I Am David Brooks (And So Can You)
An article by June 8, 2018on
Or, “A Cautionary Tale About ‘Googling’ and Mistaken Identities.”
I’m sure it comes as no surprise that my name is David Brooks. I write at DavidNBrooks.com after all. Because I’m a bit of an early-adopter, I tend to also get “DavidNBrooks” at everything I care to register. For example, I’m @DavidNBrooks on Twitter. Even though I’m the first, it doesn’t mean I’m the only one. From time to time, I hear about the exploits of someone else who shares a name with me. Or, occasionally the misdeeds.
According to one site, there are over 3,460 people in the United States named David Brooks. At one point in time that made it the 6th most popular name in the United States for men. Of all those Davids, the most popular member of the “David Brooks” population that I hear about is the writer for the New York Times. There was a stretch of time where when he wrote an article, I would get angry emails and tweets. I used to keep a collection of them in a folder, but that got old after awhile.
At one point I had a disclaimer on my contact page which simply said, “I am not the David Brooks who writes for the New York Times.” But because humans are silly, that didn’t seem to slow anyone down. (Should go without saying that I’m both human, and also included in the “silly” characteristic there.)
Usually the mistakes are harmless. Sure, both of us wasted a bit of time in email correspondence with a complete stranger, but no damage was done.
“Usually” is the key word there. I once applied for a job and was declined the role because of something another “David Brooks” said. (No, the company didn’t ask if it was me or one of the others.) I guess I should also mention the time an apartment declined to rent to me because another David Brooks is a felon.
And that is the core of the dilemma.
Search engines try their hardest to put results with like results. But they’re not perfect, and they have no way to know if I’m the only David Brooks on the web or not. To them, birthdates and addresses are usually unknown. Even when they are present in the data, search engines need to be trained on what that data actually means.
Surprise! Some people lie on the internet. So even if this article is scanned and matched against the domain name, my legal name could still be “Floyd”. Or “Bill”. Or “Archibold”. My real life may vary drastically from the things I present here and elsewhere. Yet Google has no way to know that or even attempt to validate its findings.
Sometimes we treat Google as the source of all truth. We talk about it in society like a silver bullet solution to every problem we have.
Do you have a cold? Google it!
Want to publish a book? Google it!
The other day, someone I know searched for something important. Because the top search result said a third party was reputable this person went with the recommended third party. Surprise, it was not legit. The search results were gamed and now they’re being called non-stop by scammers.
We’re conditioned to trust Google, Yahoo, and Bing with whatever it is we need to know. We assume that since we are intelligent people that whatever we typed in the search bar must be accurate. Especially if a search engine has helped us out in the past.
There’s a level of cognitive dissonance in play, although it’s often very minor. If you don’t believe me that cognitive dissonance is a part of this dynamic, consider the fact that even with reasonable and polite push-back on my side I was still declined the interview on the grounds of “due diligence.”
You and I probably won’t influence the search and behavioral patterns of our friends. That person you know who constantly looks people up on Google will continue to further believe their searches are infallible. But for me, it’s clear that going forward, the data we believe is authoritative cannot be wholly trusted. It’s not that it’s useless or unhelpful. It just means that like TV, you can’t always believe what you see on the internet. And when mistakes are made in the data, real people can suffer the consequences.
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