COLUMN: 'Virtual' appearances can result in identity crisis

Thursday, October 7, 2010 | 1:42 p.m. CDT; updated 6:11 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 7, 2010

I am an attorney.

I am also a teacher, a mathematician, an orthodontist and a novelist.

Confused? So am I.

I’m suffering an identity crisis, and it’s all thanks to the Internet.

My journey of self-undiscovery began when my investigative reporting professor tasked my classmates and me with finding everything we could about ourselves on the Internet. “Backgrounding,” he called it, in his official, investigative-reporting way.

The assignment couldn’t have come at a time when the topic of Internet privacy was more of the moment.

The popular film "The Social Network" has dared us all to think about our identities in terms of how we appear to others virtually, instead of physically or emotionally. It’s like life, but with real-life interaction sold separately.

And in the spirit of being hip and now, my generation doesn’t mind being defined by a profile picture. We happily subscribe to the dogma that, in the age of the Internet, we are what we blog.

Even if bit-based existentialism is a little extreme, I’ve been told time and again — ever since my mom accidentally figured out how to use WordPress — that Internet branding is of the utmost importance. I believed it, too.

Yet, in spite of the impeccable online image I have meticulously crafted for myself (read: a Facebook with a bunch of awkward high school photos), I don’t feel overexposed or violated or even noticed by the Internet. In fact, I feel ignored.

For example, what should have been an exercise in narcissism quickly blew my self-esteem to pieces. A simple Google search for “Rebecca Berg” turned up a massive number of results — 26,400, to be exact.

Had one of my Missourian columns gone viral? Did Ashton Kutcher retweet me? Was the English project I taped during my sophomore year of high school finally getting the YouTube viewership it deserved?

Not even close. As it turns out, Rebecca Berg is just a seriously popular name, and a sizable portion of us Rebeccas are techno-savvy enough to navigate a basic social networking site.

My name game fared no better with so-called “deep web” searches, which look into the corners of the Internet that Google can’t reach. On the bright side, I was able to confirm that I don’t have a criminal record (yet) — but, if I ever wanted to steal my identity, I’d be fresh out of luck.

I should have felt reassured, what with my personal information safe from the masses, and all.

Instead, as I faced thousands of unrelated iterations of myself, the question of my true identity burst forth like so many tulips.

“Who am I?” I asked. Google laughed.

I had naively assumed that I am a journalism and political science student at MU, without having performed any research whatsoever. But who am I to say that I live in Columbia, and not Chicago? Theoretically speaking, couldn’t I have a law practice in Jacksonville, Fla.?

I’m embarrassed to say it, but boy, was I blind.

As I stared forlornly at my Rebecca Berg-filled computer screen, I realized how small I was in the scope of the larger Internet. It also occurred to me that I should probably update my LinkedIn profile, because I really hadn’t done that in awhile. But mostly, I felt like an insignificant speck of pixelated dust.

Suddenly, I was met with a moment of epiphany as I thought back to the advice my parents had given me so long ago, last week. No, not the advice about cleaning my room. The other advice.

“Just be yourself,” they said, “and don’t worry about what other people think of you.”

And if people confuse me with another, less savory Rebecca Berg — well, that’s what Wikipedia is for.

Rebecca Berg is a reporter and assistant city editor for the Missourian. She doesn’t actually have a Wikipedia entry, but you can follow her on Twitter.

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Amrita Jayakumar October 7, 2010 | 5:34 p.m.

nice column, Rebecca...and very true...I can't say I completely identify, but if you Google my name, there's a famous child singer with the exact same name!
It sucks being the 'other' Amrita Jayakumar.

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