Tiananmen Square (with five sub-pages: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5), pollution (with five sub-pages: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5), and a relay we called Red Noise (and one of its related pages). Deterioration in the form of broken links, missing images and partial sites is a quality endemic to Google-ographies.

[40] Like the total absences in a Google-ography, seeing what dies and what doesn't can lead to observations not only about the subject but about the arenas in which he or she operates. I used to write for Citysearch, the online city guide, but because those articles served a commercial purpose tied to a specific place and time, they don't exist anymore. Academic work, however, is intended to have a lasting effect, and as that effect fades or loses its autonomy as it gets cut and mixed into a larger dialogue, so too do the web remnants fade.

[41] These half stories result in misrepresentations that can work for or against the subject of the Google-ography, especially in the context of surveillance, but formally it's certainly more of a freeing permutation than a limitation. Working on the assumption that semiotics killed the dream of representation, what can we do but take an if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em attitude and co-opt the inevitable distortions, adopt the confusions as potentially productive openings.


[42] Even if Google finds everything currently on the web about its subject, websites come and go. The Google-ography isn't complete even in the best of circumstances. Putting aside for a moment one half of the absences (those pages that exist on the web unbeknownst to Google) and looking just at the other half (those pages that once existed on the web but don't anymore) and the fragments (pages or sites that only partially exist), one begins to get a sense of one of the more exciting formal aspects of the Google-ography: its ephemeral nature.

[43] In fact, one of the defining and instructive qualities of this new form is that it's highly temporal; it follows as an aftermath behind its subject, always lagging. A Google search on my name a couple years ago returned, among other long-gone entries, information about my stint as a medical librarian when I worked at the Hope Fox Eccles Clinical Library in Salt Lake City. My Google-ographers will, for better or worse, never know I was a medical librarian. (At least there's one thing reserved for in-person bragging rights!) In its place is something better: a critical review of Joel Chace's poetic sequence o-d-e in the Electronic Poetry Review. The contributor's note associated with that article reveals more details about me: "David Berg-Seiter lives on Manhattan's lower east side where an international pickle festival is held each year. He works just off Wall Street. There, bomb-sniffing dogs are stationed outside his office."

[44] But since that was published I have moved to Fort Greene in Brooklyn. This article will be the first explicit evidence of that, but even without it, the sharp Googler could figure out that I don't live in Manhattan anymore because my Google-ography contains links to information about my moving sale posted on the free advertising board Craigslist after the review was published. Curious about my tastes in home furnishings and appliances? View my vacuum (no need for it in a brownstone with hard wood floors throughout), my desk, my bookshelves and the books I read. Books tell a lot about a person. But by the time this article hits the servers and puts another entry in my Google-ography, Craigslist's 60-day limit for posting will have passed and though Google will continue to list my items in a link to the ad (the links read "desk, table, chairs, shelves, vacuum, Mac, a/c, blender, etc" and "good stuff, must sell this week, have pics!", clicking them will get you nowhere, and my furniture will have been a part of a previous Google-ography.

[45] If Google is a mirage -- shimmering beckoningly but failing to deliver on its promises -- the Google-ography is a memory. Entries get added and others lost in whole or part. The Google-ography is a destabilized, floating form, losing pieces of itself from 60 days ago and retaining outdated bits from over five years back. It's a form that stalks its subject, following at a distance, never catching up but never evaded completely. A Google-ography is like your little brother who wanted to tag along wherever you went, only in that case if you couldn't ditch him, you weren't trying very hard -- with the web, it's getting increasingly difficult to escape its recording functions.

[46] The web has recorded that I was once an instructor in the Networked Writing Environment at the University of Florida and that I left in 1999; that I was once the Senior Fiction Editor at Del Sol Review; and that I was enrolled in a class to learn the PERL programming language at NYU in the summer of 2000.

From Nostalgia to Exposé

[47] Another of my Jazziz articles, published in March of 2000, has generated additional links in my Google-ography and provides an interesting tidbit about me. Entitled "Simple Truths About Good Sound: Three audiophile label heads sound off about how to build a home-entertainment system worthy of the music you love." In it, I listed Wyetech Labs as a manufacturer of top-quality home stereo equipment. Wyetech was so proud that they licensed the article from Jazziz and republished it on their own site, including my contributor's note which reads "David Berg-Seiter, who bought his first album on eight-track, writes about jazz and home entertainment equipment for Jazziz." Considering my jazz-snob audience, I didn't include the fact that the 8-track was Back in Black by AC/DC which my mother made me return because she didn't like song titles like "Hells Bells" and "Let Me Put My Love Into You." Let me set the record straight now: the first album I bought and was able to keep was Queen's The Game on vinyl.

[48] By the time my Google-ographers click the link to my article for grid magazine on indie rock act the Spinanes, they will have learned a good deal about my wide-ranging tastes in music. The persistent Google-ographer will dig around the grid magazine site and learn too that I've also done graphic design work, since I'm listed on the masthead as both a writer and a designer. A bit of that design work is featured on the Spinanes article.

[49] grid magazine reveals an interesting aspect of the web's nostalgia functions. The magazine's current presence on the web is an after-the-fact archive/memorial. grid's original site outlasted the print version but eventually that died too. The current site was reconstructed some years later as a deliberate record, the motivations for which the home page makes explicit: "We really did publish a music magazine. We really did get paid to do it. Fishbone's Angelo Moore really did pose as a housemaid for us. We really did sacrifice a writer to GWAR's World Maggot. This is the story of what happens when two young players from the street decide to make a music magazine instead of getting 'real jobs.'"

[50] The current site is less about providing interesting information to its audience than it is about providing lasting proof of accomplishment. The urge at work here is part of the urge toward accumulating and storing valuable markers of identification, which is satisfied in an unprecedented way by the web and made accessible by Google. Even if it weren't cost prohibitive to make all the back issues of the physical magazine indefinitely available to how ever many people take an interest, the pages would unavoidably yellow and disintegrate while the web has the ability to serve forever-fresh pages to as many people as want them for as long as they want them for minimal financial expenditure all while exposing those pages on demand to people who would be interested but otherwise remain unaware of the magazine. Not bad.

[51] My own nostalgia is stoked when Google reminds me of my money phase (when I was reading and writing on financial topics) with a number of links about and to my investing-focused retelling of O'Henry's "Gift of the Magi" that I titled Return of the Magi (A Christmas Tale for a Volatile Market) and published on popular financial destination Motley Fool in December 1998.

[52] While bastardizing O'Henry for a financial rag might indicate a lack of moral fortitude, another entry may lead my Google-ographers to believe otherwise. In this example the Google-ography seems to leave the realm of simple reportage and take on the trappings of the exposé. In my case, Google reveals a religious background I keep close to the cuff. Religion, a taboo subject in polite public, is, like everything on the web, fair game. A Google-ographer will find that I contributed to the spring 1997 issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. The issue includes articles with such provocative titles as "Recovering the Signifier: New Jack Mormons" and "Baptism for the Dead and the Problematic of Pluralism: A Theological Reconfiguration." My contribution was two-fold. I was part of "Don't Fence Me In: A Conversation about Mormon Fiction" with Joanna Brooks, Sam Cannon, and Sean Ziebarth, and I contributed four poems: "Revival," "Hard Publics," "Passing On, Holiday," and "Kick and Muff." My association with Mormonism is a can of worms I don't want made available for opening by people I know casually enough that they need to google me. The revelation of a religious affiliation may be for some an opportunity for evangelize, but for me it's too loaded, too fraught, and so I'd rather avoid it altogether. Perhaps the many more links to my criticism of Jamie Saft's avant-garde Jewish music originally published in Jazziz -- the one republished in several other outlets -- will throw people off.

[52] What's interesting in the exposing functions of the Google-ography that's opposite of other forms is that its definition as exposé is not under the control of the exposing parties but lies with the exposed. In other forms, the exposer usually sets out to expose and having collected sufficient evidence will present the findings to others as such. Regardless of Google-ographers' intentions, however, they have no control over the kind of results they receive or achieve. And no matter how damning they consider the results of their search, because a Google-ography is not packaged or presented to others, it cannot be billed as one thing or another. The only difference between exposé and non-exposé is the judgment that accompanies the information. Since the Google-ography does not convey judgment, only the subject's relationship with that information can determine whether or not it's exposé.

[53] The relationship is inverse. Unlike a biography in which the author provides direction on how to read the contents of his or her subject's life, the Google-ography contains no such direction. Readers may judge those contents however they like, but they cannot give the Google-ography exposé status if the subject won't allow it by his or her reservations about that content. While a peeping Tom may choose the bathroom window for his exploits, Google surveillers have only one window, the contents of which they have no control over and their subject has only limited control over, but if the subject is caught naked and has no shame the peeping Tom ceases to exist. The Google-ography fails to objectify.

Pulsating Identities

[54] The record keeping functions of the web paradoxically create simultaneously contradictory movements in the formation and function of identity. As your name and selfhood are made available to the world as never before, you can't help but feel bigger for it. As evidence of your existence on the global landscape mounts, your sense of identity expands. Indeed, you are an individual to people for whom you'd never exist otherwise.

[55] At the same time, all those for whom you now exist now also exist for you. The world in which you are now bigger is itself bigger and your relative place in it may contract more than it expands. One of the drawbacks of the creation of identity under conditions of universal accessibility is that you'll discover that you are not alone. You are not the only you. In fact, there are probably many of you. The John Smiths of the world are used to having an army of other John Smiths competing for their identity. The David Seiters and others with more unusual names are not, and it can be disheartening since it has a diluting effect on our view of our place in the world.

[56] As the Salt Lake City Weekly entry mentioned, I used to work in radio as an on-air personality. At the first station I worked at, the Program Director, serving a young audience, wanted me to have an on-air identity. Not knowing me and thinking me mild mannered and meek, he thought for a moment and said, "Ah, I know. You'll be Danger Dave!" The irony of that was supposed to be immediately evident and attractive to me, who would be charged with conveying that irony over the airwaves to an irony-starved American youth. I didn't love the name and it eventually became apparent that it was more appropriate than ironic as I later shared a house with the Program Director and he realized that summer afternoons would have me schlepping ropes and tri-cams to the cliffs to go rock climbing or following through on a dare to ride my bike around the block naked. The name stuck with me as I moved to larger stations and people came to know me only as Danger. Nicknames are special whether you like yours or not, and I did come to like mine, so I was disappointed to discover in an early Google-ography that there was another radio personality in the states whose moniker was Danger Dave, a coincidence I wouldn't have imagined otherwise.

[57] Vastly increased cognizance of our doppelgangers is not only a problem for those of us that naively yearn to be unique individuals but also for those that want to discover more about us without the gate-keeping and editorializing that would attend the answer if they were to just ask us about ourselves. Google-ographies can be misleading to those that don't know you well enough to separate the returns for you and those for the other people that share your name. And it's not just an issue for John Smiths. When my friends Silvio and Michelle first started dating, she googled him. The first item returned was the home page for a flamenco dancer from Malta that states "Please Note that this web site is made not to show how good I am BUT to show my love to dance and mostly to flamenco dancing , thankyou ." [sic] She knew that Silvio was from Malta so she was appropriately concerned. Luckily she didn't give up on him before finding out that her Silvio Galea is not a flamenco dancer.

[58] The 7,700 results returned by "David Seiter" contain quite a few red herrings, so let me state for the record: I am not the American historian who wrote "Letters: Windows to the Past". I'm not the Australian football player who scored two goals against Katungan to get "Best" in that game (whatever that means). I am not a religious education coordinator for a Catholic college in Victoria. I am not the provider of the datasheet for MOS Technology's 6562/6563 Video Interface Chip (VIC) that was added to the Datasheets Archive. I was not an owner of 80 acres in Vernon Township, Michigan in 1915. I was not a pallbearer for George A. Weisenfels in 1999 in Clarksville, Arkansas. I am not the representative of Lego who in the spring of 1997 visited a New York student computing lab. And, there are plenty of other people I am not, too.

[59] If you know me enough to want to do my Google-ography, some of these you can rule out pretty easily. I don't live in Australia or Victoria, and wasn't alive in 1915, for example. But others are more difficult. You might think I was the Utah state award co-coordinator for the 2002 Social Studies Programs of Excellence, since you know I lived in Utah. But I wasn't.

[60] Sharing your name with other people is one thing but sharing it with institutions, corporations, or other organizations is another. While not easily mistaken for you, such entities can be even more obscuring. My friend Roger Williams knows about organizational name sharing. Run his name past Google and you get 1,580,000 links in 0.07 seconds -- a feat in itself worthy of eponymy -- that include everything from a university to a zoo to a hotel to a national memorial to a medical center. His personal identity is so buried on the Nth page, so inextricable from the other results, that he is practically obliterated, his digital face deleted.

[61] Access to information is undoubtedly good but it has become so overwhelming that people are getting off on Googlewhack trying to find that elusive query: two words (using no quotation marks) that return a single result.

Hierarchy Building

[62] If all those URLs were about my friend, he'd be king by decree of Google's explicit and implicit ranking functions. We rely on Google to give us the relative importance of things, and not without reason; Google's ordering of results is not random but based on an algorithm that takes into account the number of links to the page and the relative popularity of those linking pages. The obvious trap is that Google's pronouncement of relevance is a self-fulfilling prophecy -- another way in which Google's proud democracy isn't so democratic. While Google's ranking of the results is deliberate, its ranking of its subjects is not. We can't resist, at least subconsciously, to assign value to the sheer number of results a subject receives: a person with more web entries must be more important. Whoever dies with the most links wins.

[63] Google-fight.com, brings that human tendency into focus. Google-fight is a website that allows users to enter two people or things to see which one wins. The site runs the search for you and conveniently tells you which garnered the bigger result set. While, expectedly, George W. Bush beats Saddam Hussein, I was encouraged to see Burger King beat McDonald's.

[64] Even if you're not dealing with a Roger Williams, for most subjects, constructing a quality Google-ography will be time-consuming. If the name returns hundreds or thousands of pages, it'll take time and a little strategy to comb through them. If the name does little to inspire Google, adept searchers know that you get the best results if you play with the name a little, trying every possible variation. Google does some of this work for you, matching on portions of names. In my case, a Google-ographer that pays attention to the dates and connects the dots may be able to deduce that I was once David Seiter, got married and became the one and only David Berg-Seiter in the world (a happy distinction for the rugged individualist), and some years later divorced and became one of the relatively few David Seiters again.

[65] Before Google, I didn't know of any Seiters that I wasn't directly related to. In fact, before Google I didn't even know much about some of the Seiters that I am directly related to. I don't have time to keep up with them personally, but I have run a couple quick searches. It does feel like surveillance because I'm watching them but they don't know it. Sometimes I prefer it that way. Classmates.com gives people the opportunity to find out about their old friends but it's too eye-for-an-eye; visitors can't view anybody's profile without first filling out their own profile. With Classmates.com's guarantee of delivering to you the Other, you lose the thrill of espionage. Worse, participants construct flattering fictions about themselves and post them along with photos as if it were a personal ad. It's autobiography at best and it's uninteresting. The interesting thing about the Google-ography is the way in which it multiplies and blurs author and reader roles.

Author/Reader Roles

[66] In light of Barthes's Death of the Author, the author of a Google-ography is perhaps more socially and historically constructed than the author of any other form as the form itself creates contextually shifting, layered, and always murky roles in reading and authoring. To begin with, no single entity creates a Google-ography. In many ways, Google, a business with a team of programmers that have unleashed a kind of biography-making machine upon the world -- rather than an author/researcher in cohort with a publishing house -- is the author. Google finds the data and presents it in a hierarchical fashion according to its ever-evolving and manipulated algorithms. However, the Google-ography doesn't come into existence until the searcher calls for it and specifies its shape by his or her search criteria -- not just the keywords entered but also through the use of 'or', the minus sign (which instructs Google not to include results that contain the negated word), quotation marks that will filter out results in which the keywords are merely in close proximity and not side by side, and other techniques that one can learn about in a power searching how-to or a how-to specifically tailored to Google, or simply by using an aggregated interface such as Fagan Finder which provides a page on which one can use all of Google's features at once. Further, since the Google-ography for a given subject can never find stasis, time becomes a third co-author. If the author cannot exist prior to or outside of the Internet, and the Internet changes significantly every split second, the very notion of an author is difficult to pin down.

[67] The nature of the Google-ography's construction is communal -- not quite collaborative since it's not done in a centralized, co-ordinated fashion but it is cooperative on some level. Every Google-ography is distinct not only because it has the potential to be different moment by moment, but also because its entries may be given varying emphasis and read in any order, yielding various deeper paths according to the interest, time, etc. of the reader, creating the author anew with each Google session. Saying nothing of the fact that the authoring of the web pages themselves is a collaboration between strategists, designers, information architects and programmers, authorship is muddled by the fact that there cannot be a pre-determined pathway through, or experience of, the collection of pages that comprise a Google-ography. If, as Barthes says regarding the author, "His only power is to mix writings...in such a way as never to rest on any one of them," Google-ographers are certainly exercising that power (146).

[68] If the author role in the Google-ography is fuzzy, so too is the reader role. Not only are readers more active in choosing order and emphasis, but their own expertise is brought to bear. However willing and able to judge its merits and accept or reject its accuracy or stance, the reader of a traditionally published auto/biography is little more than receptacle. The quality of a Google-ography, however, is dependent on the fore-knowledge of the reader. In order to find the right results and sift through them -- weed out the falsies and find the clues that yield further links -- Googlers must know something about their subject and the more they know, the more effective, accurate, and efficient the Google-ography is.

[69] As the author and reader roles have shifted, they have aligned. Because the reader is most often the searcher, at least that part of the author role (the part that brings into existence) is played by the same individual who plays the reader role. In a simple search, the acts of authoring and reading may be serial, but as the process begins to resemble research (in cases of either a more adept searcher or a more difficult subject), the roles are intermingled and simultaneous. The enterprise is participatory in a way and to a degree that it may be the first time in which the reader and author (however existent the author is) are one.


[70] If we lose the author in ways we haven't before, what else are we giving up with our Google-ographies (even if happily)? To some extent we lose worth-a-thousand-words photos and illustrations of the subject since there remain difficulties in effectively cataloging the contents of visual assets on the web. We lose the acknowledgments page, which is always a favorite of mine (seriously). We give up the heft of paper, packaging and binding. We lose the marketing and subsequent profits.

[71] And if we accept the result set as our ephemeral Google-ography with the knowledge that what is missing or unclear is as much a part of that story as what's there -- that how fully and accurately we are represented on the web says perhaps as much about our contextual identity as do the details that are given -- then we give up the educated guesswork and speculation, the occasional grasping at straws that attend paper biographies. The holes of a Google-ography cannot be filled in because what isn't there doesn't belong there. You get what you get, tautologically speaking. We lose the play of authority in the transaction, the privilege of being definitive. Sure, one can Google better or worse than another through permutations of names, knowing and using advanced search techniques, efficiency (knowing what to click on and what to skip, etc.), perseverance (for unearthing that nugget of gold truth buried 16 pages deep in a pile of irrelevance), plugging in Google-acquired information to find non-indexed items, and so on, but the Google-ography can never be final or correct intemporally. It can be fast and well chosen, but never finished. The advantage gained by better searching is ultimately only a marginal advantage, and nobody's reviewing your scholarship in the New York Times anyway.

[72] Such is the price of a new form, and these things don't get born very often. Let's embrace it -- or at least the implications it offers for contemporary poetics: its revelatory absences and fragments, its reflective decay and productive dsyfunctionalism, its contextualizing and memorializing capacity, its reciprocity, its granular temporality and evanescent ephemera, its nonlinearity, its decentralized and decentralizing functions, its new modes of mediation and transgression, its freeing lack of stability, its blurring of boundaries and inversion of roles and relationships.

[73] And let's consider what such a form says about us individually and how it places us in our world, how it reflects, shapes, and comments on that world and the changes in the way we function socially and culturally.

[74] I don't want to get carried away. Look, if I go to Classmates.com to get the dirt, all I'm likely to learn is that everyone I knew in high school has more cars and children than I do. That's because Classmates.com is no more than a repository of the ecumenical confessions of ex-secondary-academics. I'll skip the reunion and hit Google instead where I can find out the things people don't want me to know. And what about the people I meet when I'm out? How am I to know they're who they say they are and haven't seen the inside of an insane asylum in a non-professional capacity? Google them! If I'd only gotten Candice's last name...

[75] Maybe that's the main difference between an auto/biography and a Google-ography. Having the former is a bit of an honor, or at least an acknowledgement of your impact on the world for good or evil. The latter is a universally available product of surveillance and the uniquely interpretable intelligence it contains imparts a power that neither the biography nor autobiography can give. No wonder my feelings about being the subject of a Google-ography were mixed.

[76] Ultimately, I'm willing to put up with a little discomfort in return for all the formal fissures the Google-ography produces. The Google-ography is good for more than just giving us an inside peek of somebody we've just met. If that were all it was, we'd all be using Googlism.com, a novelty service provided by Australian company Domain Active. Put in a person, place, thing, or time, and Googlism will run a Google search and return a pithy definition, opinion, or synopsis of your search term based on the results of the search. It's a tool that could have cut the time put into this Google-ography to a negligible few seconds. But even the simple haiku has at least three times the formal markings as a Googlism, and a Google-ography has far more than that. Besides, put in "David Berg-Seiter" and the Googlism reads, "David Berg-Seiter is one jump short of his skydiving license." True, but I'd hate to be reduced to that. Sounds like I'm one card short of a deck. Put in "David Seiter" and you get "David Seiter is assistant director of the ERIC clearinghouse for social studies/social science education." Not true.

[77] Sure, Googlism gets its inaccuracies and half-truths from Google, but that's missing the point. No other form has the same gamble with truth or privacy. And Google retains a veneer of objectivity while its indexes and algorithms are tampered with and self-justifying. Its boundaries are assertive and inverted. Its expanse of information is full of perilous pitfalls. But, whether in spite of all that or because of that, the Google-ography raises interesting issues in contemporary and emerging identity formation while pointing to new directions and opportunities in contemporary and emerging poetics.

[78] I'm using my girlfriend's computer to write this while she waits with dinner. She's asking what I'm writing about and I'm saying it's nothing, that it wouldn't interest her, but I know that only piques her interest. Her suspicion will lead her to Google me again and she'll find this article. So let me say for the record: I wasn't picking up on Candice. I was just having fun knowing something about her that she didn't know I knew. She can understand that can't she?


Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. "The Death of the Author." Image-Music-Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. London: Fontana, 1977.