First published December 15, 2005 in Mediapost’s Search Insider
Heaven help anyone trying to lead an illicit double life on the convention circuit. Blogging and camera phones have turned us into a society of voyeurs. This is especially true in the search marketing industry. We are all content producers who publish our thoughts. During one conversation at a recent after-hours reception, we began keeping score–and realized that everyone in the conversation either had a blog or wrote a regular online column. Many did both.
It becomes even more amusing when you have one conversation over dinner at a show with a few friends, and within the next few days, all of you have posted online comments about the conversation, each from your own perspective. To find the truth, you have to triangulate the comments and discover that the substance of the conversation lies somewhere between the extremes.
This is a dynamic altering of how we communicate. The degrees of separation that divide our global community become short-circuited online. In one example, I wrote a column a few weeks ago about a conversation I had with Greg Jarboe about white hats and black hats. The event that sparked the conversation was a dinner he had with a black hat in Stockholm. A few days later, Greg was approached by someone in a coffee shop in his hometown about the column he wrote about black hat SEO. He had no idea what she was talking about, until he tracked it back to my column. Also, Danny Sullivan, in his blog, actually had me having dinner with the black hat, even though I was several thousand miles away from Stockholm at the time. Since that time, Greg has gone on to write about the same event in his blog. That one conversation has sparked at least a dozen blog posts and columns, all with slightly different takes on the actual event.
Somewhere in this observation lies something profound about the Internet. It changes the way we live. We now exist with one foot in the real world and one foot in the virtual. We are individuals, but we are also the sum of a million different parts that float around in the online world, and it’s usually search that connects those parts. We become the composite of other’s online comments about us. Our Google Doppelganger becomes a part of us, and vice versa.
Flori, my father-in-law, is an old-world Italian carpenter. To him, Gord Hotchkiss is the person who married his daughter, fathered his grandchildren, and who does something vaguely unexplainable with computers. We get along wonderfully, but our conversations center on our shared experiences: family camping trips, what my daughters are doing, homemade Italian wine, and why I’m out of town so much. Once, when I was on the road, he asked my wife why I have to speak at these shows. In an effort to explain, she Googled me. Up came about 16,000 entries, in almost every language, from every corner of the world. There was the online persona of “Gord Hotchkiss.” It was a side of me my father-in-law never knew existed. I was deeply embedded in a network of communication, and in part, that network defined me.
I find it (mostly) exhilarating when I meet new people at a conference and they’re already familiar with me because of my online presence. I tend to share a lot about my personal side, because it’s such an integral part of me. As one person said, upon meeting me for the first time, “I feel like I know your wife and kids, because you write about them.” So, my online persona extends to include my family. Through me, they’re developing a virtual presence. At this point, they’re not coming up when they Google themselves, but I assure them it’s only a matter of time.
I’m not sure we’ve really explored the consequences of this shift, but I know it’s earth-shaking in its importance. We are all now producers of content. We can all reach global audiences. We are judged by our thoughts, our observations and our intellectual mettle. We leave a footprint online. Search is the connector that introduces us to our audience.
Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press created a quantum change in the society of the 1500s. But there was still a physicality to printing. It consumed resources. It took time. Because of these physical restrictions, publishing evolved into big business, with its own controls and checks and balances. Distribution of one’s views did not come easily. Just ask any author who dreamed of getting on the best-seller list. Today, a blog post can take a few moments and no money. In a few hours, it can be picked up on a search engine. If it happens to rank well for a popular keyphrase, especially one that’s of immediate topical interest, it could attract thousands of readers in a few days.
It’s a sobering thought. Most of us feel in control of our own lives. We can be the person we wish to be. And the people who form opinions of us we usually deal with face to face. But online, people form opinions of you without ever meeting you. Our online personas rush beyond the bounds of our physical world. We hand control over our online persona to people that have no idea who we really are. They blog about us and expand our footstep, adding to the sum definition of who we are, without really knowing us.
In the old days, you could be your own person. Today, you belong to a global community. Anyone could be watching, anytime. And you thought Wisteria Lane was a tough place to keep a secret!