Searching for the Self

People search is a fascinating area. Almost everyone has an opinion about it, even if they haven’t exactly realised that’s what they have an opinion on. In the following series of articles, we’ll be examining online identity, people search today and privacy (aka the creepiness factor). What follows is Part I: Searching for the Self

You are not who you think you are. You’re perhaps sitting reading this on your phone, with one hand propping up your head, imagining that you’re a complete person. Digitally, you’re wrong. What you actually are is a collection of different fragments, scattered across the wide expanse of the Internet, which are linked to you, define you and represent you. You don’t know where a lot of them are, you don’t know what combination of them people are seeing and you don’t know how that makes them think of you. At Wholi, we’re trying to change that.

Our aim is to build a search tool that enables the right people to find each other by aggregating public information in one place, and giving users the ability to curate and manage this collated identity. This will allow people to not only see what the world sees when they search for you, but give you the power to reshape it. We want to do this without losing the flexibility that the Internet has given us to define who we are differently in different places. Because of this, what it means to have identity online is our central concern as we build Wholi into the pre-eminent platform for finding people.

If you’re looking to find someone, where is the first place you look? The answer to this question has changed dramatically in recent times. Searching for someone is now synonymous with searching for his or her information. Identity is now comprised of information, aggregated from all sorts of different locations. Fragments of our selves exist all over the Internet, yet the aggregation of those fragments is unlikely to be equivalent to any singular ‘self’ that you would recognise, like trying to build Frankenstein’s monster from an eclectic mix of body parts. Finding the right fragment-answer for your specific question is the fundamental challenge of building a tool to enable people to find each other most effectively.

The fragmented self

People search already has a significant impact on our lives, but is complicated by the fact that we are not the same person in every situation. We are frequently impacted and shaped by powers beyond our control, powers derived from the contexts in which we find ourselves. Put simply, you act differently in different situations – to the extent that we can think of these situations as producing multiple version of yourself (think how you act in a library vs. a night-club, for example). The way we act is often derived from the external forces that act upon us – yet this is something which people are very bad at recognising. Social psychology calls this the ‘fundamental attribution error’, which means that people have a tendency to place undue weighting on their internal disposition as opposed to external factors. By way of example: if someone crashes their bike people are more likely to attribute this to their being a risky cyclist, rather than the fact that the road is slick with rain.

Yet identity is significantly influenced by outside forces. One of the reasons, perhaps, why sociology is less well understood to be an important discipline is that it appears to undermine our own agency – we think we act entirely through self-determination as this is how it appears to us, and don’t like the idea that we are suspended in strands of culture, power and influence which curtail and direct our behaviour on a daily basis (if this interests you check out either Michel Foucault or Pierre Bourdieu). We dislike the idea that there is not an essential ‘I’.

Every time you search for an aspect of someone’s identity online, you are searching within a given context for a particular aspect of who someone is. When you search on Yelp and find Sarah, the plumber, you are searching for her ability to fix your sink, rather than as a friend, tennis partner, or for her specialised knowledge of how to grow geraniums in the acid soil of West London.

Individuals are represented as different people in different contexts, meaning that the information about people that exists in the contextually different parts of the Internet both reflects and actually constitutes the person. For instance, if Sarah the plumber’s rating goes down on Yelp, she will be perceived to be a worse plumber and might well get less work, which will lower the number of her ratings (in itself an indicator of popularity) and the cycle will continue. The days of saying ‘it’s just the Internet, it’s just words, it doesn’t matter’ are long behind us. The words on the Internet are inescapably tied to the person we are offline, changing the words changes the person.

In many ways, this fragmentation is an extremely good thing, as it allows us to more accurately recognise the way in which contextual forces shape our interactions and our behaviours and to isolate the specific part of an individual that we want to interact with. For instance, when our sink is broken we do not care that Sarah is a good tennis player or expert gardener, all we care about is her ability with a spanner. For this reason distinct platforms exist to find these different forms of Sarah: she is on Yelp as a plumber, as a tennis partner and for her knowledge of flowers.

tricky things

So what should a modern people search tool look like? Clearly we are different people in different contexts, so meshing all the different ways it is possible to interact with someone into one generic platform could easily become a backwards and confusing step. For instance a platform that was functionally a merger of LinkedIn and Tinder would be very confusing, as the way you communicate with someone on a dating app is manifestly different to how you would in a professional context (unless you’re a misogynist who has watched too much Mad Men). For this reason, having distinct search tools to find a prospective partner (Tinder) as opposed to a prospective employee (LinkedIn) is an easy way of marking that distinction and preventing confusion.

However, even if we want to keep the communication channels distinct to protect separate registers of appropriate speech, the attributes valued within one context can overlap with another. When we meet someone on Tinder we might well Google them and pull up their LinkedIn to see whether or not we might be compatible (the reverse, of course, is also true but here is not the space to get into discriminatory hiring practices). Someone’s job, or education, or the fact that they are a great plumber, tennis player or gardener might well play a big role in someone’s choice of a potential partner. Attraction is a nebulous thing (We will go further into how Tinder has revolutionised search in the context of dating in Part III). It might be a minor role, of course, but in finding the right person for you the fact that someone plays tennis could well make him or her more eligible. To use the language of people search: it would make him or her a more relevant ‘search result’.

There is a vast amount of public data on the web. When we try and find people to build relationships (in the non-romantic sense of the world) all sorts of elements of their fragmented self come into play. The modern world increasingly reduces human interactions to transactions (see Part II) but there are still plenty of contexts where having a relationship with the person who is a combination of those fragments is still extremely important (for instance, when you hire someone to do a job they need to be good for the task they are hired for (a specific attribute), but their personality and how they fit with the team is just as important); it is not possible to remove personality from the “equation of good fit” and the effervescence that is created when the right people are in the room together is one of the core reasons why great businesses, enterprises, revolutions and artistic movements succeed.

As this unique ‘good fit’ is so important, using technology to put the right people in the room together is an extremely important and interesting challenge – the one which we are trying to solve here at Wholi. An effective people search tool will be able to reveal people in the specific context of your search, while acknowledging the fact that the person you are looking for has other attributes that might make him or her the right ‘search result’. This is already going on. Every time someone Googles a job applicant or potential date they are pulling in information from all across the web in an inefficient way to build an incomplete picture of that person. A picture which that person has limited control over. A modern people search tool will make finding the right person more efficient, not by removing or reducing the efficient fragmentation of personality that has been enabled by different platforms, but by acknowledging it.


Photo Credit: ‘I’m watching’ By Alejandro Gomez on Flickr