Seek and ye shall find?

Google is the last refuge of the self-obsessed.

Or perhaps I might more accurately say that Google makes people self-obsessed, by being a safe refuge. (I probably need Yoda to sort out the syntax properly.) But you get the idea–Google, as valuable a search tool as it is, has created far worse problems than serial plagiarists and celebrity search spikes. It’s now become the place you go to see if anyone else cares about you enough to talk about you publicly, and the visitation habit is spreading.

Pop quiz: how many of you have put in your name in quotes in Google, just to see what popped up? And of that group, how many clicked on the “repeat the search with the omitted results included” just in case Google “missed” some new reference? Or–the true mark of a Google addict–removed the quotes and tried the search again? (Can’t narrow down the field too much…maybe people spelled your name wrong!) If you answered yes to any of these questions, and in between went to Google your name again after remembering you hadn’t done such a search since this morning, congratulations: you’re officially a mirror gazer. Press clipping reader. Narcissus 2.0.

Now part of this behavior is common to everyone: we like finding out what other people think and say about us, regardless of what we may publicly claim (the “I never read the newspapers” line is an automatic guarantee that the person who said it, usually an athlete, is reading them feverishly). Some of this is curiosity, which on the Internet you can satisfy cheaply and anonymously–but a lot more of it is a desire to, well, be liked by other people, especially when they get to reveal that liking to 6.7 billion of their closest friends. And it can be startling–add some other search terms from your not-so-distant past and watch the years of your life parade before you, one website at a time. (Someone at’s been asleep at the switch again, apparently.) But whatever: unless your life has been an unadulterated mess from the beginning of the Internet age on, there probably isn’t a whole lot of negative stuff out there about you in cyberspace. Check out your sister’s webpage with the cat pictures and the shot of you from the Christmas party (glad you gave the punch a miss now, aren’t you?) and that should be fulfilling enough.

Unless, of course you’re a writer–in which case, why aren’t you out Googling right now?

Yes, writers are much more obsessed about this than the average Internet user. I’m convinced that the advent of Google Alerts–where you can actually have new information about a given search term delivered to your E-mail inbox–was in direct response to concerns that bandwidth usage was going to blow up the Internet, and it was probably writers’ fault. I’ve heard countless authors talk about this crack Google Alert in the reverent tones they normally save for Amazon sales rank, and that ain’t whistling Dixie. I can’t blame them. I happen to know that “Gregory A. Wilson” is an author (me) and an MD in Neurodevelopment Disabilities (him) and a Reverend (another him), and that’s not because I got an inside tip…I let my fingers do the walking, and now know about my competition (and hear this, Wilson from Indianapolis: you may have some fancy M.D., but I can write about creatures that live in a volcano. How you like them apples?)

In the end, though, all of this virtual navel-gazing really (I hope) comes down less to a desperate need for attention (yes, I’m sure that’s there too) than to what always makes neurotic authors tick: the need to communicate. Fundamentally we want people to read what we write, and hear what we say–we want them to connect with us. Maybe my favorite musical example of this is an album sale…via iTunes Korea. Yes, someone in South Korea thinks my band’s music is great. Will I ever meet this person? Probably not…but I know he or she is listening to my music, and that’s worth quite a bit. And on a basic level that’s why we Google; of course we want people to say nice things about our work, but most of all we want people to say something about it at all. Finding a gem in all the search dirt makes all of that time worthwhile…say, finding someone talking about a blog entry you wrote about Googling yourself.

Not that I’m planning to start a Google search right after I post this entry. That would be a little over the top.