People log on to the Internet to learn about everything from the weather to the wonderful world of toasters.
LOS ANGELES, 17 July 2000 - But some Webheads rely on the net to keep current on an even more compelling subject -- themselves.
It's called ego surfing. It's defined as searching the Internet for mentions of your own name. And for many who indulge in the habit, it's both an idle exercise in narcissism and an eye-opening demonstration of how deep the Web's depository of data goes.
"Most ego surfers discover some piece of information about themselves that they had no idea appeared anywhere," says Gary Stock, a computer programmer who developed a search engine called "="" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer nofollow">egosurf.com. "People have no idea how many times they turn up somewhere on the Web."
Stock himself has found his name popping up in all sorts of places: a Web site detailing a speech he gave a few years ago, along with a list of missing alumni from his alma mater. He says other ego surfers have stumbled across themselves in news stories, engagement announcements, phone directories, race results -- even fan pages.
The term "ego surfing" was identified by linguists from the Oxford English Dictionary in 1998, though the practice traces its roots to the beginning of the Internet. Long before egosurf.com arrived two years ago, people in and out of the public eye have run their names through search engines like Yahoo, InfoSeek and AltaVista.
Frozen in the digital ether
Many have been alarmed to discover messages posted to newsgroups and chat rooms they never realized were forever frozen in the digital ether.
"People don't realize that a lot of what they do online is archived and indexed," Stock says. "That's not a problem for most people -- but it can be quite distressing to someone who participated in a newsgroup about, say, teen pregnancy."
A more common result is the discovery of other people with the same name. One user of egosurf.com was startled to discover his name attached to both a doctor in London and a convicted felon in Pakistan.
Joshua Fouts, editor of the Online Journalism Review at the University of Southern California, says his own monthly ego surfing sessions routinely turn up news about a star soccer player in Washington state.
"For a few years this guy was getting all the top hits under my name -- it was really frustrating," says Fouts. "Now I'm back to the top four, which I'm pretty pleased about."
Los Angeles-based free-lance writer Jon Regardie says his own ego surfing has produced a wealth of information about a distant relative associated with a religious group called the Golden Dawn. "There are hundreds of sites and links mentioning this guy and his intense, weird, mystical teachings," Regardie says.
You can use any search engine to get the goods on yourself, though seasoned surfers say so-called "meta engines" like Dogpile.com and Metafetcher.com -- which submit your name to several search engines simultaneously -- will often turn up the most obscure matches.
Egosurf.com offers one service most others don't: it will continue to search for your name for a full week and send you results via e-mail when it finds anything. While it can be educational, ego surfing is mostly rooted in simple vanity. In a column about the propensity of writers to check on themselves, writer Madeleine Begun Kane notes that the practice "allows us to imagine that millions of people are reading our work, laughing at our every word, applauding our brilliance." But Fouts says ego surfing is about more than the need for recognition. "I don't have any real desire to be in the public eye," he says. "It lets me know how accessible I am to the world. It's nice to know that some random person from my past could find me."
There's only one real danger in ego-surfing, says Stock -- coming up empty. "Some people go out expecting to see themselves all over the place and find no matches at all," he says. "Let me tell you, looking for yourself and finding nothing can be a real blow to the ego."