By A.D. Freudenheim  

20 June 2004

Odds are that if you’re reading this you have an internet connection; if you have an internet connection, you have an e-mail address; and if you have an e-mail address, you may have, at some point, done something that would put personal information about you out on the world wide web. These days, it does not take much to get listed, somewhere, on the web.

This is on my mind because, with several new staff members in our office, we did some online research about them before making any hiring decisions. (This was a lesson learned and applied on our part; we once made a hire without doing this – and subsequently discovered information that might have affected our decision, or at least made for a more informed choice.) In each case, nothing very incriminating turned up; in fact, much of what we found just served to reinforce what we had been told about a candidate’s qualifications and experiences. That does not mean that we did not find other information, however: party pictures, nicknames, comments to weblogs of one sort or another. Trivia, really – but details about each person that certainly added to our sense of their life and activities, whether they participated in an online discussion about vegetarian cooking, or played sports in college, or expressed a great love for dancing to techno music.

What is most surprising is not the ease with which this information can be found, but the degree to which each person seemed unaware of its existence when asked questions about it, as if it was a revelation not only that we could find such details but that we might think to look in the first place. There seems to be a psychological disconnect between the web and the rest of their lives – as if the world wide web exists in a vacuum, a dark, black hole into which information may be sucked, never to return. This reaction was consistent even though in each case the same people had used the web to do research of their own, and clearly benefited from the information that was so readily available to them.

Writing content for this site – and for my other sites, including – I have thought on more than one occasion about the likelihood that something I might write would come back to haunt me; I have, after all, expressed a number of strong opinions here, on subjects about which many reasonable people disagree [include link]. Actually, it has happened; people have taken issue with what I’ve written and confronted me, via e-mail or in person. I do not mind these conversations because what I can say with assurance is that the content here is posted intentionally, with an awareness (sometimes acute) that it may be found by anyone at just about any moment. Speculatively, I would suggest that this awareness on my part may be a result of my age, of having grown up without e-mail and the web, and instead having grown into it. There are no web-based chronicles of my college years, or postings from late-night library sessions, things done in the blissful and willful ignorance of youth, because most of these technologies either didn’t exist or were rudimentary (at best) when I was in school.

In an essay from 1996 – early on in the growth of the web – Thomas Erickson wrote about the proliferation of customized, personal web pages, what he termed “social hypertext”: the increasing ease with which people could find information about other people, and make connections to new contacts, through the growing web.[1] It makes for an interesting read some eight years later, since at the time self-publishing on the web required not only a little bit of technical know-how, but also that critical component: intent. That is, without self-publication, most people around the world in 1996 were not findable online.

Now, the era of cute personal web pages seems like something from a lost world. The web is not out of our control, but it has become a part of our culture in an oddly-integral way: it is a massive representation of who and what we are (and sometimes who and what we aren’t), a kind of super-id, lurking behind and within us. The web demands to be fed, and we feed it, perhaps without knowing we are doing so, or fully understanding the ramifications of our desires. We post photos, make comments to blogs, use tools that make us feel part of a “community,” and we do it because it seems fun, or intellectually nourishing, or engaging – but without necessarily thinking about what it means to do so. As often happens, we humans seem to let technology control us, rather than the other way around.

[1]"The World Wide Web as Social Hypertext,” by Thomas Erickson, 1996 – located here.   Copyright 2004, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.