C. Warren Axelrod

Eventually Your Online Identity Will Disappear

I began drafting this column some time ago, but had not posted it. Then an article by Rob Walker appeared in The New York Times Magazine on January 9, 2011 about the preservation of one’s digital self. The title of the piece is “Things to Do in Cyberspace When You’re Dead,” and it discusses various methods and services that one can use to ensure that your digital heritage on the Web will be preserved for posterity in a form that is agreeable to you and represents your own interpretation of what is valid, which might well differ from the opinions and interpretations of others.

My thoughts on the subject are somewhat different. The real challenge, in my opinion, is in ensuring that what appears as a result of a search on your name is actually about you and not someone else with the same name. We expect that those with common names, such as “John Smith,” will have many hits when searched. On a recent (January 10, 2011) search on that name, Google came back with 6,480,000 results. So, unless you are particularly famous, or have a distinguishing other name or initial, or are involved in a highly-specialized endeavor, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to monitor your total presence on the web, which means checking for the many typographical and transcription errors and various forms of misrepresentation of your name.

On the other hand, if you have a somewhat distinctive name, your expectation is that, when you search on your name, much of what comes back is indeed relevant. Certainly there are examples when the browser parses your name and comes up with obviously inappropriate results, such as the many books on tropical fish by Warren E. Burgess and Herbert R. Axelrod, which are listed when I search on my own name.

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