On Twitter today, @nellodee and @wilhelminawang had a conversation in which @wilheminawang expressed desire to come "out" (of the closet) with regards to the sexual aspects of her life, but also expressed concern that the result of doing so would be socially damaging.
She said she feared that coming out would mean Internet searches for her real name would result in uncovering naked pictures of her. Since being naked on the Internet isn’t the whole of the image she wants to portray to the public, she was understandably concerned about coming out.
Photo by Ed Yourdon. (Flickr)
This is a concern that I hear expressed time and time again among people who are involved with any number of cultural issues, be it alternative sexuality or even just starting a job hunt while you're still employed. It all boils down to wanting to keep some information private without necessarily keeping it a secret from absolutely everyone; you can't actually go on an interview without your interviewer knowing you are looking for a job, but you also don't want your current boss to know that you went on an interview. What to do? There are a couple issues all wrapped up into one here and, since I can't tackle them all in this one blog post, I'll only focus on some.
In both the example of the job searcher and the alternative sexuality practitioner, there is the same notion of a "closet," of being "out" about some piece of information they would like to have some control over. But as with most things in reality, things are not always so cut-and-dry as we might wish they were; the closet isn't something you are either in or out of. The closet is not a binary.
I'm an example of someone who is completely out and transparent. Google my real name and you'll get some information about my sexuality work. You'll also probably find a link to this blog, and maybe even some naked photos within a few clicks. (This is left as an exercise to the reader). However, since I'm much more than a sexual organ, you'll also get a ton of other information, such as my web development work, my presentations regarding culture, technology, and society, and a range of other things.
I chose to live a transparent life, to come "out" because I believe being out is a safer place to be than being in the closet. Make no mistake, I'm no altruist; I do what I do because doing it makes my situation better than not doing it. The reason I am so strongly supportive of other people choosing to live an open life is solely because coming out of the closet is a vaccine against blackmail, emotional abuse, and shame.
It can be a scary process if you've been living in the closet for a long time, but I wholeheartedly believe it's worth it. Being out gives you control over how people find and see you. Otherwise, you give up that control to someone else.
The answer, actually, is stupidly simple: I create more "non-kink," non-sex content on the Internet than I create sex content. As a result, when you look for me on Google, you'll find the amalgamation of everything I put online, not just sex stuff. In other words, creating an image of yourself on the Internet is no different from doing so anywhere else. If you present a certain way most of the time, that's the image most people will have of you most of the time.
Could you find the naked photos of me by doing a Google search if you tried? Absolutely, but notice that those naked photos aren't the ones that show up first. Why not? Because there are more photos of me online in which I'm not naked than photos in which I am naked.
Sure, if you were looking for my naked pics and actively filtered out all that other content I produce in which I am (gasp!) wearing clothes, you'd find them. Otherwise, to find them, you&'ll actually have to sit through page after page after page of Google search results. And, humor me, when was the last time you had the patience to look beyond the second page of results when idly searching, again?
I realize this is painfully anti-climactic and not very stunning, but it's the truth. If the only content you produce on the Internet is writing about the orgasms you have or don't have, or how you got them or gave some to someone else, are you really that shocked to learn that's what's going to come up when someone Googles you? Likewise, are you surprised to learn that I also have a day job, that I'm interested in more than just writing about sexuality, and that my online presence reflects these other interests, which you can find when you Google my name, too?
You shouldn't be because, just like you, I'm much more than a sexual organ. I'm a thinking, feeling, self-empowered human being, one with opinions and experiences that range far, far beyond the narrow chasm of the (exciting yet superficial) mechanical aspects of human sexual responses. Therefore, I would be doing all of you a grave disservice if the only part of myself that I made visible were the details of my physiological sexual responses. Moreover, I would be doing myself a disservice, too.
Unlike many "sex bloggers," I don't often write play-by-play descriptions about what happens when I have sex with lovers, or about how many fingers or dildos or whatever was inside this hole on that body or what. The only value of such things to me is to relive a pleasant encounter or, for my readers, to vicariously experience it. And while that's all fine and dandy, it's a pathetically insignificant portion of who I am as a person. And -- guess what -- Google knows that and reflects that because I told the Internet about all of me.
It's not an accident that when you Google for me, the first result you get is for my homepage. It's also not an accident that my homepage has nothing to do with my sex blog. It doesn't even have the word "sexuality" on it.
My résumé is also pretty high on the Google search result pages, and again that's no mistake. I pimp my résumé under my real name stronger than I pimp this blog under that name. Why? Because I'm actively thinking about how people find and learn about me. Regardless of whether you are out or not, you should be thinking about this, too.
This kind of thinking about one's own presentation is extremely important because it's the most valuable currency in the world today. Tomorrow's money is not going to be printed on paper or plastic, but rather on the content you produce and make available to the public: if it isn't already, your blog is going to be more valuable than your job.
As telecommunications technologies continue to shrink distances, globalization will continue to drive our value-creation systems towards something a lot of people are calling a reputation economy (although personally I'm not a huge fan of that phrase). In fact, an industry is beginning to form around this concept, called online reputation management.
Many people who blog about fringe cultural issues like alternative sexuality are on the forefront of grappling with this transition. That's what's really at the core of @wilheminawang's question when she asked how I managed to keep a professional presence on Google and yet still be completely out.
Folks like her are often frightened of connecting their real identity with their alternate online persona, yet it's the marriage of those two identities which is where the real value in tomorrow's currency lies for them, just as it did for me. When I merged my two online identities, the (not-quite-)sex blogger and the web developer, I suddenly found myself making more money, getting more job offers, and, what's more, they were the kinds of jobs I could feel comfortable in! It was a huge win for me, and possibly the best thing I ever did for my career and safety.
Let me be clear: I don't think merging one's identities is something everyone must do. There's a time and a place for everything, including this. But I do think that if you do it mindfully, the benefits radically outweigh any possible concerns you might have.
That being said, if you choose not to come out on the Internet as "the real you," you need to understand that you are never truly anonymous. Everything you write can and will be traced back to you one day. The greatest danger of the Internet, in my opinion, isn't the prevalence of porn or the potential for silly cat pictures, but the illusion of anonymity it gives to laypeople.
So in conclusion, to come out online you need to understand that Internet search engines don't rank the content you produce by any scale other than its relevance to the search phrase. If the only content you produce online -- content that, whether you know it or not, will never be fully anonymous and will be available forever -- is going to be about the sex you have, then people are going to think of you through the only narrow, single lens you've given them to look at you with.
If, on the other hand, you present yourself to the world wholly and authentically unashamed, then people will be far more likely to see you for who you are as an authentic person.
It's critical that you take responsibility for your own image, and that you maintain whatever balance you find appropriate for the kind of content you produce in the world. Since I do more non-sex stuff on the Internet than I do sex stuff, the sex stuff gets pushed down underneath the things I create and promote with more impact, such as my web development work, or my social commentary essays regarding culture and society.
Furthermore, even within the sexuality content I create, only a fraction of that content (of which this post is a part) is about explicit sexual activity. If you've been a long-time reader of my blog, you'll notice that while you will occasionally find me writing about sexual experiences, not even those posts are devoid of introspective thought, reflective analysis, or social commentary.
In other words, the vast majority of stuff I choose to put online has lasting value. It might as well, because remember, it's going to stay online forever. Are you sure your blog is representing you the way you want to be seen? If not, maybe it's time to write about something else for a change.
Unsurprisingly, there's actually a whole ton of information about this topic available online. If this is something that concerns you, I encourage you to read the following resources:
- Managing your reputation through search results -- most of what I discuss in this post is basically referencing the third point in this blog post from Google, "proactively publish information."
- Online Reputation Management: 16 Free Tools -- this is a listing of online services and other tools that can help you monitor references to you from across the Internet. I use a number of these services, which I refer to collectively as "my Internet radar."
- Bad Reputation: Doing Damage Control On Your Internet Profile -- This recent post basically reiterates a lot of what I said, citing that "[y]our best bet is to make sure that there's lots of good information about you on the internet." It's also got some practical how-to tips thrown in for good measure.
If you've got some more links to resources for this sort of stuff, please share them in the comments, and I'll update this list with your suggestions.
Formerly a free software programmer "by day" and a sexual freedom advocate "by night," Maymay has been an outspoken member of kinky, queer communities since 2002. Now a full-time activist, writer, and public speaker, he frequently examines cultural and political issues ranging from censorship to community building and beyond at maybemaimed.com.