I have a confession to make: I Google myself. A lot. I’m not proud of it, but I do. Like a nervous tic. Not quite as much as I check my e-mail, but uncomfortably close to it. Almost every time I go on the Internet. It has become part of my online routine: check e-mail, read news, Google self. See what comes up. After all, who knows who could have mentioned me or my writing in the last half hour?
Why do I do it? I ask myself that even before I’m finished typing my name. Why do I want to see the same results (or more or less the same) time after time after time? I tell myself it’s so I can see what’s happening with my work—who’s publishing it, who’s quoting it, who’s commenting on it, who’s linking to it (usually no one). But I know this isn’t the real reason. Deep down, I know that Googling myself is a pointless, vain, embarrassing, and existentially bankrupt exercise. Yet I can’t help it. Am I just profoundly insecure? Am I just a hopeless egomaniac? I’m a writer, so I guess I’m both. And, in the Internet age, those are horrible—and horribly common—things to be.
According to a new study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, I’m not alone. Almost half (47 percent) of people who responded to the survey have Googled themselves at some point, a 22 percent jump from just five years ago. Apparently, however, I’m in the minority: Only 3 percent admit to Googling themselves regularly. This could be because I’m among the 11 percent of people who have a job—freelance writing—that requires them to promote themselves online. It could also be because I have a unique name that lends itself to Googling. (I assume the Joe Smiths out there don’t bother Googling themselves often.) But it could be for other reasons too.
I started Googling myself years ago, back when search engines were like giant combines lumbering down some midwestern road compared to the Ferraris that cruise today’s Internet autobahn. Yet even then, with the few meager results that came up, it was exhilarating to see my name out there in the world, to imagine my few small stories appearing on the computer screens of strangers across the globe.
At the time, it was fresh and wonderful. I got such a kick from seeing the things I had created out there, living their own lives and, of course, dying their own deaths. But as time marched on, the thrill wore off, and still I Googled. Once in a great while there was some payoff, like when I found out that I’d been runner-up in a contest I’d entered years before, or when I located an old family cemetery in Iowa, or when I came across a scathing review of L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics that my great-uncle wrote in 1950.
But these discoveries are so rare that I don’t think they can explain why I keep on Googling. They can’t explain the hollow feeling it gives me now. They give no clue about what I’m really looking for. In fact, the more I think about it the more I suspect that Googling myself must meet some profound need, some deep-seated desire. Sometimes it almost feels like I’m checking to make sure I’m still out there.
When I was a boy, I loved throwing rocks into calm water and watching the waves flow out toward the edge—the bigger the rock the better. This eventually led me to take giant boulders up on a bridge and drop them into the river below. When that wasn’t enough, I just threw myself off the bridge.
And while times have changed, I think that urge remains very much the same, only today the Internet is the water, the waves are electronic, and the stones are the things I write. I Google myself to see what kinds of waves my life is making in the world. Isn’t that why writers, artists, and other insecure egomaniacs obsess over the Amazon rankings of their books, the comments on their blogs, the hits on their Web sites?
As society becomes more isolating and we have less contact with the lives of the people around us, the more we need the Internet to tell us what our communities used to: that our existence means something to someone else on this planet. What we used to see reflected back in the eyes of the people around us, we now look for on the computer screen. That’s why the number of self-Googlers will continue to rise. The Internet, fickle and shallow as it is, has become a giant Narcissus’s mirror. Does the world love us? That is the question at the heart of Google’s mysterious algorithm, and the search result we most crave: that we are out there somewhere, and that somehow, it matters.
Frank Bures has written for Esquire, Tin House, World Hum, and other publications.