In the fast-paced online lives we lead, what Google digs up determines our first impressions of anything and, indeed, anyone.
Yet I am regularly struck by how odd or alien this idea seems to some people when you confront them with it directly – online you are what Google thinks you are.
I think it is completely legitimate to see an ethical problem with this, how we make snap judgments based on an algorithm, but – conversely – how else can we adequately deal with the amount of information that confronts us on an everyday basis without making such snap judgments?
This blog entry was motivated by Googling a potential MEP whose first page Google results (responsible for 91.5% of traffic, remember) documented her dancing career (including nudity in the pictures) and delivered not one political result. Just before Christmas I similarly discovered a European Parliament candidate whose online profile was uniquely about his badminton career, not his political career. When I recently asked some political science students at Maastricht University if they had ever Googled themselves, some of them looked at me as if I were from another planet. You’re going to be trying to get jobs after this course I hit back – why have you never thought about this?
Of course there is a legitimate wish for politicians to have some back story. But if I am Googling a potential politician I would also like some political results. Furthermore, in most cases this is not at all complicated to achieve – register your own name as a domain name and set up a simple blog, and get profiles on major social networks, and be interviewed by some large blogs or newspapers. Especially in countries with open list election systems this is vital – if a voter knows which party to vote for, but has to choose among a number of candidates, all of whom have low name recognition, then online presence could be the crucial deciding factor. If it is not hard to do, why not just get on and do it?
Yes, it might be ethically questionable how we make judgments online. But if we are doing that anyway, it is careless to not pay attention to your online reputation. If you’re a wannabe politician then someone else will be keeping an eye on this even if you are not.
@Prussia – I agree. But I think it’s also a fair demand to want to know what their politics are too.
@Evelin – While I admit sharing the name of a serial killer would not be fun, the Google damage would not be too complex. It would be clear it was a false positive. The problem is more when there is a question – OK, I’ve found this guy was a tax fraud, and he has the same name as someone in my office, is it the same guy? That’s really hard to judge, although some SEO could help fix that one.
The other question is: what if you share a name with someone you don’t want to be associated with? What if, for example, a mass murderer has the same name as you and Google only shows news reports of the crimes that person committed?
It’d take some serious SEO efforts to get around that. A friend of mine works freelance in documentary films and argues you should be able to take out insurance against that because it could seriously damage his work prospects.
The problem with all this of course is that you have politicians who live their lives in the shadows for fear of having any back story which might interfere with their political image.
People have lives, or ‘baggage’ and we should not be expecting our politicians to be manufactured career politicians but real people with lives and experience so they can better communicate with the people who vote for them.