After four years and one short-lived fake out, I’ve just de-activated my Facebook account for good. Good riddance!
In honour of this achievement, I’m posting an essay I wrote last year for the CBC Literary Awards. This was submitted to the creative non-fiction category. It’s called “The Men in the Mirror,” and it’s about my failed quest to take over the top 10 Google search results for my name. In it, I reference 9/11, Scylla and Charybdis, and Nazi love affairs. I also quote Jay-Z.
As you can imagine, it didn’t win. Enjoy.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, a hijacked plane collided with the north tower of the World Trade Centre, 20 floors above my office. Frantically summoning my guide dog Roselle—I was born blind—we managed to make it down all 78 flights of stairs and into the din of the chaotic New York streets below.
I’ve just launched a website for my store, Michael Hingston Antiques. We’re located in a tiny village in New Hampshire, and specialize in paperweights and American art pottery. Almost nothing on the website works properly.
My first book, a World War II history detailing my German aunt’s love affair with an Allied airman, was published in the U.K. in 2006.
In my bio for Hocking Stuart, the glitzy Australian estate company I work for, I say, “I do something everyday [sic] whether it’s a run or a ride through the Kew Boulevard. Keeping fit is essential in this business.”
I write liner notes for old country bands.
I have 14 Facebook profiles.
I’m an air quality engineer with Environment Canada in Halifax.
I’m a toddler who likes to kick my feet in my car seat. Sometimes I wake up from my morning nap with an adorable case of the hiccups.
* * *
None of the above is, strictly speaking, true.
But according to the internet, it may as well be—these are just some of the results that dot the digital landscape when I google my own name.
I know this because I have recently taken it upon myself to become the dominant Michael Hingston in the online world. When my name is typed into search engines across the globe, I want it to be my face—and my credentials—that show up in those first critical pages of results, and mine alone. These doppelgangers must be defeated.
Vanity has its role in this mission, to be sure, but there’s also some basic self-preservation at play. I don’t want prospective employers thinking that by night I’m an anime fanatic who goes by the coy handle of “Ceilingcat.” I don’t want tentative e-friends believing I’m the one who Tweeted, “Hahahaha, I think that bitch who lied on air about being raped needs to actually cop it for real to teach her not to be a lying whore.”
* * *
First, some context. Many people wonder about their online footprint, but it takes a specific kind of name to enable its owner to make a sport of dominating the field. It can’t be too popular (or else the competition is out of control), and it can’t be too obscure (or else the game is over before it’s begun). I’m fortunate in that my name navigates these twin threats—call them the Scylla and Charybdis of anthroponymy—with relative ease. My last name is thought to be an uncommon byname that combines the German word for stallion and the Old English for low hill; my first (which is really my middle name, but never mind that for now) has topped the list of most popular boys’ names for the bulk of my life. I split the difference right down the middle.
The other thing you should know up front is that I’m not exactly a dark horse to begin with. Fully seven of the top 10 Google search results of my name are, in fact, already about me. I make a good portion of my living as a journalist, and the websites that spring up on the first page—my contributor pages on various arts publications, my professional blog, my Twitter account—reflect this fact accordingly. Truth be told, I’m entirely happy with these results. Absolutely nothing foul or unsavoury about me shows up, either, which is a bonus that not many can claim about the vast, un-killable wasteland that is the internet.
But at the same time, it’s that lead, healthy as it is, that’s the problem. As I look at these top 10 results, and especially at the next few pages, where the ‘real’ me begins to rapidly drop off the charts, my inner completist takes over. A tiny, nagging voice starts to whisper in my ear, Who are these other people? It moves closer, now elbowing me square in the brain. Who do they think they are? Do they think they’re better than you? The voice is pushy, but it’s got a point. Imagine I could net every spot in the top 10. Then I’d truly be the best—the best at internet relevancy. I agree with the voice: these guys are just cluttering up the joint.
And as a wise coffee mug on a thrift store shelf once told me: “Know thy enemy.”
So I did. I read what Google had to tell me about the other Michael Hingstons. Then I reached out to the ones who pose the greatest threat to my crown and title, tracking down contact information—some of the most bizarre emails I’ve ever sent began “Dear Michael Hingston” and ended “Yours, Michael Hingston”—and adding all 13 Facebook users that aren’t already me as friends.
It was, in short, on.
* * *
Many of the doppelgangers can be eliminated right away without much fuss. These are the ones whose presence is minimal, and whose grasp of the internet seems less than firm: the hiccupping toddler, the blandly handsome estate agent, the occasional marathon runner. No problem. If they’re not positive how to check their email, they probably aren’t too bothered about their Google ranking.
With his perpetually under-construction website, the small-town antiques dealer would seem to fit this category, too, though he scores surprise bonus points for being quoted in several trade newsletters, one of which lingers lovingly over his “Chippendale serpentine bureau in mahogany with ogee feet.” This description makes me feel strangely threatened; I only know what about half of those words mean, and even fewer as they relate to furniture.
Then there’s the doppelganger who writes about country music. Anyone whose reputation is spread over several websites and authorities poses a real threat, and a fellow critic particularly so—when this Hingston describes Sam Baker’s record Pretty World as full of “fascinating rhythmic ideas, stunning poetic lyrics and beautifully-judged arrangements,” jealousy flares up again. I console myself a little by spotting the superfluous hyphen, but it’s not enough. Even though I know nothing about country music, I can feel this faux-Hingston inching his way onto my turf.
Also, reading about someone whose career overlaps with my own adds a whole new dimension to this extended exercise in navel-gazing. Were I to have somehow reviewed Pretty World, what are the odds that I’d share this Hingston’s opinion? Is it possible that he’s hearing—and writing—exactly the same things I would? I read the Baker review again. It does indeed seem possible. Punctuation troubles aside, his language and tone aren’t that far removed from my own.
Or further still: couldn’t it be argued that, in a way, I’ve already heard it? After all, this Hingston’s review is out there in the ether right alongside those music pieces I’ve written over the years. If someone were to see examples of both side by side, it would make perfect sense for them to assume that they were written by the same person. In this case especially, our separate identities—as separate Michael Hingstons—begin to blend together. I feel a little like Narcissus, except that I have no problem recognizing myself in my shimmering reflection; in fact, I’m greedily sticking my arm into the water, trying to connect the two images so there’s twice as much of me to go around.
* * *
But the doppelganger with the most hits is easily the author Michael Hingston, whose book, Into Enemy Arms, can be purchased from any number of online booksellers. Reviews, as well as interviews with the author, are hard to come by, but Amazon.co.uk describes Hingston as a journalist who “spent twelve years working as a general news reporter, crime writer and industrial correspondent before turning to public relations.
Another fellow journalist!, the voice in my head screeches. And more versatile!
Into Enemy Arms, the blurb continues, is “based on his aunt Ditha’s vivid recollections recorded in over a hundred hours of conversation between the two of them, as well as exhaustive research in archives to verify the facts.”
Impressive enough. But I had to find out more. I emailed his publishers in the U.K., who passed along my request for more information to the doppelganger himself. And sure enough, a few days later he wrote back, saying I should “by all means feel free to make contact.”
Success! Under a guise of pleasantries, I responded back, asking Hingston a flurry of questions about his life and career. Who was he? How did he become a journalist? How did the idea for Behind Enemy Lines come together? Was he, by chance, the same Hingston who also writes about country music? And—most importantly—had he ever googled his name? I realized about this time that there was even a small chance he might have been wondering the very same thing about me all these years. Maybe we’d both been staring into the same mirror, each believing the other was nothing but a dumb reflection.
I never heard back.
It’s now months later, and still the only clue I have to go on is Hingston’s email signature from that initial reply, where he lists a mailing address: a P.O. box in the British Virgin Islands, which are found in the ever-temperate Caribbean. Seems as though this journalist has done pretty well for himself.
So why didn’t he respond? Did he sense my ulterior motives, or is he just uninterested? Somewhere along the way, the thought occurs to me that someone with such a storied career, and who now resides in a tropical wonderland, might have better things to do than hunch over a fluorescent laptop screen and compare life stories with some punk from Alberta.
* * *
At the time of this writing, only 3 of the 13 Michael Hingstons accepted my friend request on Facebook. They are less interesting than I’d hoped.
* * *
If the author Hingston poses the biggest threat in terms of quantity of hits, the blind 9/11 survivor Hingston surely equals that in quality. For some reason, his miraculous story of survival has never been picked up by a single news outlet, national or local. The only traces to be found of him online are from a Floridian newsletter called The White Cane Bulletin and a notice board for a social group for retirees, which recruited Hingston as a guest speaker in 2005.
Both of these sources, potentially loose with the facts as they may be, say that Hingston is now a national spokesman for Guide Dogs for the Blind. I contacted the organization, but had no luck. Its website, which has an entire section devoted to “stories that inspire,” has no record of Hingston’s existence, either. The White Cane Bulletin mentions that he was scheduled to appear on Fox’s O’Reilly Factor sometime in early 2004, but the rest of the internet, once again, can neither confirm nor deny this.
Another dead end.
* * *
In the end, I’m left with something I would never have predicted in a story about search engines: not enough information. What both the author and spokesman Hingstons have in common is that they’re actually underrepresented online: these men have genuine claims to notoriety, but by the looks of things they don’t seem to care all that much about it. The two greatest threats to my e-dominance, in other words, aren’t even trying. It’s hard to feel good about defeating an opponent who doesn’t know he’s playing the game.
There’s probably a lesson to be learned here about humility and the dangers of relentless self-promotion. At the very least, I ran aground on some important questions. Is it in society’s best interests—or even ethical, on a basic level—for hierarchies of information to be so easily reshuffled? Should digital history be rewritten by the person with the loudest megaphone? Heck, this whole project is probably a metaphor for the general egomania of the 21st century, as opposed to the unsung, nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic of Generations A through W.
But then again, I didn’t lock down a whopping 70% of the top Google hits for “Michael+Hingston” by just sitting around and waiting for someone to notice me. What a snooze. I had to get out there and make it happen for myself. So cover your ears, old timers, because the prophet Jay-Z is here to sum up the ethos of this new world: “I’m a hustler, baby / I sell water to a whale.”
To which us modern-day Narcissuses respond: Did you say water? Can we have some?