Monday, May 12, 2014


Many years ago I had a terrific student. It was my first semester of college teaching and I got attached. We remained friendly after the class ended, but we didn't keep in touch after she graduated.

One idle evening, several years later, I ran a web search on her. I found her instantly: a year or two earlier she'd made all the papers in the city in which she was then living--and the campus newspaper at the institution she was then attending--for a truly bizarre incident. I won't detail it except to say that if it even crossed your mind that someone might do this thing, it would be as a fraternity prank. A really stupid, totally illegal fraternity prank.

Anyway, the story was that she'd been heading home from a university reception when her one or two drinks interacted badly with some painkillers she was on for a sports injury, and she spontaneously did this wacko thing (of which she has no memory).

By the time I read the account, there had been a hearing at which she'd been sentenced to community service; luckily, no one had gotten hurt and there had been no property damage, and since she had a totally clean record and dozens of people had testified that her behavior was inconsistent with anything she'd ever done in her entire life, the judge was lenient. Still, it was All. Over. The. Internet.

Ouch! I thought, reading it, and quickly closed my browser. I was glad she'd gotten off lightly, but very sorry this was my first encounter with her later life. I still hoped she'd go on to great things, but for whatever reason it never occurred to me to Google her again.

Until today.

Thinking she was probably in the field for which she'd been working on a graduate degree, I plugged in her first and last name and the name of the school where the incident had occurred. I figured I'd turn up a workplace bio.

And. . . sure enough! A bio! The first link! I clicked on it and found a very thorough two-paragraph biography. I was happy that it suggested she was doing well.

But something about the bio seemed wrong--it didn't read like the kind of thing an employer would put up. I noticed the site was run by WordPress and figured it must be a personal blog, so I clicked "home." But that was it: there was only an "about" page. No blog. Then I looked closer at the URL: it was her first and last name plus the name of her graduate school (e.g., Weird! Why would she identify herself that way? Then I went back to the full roster of Google hits and saw that there was a, a, and on and on and on for a couple of pages of hits.

The bios vary slightly in their wording, so the casual observer might not immediately realize that they're serving the same purpose--that purpose being to hide, or at least help neutralize, the effect of all those older links about her, uh, youthful escapade.

I don't blame her for this; everyone deserves to be able to live down a bad decision or two. But it's still an eerie thing to encounter when looking for a real trace of a real person--dummy site after dummy site after dummy site.


Sapience said...

I did something similar when I was a graduate student, though it had nothing to do with any youthful indiscretions of my own--it had (still has) everything to do with the fact that I share my name with a sex expert (who also has a PhD, so even putting the "Dr" in front or "PhD" after is still likely to pull up her instead of me). It's one reason why I insist on all professional documentation including my full name with middle initial, even though I go by a nickname (shared, unfortunately, with the sex expert, who publishes under both the full and nickname) to anyone who knows me.

Flavia said...

Oh, that's terrible!

On the other hand, if I screw up, it's mostly just me. (There are now, to my knowledge, 2-3 other women with my name--all at least a decade younger than me--but their internet presence is relatively small. At least until one of them gets busted for drug possession or something.)

My former student is lucky to have a common first & last name. Unless you're searching for her name in conjunction with her grad institution, I'm sure nothing about her escapade comes up in the first 20+ pages.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I heard recently that there are people who make a living off of helping you clean up your web presence. I would think that would be a lucrative business! Maybe this "site mobbing" is one way that people do the scrubbing.

Flavia said...


Yes, I think that's right--I'd bet this was something she (or her family) hired someone to do, though the webpage-creation strategy by itself is low-tech enough that one could do it oneself.

There may be other elements to the strategy that aren't visible to me; I know, for example, that there are ways of manipulating the popularity of certain links to ensure that they come up at the top of the Google heap, rather than others.

Contingent Cassandra said...

Sounds like a sensible first step, given the circumstances (and, yes, like the sort of thing that might be done by a low-budget -- or expensive-but-not-worth-the-money -- internet reputation-fixer). It sounds like she now needs to spend some time and effort of her own doing what tends to be recommended to grad students these days anyway: "curating" a more substantive online presence through an actual personal site,, linkedin, etc. If the distractor sites end up mixed in with the real stuff, it probably won't hurt (though a savvy potential employer might recognize the traces of a cover-up), but somebody finding only those sites might well have the sense that something was up, and I'd guess that googling her name, plus university/university town, plus "arrest" might still turn up the accounts she's trying to bury.

In the meantime, I'm glad she's doing okay (or at least appears to be doing okay; you'd think that such a search might also turn up some conference programs and similar stuff by now, if she's making progress with research. I, too, have a pretty common name, and am trying to remember to be consistent with the form that appears in conference programs, on publications, etc., but, for me, name + university turns up, in addition to rate my professor and a bunch of similar sites -- yikes! they're proliferating! -- my official faculty bio., linkedin, and a bunch of my syllabi (posted by my university), a number of conference programs).

Flavia said...


That's a good point. She definitely doesn't seem to have much web presence apart from the dummy sites, but it's a little hard to tell; in addition to having a common first & last name, she also shares a name with a minor celebrity with a huuuuuge media presence (and who is roughly in the same field/industry as my former student, so the obvious search terms turn up the other person). She's also not in a field that would *necessarily* involve much web presence, so she's hard to turn up without searching the names of her degree institutions.

As far as I can tell, the sites are pretty recent--looks like some were added barely a year ago, though the incident is now roughly 8 years old. I hope that there wasn't a specific case of her past causing her damage that led to this internet strategy.