What to do when I ruin your life with Google?

For the second time in the five and a half years I’ve been writing in this space, I’ve been contacted by the subject of one of my blog posts asking that I remove a what I wrote about them.

In both cases their reason for asking was because a Google search for their name was listing a post about them prominently, and they felt that this might interfere with their ongoing job search efforts (apparently Googling for an applicant’s name is becoming a common part of the employee screening process).

In neither case was the post untrue, ill-tempered or negative. Certainly neither contained any hint of libel or slander.

In both cases I complied with the subject’s wish, and removed the post about them.

While I’m as much a libertarian as the next guy, I’m also loathe to screw up anyone’s life, especially when it might interfere with the livelihood of a private citizen. Neither subject was, nor is, a “public figure” and their presence in these pages owed more to friendship than anything else. And, besides, they both asked very nicely.

If you find me ruining your life with my awesome control over Google [sic], drop me a line and we can discuss how to best proceed.

Back when I worked in community radio, our mantra when faced with “controversial” broadcasts — someone strongly advocating a point of view on air, someone else complaining about our giving a voice to such crazy views — was to simply offer those in opposition an equal opportunity to air their take. In other words, “if you don’t like a radio show, come and make your own!”

In general, I feel the same way about the Internet.

If you’re concerned about “brand you” on the web — what pops up when you’re Googled — you can either try to manage what others write about you (sometimes this will work, often it won’t, and it’s a doomed strategy long-term), or you can work to establish your own credentials by telling the Internet about yourself (in both cases referenced here, the “problem” I created really extended from the fact that there was little else online about my subjects, so I was the “authority” on them).

Start a weblog. Or a podcast. Or even just write an “About Firstname Lastname” page that Google will slurp in, index, and deliver to those who search for you. Ultimately this is the only viable solution for populating the web with high-quality, accurate (and, I suppose, flattering) information about you, and the barriers to doing this quickly and effectively are so low (essentially no cost, very little time, and you don’t have to do any research because you’re already familiar with yourself) that I can’t imagine how anyone in the job market wouldn’t do this before their first resume comes out of the printer.

This is all freshly trodden ground this new “media in the hands of everyone” thing. And we’re all figuring out the boundaries of what’s possible, what’s right, what’s helpful and what’s harmful: we’re discovering that the systems and standards that have been in place for hundreds of years of “you need to raise the capital to buy a printing press to control the media” might no longer apply. I think the only way to proceed rationally is to treat each case with common sense and compassion, to look for patterns, and to talk about what we’re doing while we’re doing it. Which is what I’m doing here.


Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on December 31, 2005 - 21:06 Permalink

As an aside, I discovered that Google has a process for requesting the removal of links that is actually quite simple. Their automated response to a request indicates that the actual removal takes 5 days, which is reasonable given the breadth of their infrastructure.

oliver's picture
oliver on December 31, 2005 - 22:34 Permalink

Anonymity and privacy have been how we keep separate personae for work and for particular coworkers and for clients, and for our parents and our spouses. It’s been a long time since most of us lived in a tiny village where everybody knew everything about everybody else, and I think a lot of us are hooked on what to used to be the privilege of the king and the lords of large private estates, which is to be select in what we reveal to the public about ourselves. Having a permanent record of just any old aspect of your life or personality accessible to everyone at the click of a mouse threatens to up-end modern persona management. It doesn’t put us exactly back to the village days, because people Web surf in private and so I suppose the relative proportions of overhearing and whispering getting done are going to be different, and the game of “telephone” that corrupts information as it passess from person to person must be somewhat short-circuited by the use of direct links to originals and by the flawlessness of digital reproduction of text and pictures—plus people won’t be gossiping as much in the kind of real physical huddle that occurs on the playground and that fosters consensus and causes resonant amplification of ill-will and admiration (“social lasing”). So I think it’s hard to know where we’re headed, but it looks like once popular options for personality management are gradually ceasing to be. In particular, I don’t know how I’m going to fulfill my childhood goal of having a wife and kids in three cities (Thanks, Peter!)

oliver's picture
oliver on January 3, 2006 - 00:17 Permalink

That Google request page you link to, Peter, seems to be about “Google Groups.” Does fulfillment of a request there do anything what shows up on a regular old Google search?

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on January 3, 2006 - 00:28 Permalink

The link to Google allows for removal of both Google Groups pages and regular Google index content.