That's So Channing
In the digital era, can you ever really own your own name?
Channing Kennedy is a writer, filmmaker, and performer in Oakland, Calif.Colin Trechter is a Melbourne based ________ .
For the first 20 years of my life, I was the only Channing Kennedy in the world. My name was mine and mine alone, and I treasured it as soon as I could pronounce it: no hyphens, no alternate spellings, strong syllabic rhythm. Unusual, but—an important distinction in the tiny white towns in which I was raised—not foreign. Just two perfect fat slot-machine tumblers fallen into place, optimized for celebrity.
Anytime my life seemed to be slipping away from me—my half-assed teenage suicide attempt, the third time I dropped out of college, the moment I realized I’d missed the boat on being “smart” and would have to start plodding my way toward “thoughtful”—my name was one thing I was sure I owned. In fact, I reasoned, I could probably coast on it posthumously for decades’ worth of projected achievements if those were the breaks: With a name that cool, he would definitely have done so many things, people would say. We can only guess at the scope of what we have lost in Channing Kennedy.
Then the internet happened, and I instantly gained a worldwide network through which to showcase (or at least audit) my uniqueness. I started Hotbotting and Altavistaing myself as soon as dialup hit my rural Missouri high school, and found nothing—no mentions of me, no name dopplegangers, just an occasional story about Carol Channing attending an event at the Kennedy Center. And it stayed that way until 2002, when I entered a remix contest held by Japanese musician Cornelius, and won. The track I’d entered, a weird postmodern effort in which my voice interrupts halfway through to announce that I’m giving up and handing the reins to a rapping cat, would be included on an official release with 12 other winners. I’d receive a one-time cash prize. And just like that, “Channing Kennedy” was search-relevant.
Before “MC Cat Genius’ BomBassTic Re-bomb,” my internet existence was limited to a subcategory on a Geocities page my friend Thomas had made. But now, my name brought up all kinds of stuff: track listings at online stores, auto-generated scraper spam blogs, and best of all, negative record reviews (I still remember you, guy who called my track “tedious [and] self-reflexive.”) And then, slowly, additional hits: I started a CD-R label in my midwestern college town, became an occasional subject of desperate journalism students on deadline, and toured with my comedy-rap duo wearing only a cat mask, a fluffy tail, and my underpants. I joined Myspace under my cat’s name. I got a Gmail address, also related to cats. When YouTube came along, I uploaded the footage of an absurdist wake I’d held for myself, supplemented with interviews of my friends improvising lies to the camera about how I’d died—dysentery, microwave accident, etc. I put my name in the title. I didn’t think much about strategy. I didn’t have to. I was the only Channing Kennedy on the internet.
I don’t remember the first time I saw someone who wasn’t me in my self-search results. But soon, there he was: Channing Kennedy cutting left to tackle, his face turned away from the camera. Then she came along: Channing Kennedy’s byline on a campus liberal blog. When I begrudgingly joined Facebook in 2007, the female Channing Kennedy was already there. I sent her a friend request for art’s sake, she accepted, and our internet presences never crossed paths again. She later quietly unfriended me.
Though I couldn’t see it at the time, it marked the start of a new phase in my online life. I snagged channingkennedy.com in time, but someone else got email@example.com, undermining the professionalism of my resumé possibly forever. And it’s not just Channing Kennedies I’m competing with. Someone named Channing Kennedy Brown reserved @channingkennedy and has been “waiting for [his or her] moms boyfriend to bring me two new babyiii kittens!!!” since 2009. Thinking person’s beefcake Channing Tatum floods my self-Google alerts whenever he stands within 50 feet of anyone named Kennedy.
Thanks to Tatum, the competition is only getting fiercer. In 2009, the popularity of the name “Channing” among baby boys was unmeasurable. By 2011, it had skyrocketed to number 672 among newborns. And you don’t even need to be real to compete in the Channing Kennedy rankings these days. Last May, a 17-year-old logged onto a “collaborative-fiction roleplaying messageboard” and created a new Channing Kennedy out of thin air. (Sign: Capricorn; sexuality: heterosexual; favorite movie: Invictus; celebrity “face claim”: Dakota Fanning.) She doesn’t show up until several pages into our Google returns, but that’s pretty good progress for a person who is four months old, has never done anything, and doesn’t exist. Maybe I’m particularly interested in her success because I’m not a proper Channing myself. Full disclosure: My full name is Ian Channing Ross Kennedy, though I’ve been “Channing” since birth.As I scrambled to snap up “my” internet properties, it finally occurred to me how strange the internet must be for the two other Channing Kennedies—to search for their name that first time, and find me performing unlistenable music in a furry costume. They must hate me for what I’ve done to their name, I thought. And then, Oh. Some day this will happen to me. A greater Channing Kennedy will come.
What new death had I unknowingly authored in the lives of these strangers with whom I had something inalienable in common—the power of our unique names (which we had all just lost) (by learning about each other) (so now we had that in common)? What had I taken from them? Could I give it back? Would I?
I type my name into Facebook and navigate to the two results that pop up beneath my own page. I send each of them a friend request, then a message: “Hi, Channing,” it begins. “This will probably be the weirdest message you get today.” And then I wait.
In the internet era, can you ever really own your own name? Not since 2003, when sex columnist Dan Savage laid claim to Rick Santorum’s name by rallying internet users to redefine “Santorum” as “The frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the by-product of anal sex.” Santorum had a formidable internet presence at the time—he was a U.S. senator with a penchant for homophobic rants—but Savage courted more links to spreadingsantorum.com than Santorum could attract to his own site. The Wikipedia entry on the neologism remains Google’s first “Santorum” return.
Most Google power plays require no campaign at all. When a 14-year-old Canadian YouTube star eclipsed the entirety of his life’s accomplishments in 2008, Justin Bieber—the 30-something Jacksonville, Fla. resident—began fielding as many as 25 phone calls an hour and 10 letters a day from fans. Facebook suspended his account, believing him to be an impostor.
Hallie Parker’s name was taken from her before she even hit puberty. She was 10 years old when Disney rebooted The Parent Trap, a movie aimed at 10-year-old girls and starring 10-year-old Lindsay Lohan as identical twins, one of whom was named Hallie Parker. The tweens piled on. “People were like, ‘That’s not really your name!’ and I was like, ‘Boo hoo, yes it is!” Parker told me. The fictional Parker “was really into chocolate-chip pancakes and putting peanut butter on Oreos,” Parker says. “I remember being like, they stole my identity!” She laughs. “I like peanut butter on my Oreos!” Parker is 24 now, and when you Google her name, you’ll find a flurry of Disney Wikis and Lohan news. “I think it’s protected me in some ways,” Parker says. “You can’t find anything bad about me on the internet. It’s all Lindsay Lohan, and there’s plenty of bad stuff about her.”
Online, it’s not just our given names that need protecting. When Netflix announced a new service called “Qwikster” last year, it failed to secure the @Qwikster Twitter handle from soccer enthusiast Jason Castillo, who was leveraging it to inform his own community that he was “bored as shyt wanna blaze but at the same time I don’t ugh fuck it where’s the bowl at spark me up lls.” The Netflix slipup drove an influx of amused followers to Castillo, one of whom attempted to buy his online identity for $1,000. Castillo refused, Netflix later abandoned the initiative, and internet gawkers soon forgot all about @Qwikster. But at least Castillo still owns his name. As he tweeted last September, “Ok netflix didn’t take anything this is JASON talking n if u don’t believe wat I say or if u wanna start talking then don’t tweet bout me.”
And if you’re only thinking about Google results, you’re a step behind. Now, reputations are staked within the search box itself—in the words that spontaneously appear past the blinking cursor after you type in a term, but before you click “search.” This March, a Tokyo man sued Google over this autocomplete function, which he says associates his name with “words involving criminal acts,” and points searchers toward “10,000 items that defamed or disparaged him.” (He asked Google to suspend the function; it refused.) One survey of the autocomplete results for 50 U.S. governors reported that searching for Georgia’s Nathan Deal autocompletes “Nazi,” but typing in the name of Oregon’s John Kitzhaber inspires the autocomplete “girlfriend.” Welcome to the new search engine status symbol—so many internet users chasing after your relationship status that Google suggests everyone else do the same.
What do we want to happen to our names when we type them into the box? We’d like them not to spontaneously erupt into a fluid expunged from the anus, probably, or to inspire thousands of tweens to text their misplaced hysteria to our Florida landlines. But other scenarios present more complex outcomes. Do we hope for a major American company to highlight our highest tweets, or for a troubled starlet to eclipse our every misstep? Do we type in vain for the “girlfriend” autocomplete or demand that Google just shuts the whole thing down?
The existence of Channing Kennedy and Channing Tatum is difficult to process, but at least they're known quantities.
Dude Channing Kennedy accepts my friend request quickly and without remark. I poke around his page, looking for whatever. He’s in the Army now. He’s actually got two Facebook profiles, one abandoned—the social media footprint of a man who has forgotten his password and doesn’t give a shit. I wait a few hours and post a message on his wall: “Hey Channing, can I interview you for this article I’m writing, about people named Channing Kennedy? I sent you my contact info in an FB message. Thanks dude!” He uploads a picture of his new motorcycle. His friends and family comment on it. My post slides down and off his wall.
Lady Channing Kennedy doesn’t accept my request this time around. In her “About” tab, she’s listed a web address for the nonprofit she works for; I click through, find a phone number, and call. I get the front desk’s voicemail. What exactly I say after the “beep” is a blur, but I assume I explain myself as well as any Channing Kennedy has ever explained him- or herself to another Channing Kennedy in a voice message. My call is not returned. As a feminist, I let it be.
These are the new additional coordinates of my identity, I think to myself, and I can’t un-discover them. I’m one of three people forever now: a black man, a white woman, and me. Of the three, I got to the internet first—maybe because I’m a couple years older, maybe because I had opportunities—and then I used our name to host DJ nights in a Marie Antoinette wig and kabuki makeup.
The existence of Channing Kennedy and Channing Kennedy is difficult to process, but at least they’re known quantities. The person I’m really afraid of is Channing Kennedy, the unarrived but inevitable person who will one day appear as a mere blip on my Google alerts, then expand to fit every corner of the internet. And I may be the last to know: Google personalizes its searches to each user, so searching for my own name makes me seem more relevant than I really am.
Forget the fictional microwave accident: This is the new kind of real-time mortality, the one where we watch ourselves die, and others rise, every minute. One day, my name will drop down in the rankings, collapsing into the singularity of those creepy death pages on Ancestry.com, a thousand yellow Google O’s deep. Living forever on the internet means making room for everyone else.
But what if I—or, you know, my name as a representation of me—could reign forever? I call Kevin Gottesman, SEO consultant to organizations like the ACLU, to drum up hints for gaming the system. He doesn’t really “do” people, he says—just organizations, educational programs, and campaigns with specific websites—but he’s willing to play along.
“Google talks about what it uses for its rankings and optimizations,” but it “doesn’t ever tell you exactly what the formula is,” Gottesman tells me. His advice, which he delivers cheerfully, is to Google “SEO best practices” and follow the results.
Easy for Gottesman to say—he tells me he’s the only Kevin Gottesman he’s ever encountered online. But the internet is young. What would he do if some really awful person sharing his name started blazing his way across the headlines? “People who search for me search for ‘kevin gottesman advertising,’ ” he says. “I’d optimize for that.” One surefire way to differentiate yourself is to treat your most relevant search term like part of your name. The internet doesn’t favor dilettantes. Pick what you are, and commit. If I had known this in 2002, I probably wouldn’t have led with “Channing Kennedy, cat rapper.”
But what about those with the opportunity to start earlier? Could we birth and name our children with the hopes of helping them better compete online? I call my friend Cabell Gathman, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin, who has studied the internet professionally for years and just named her newborn daughter Andromeda Jane. “I’ve met one other Cabell, and I didn’t care for it,” she tells me. Andromeda will likely also have a long run of being her own only known self. (IRL, at least—she already shares a name with one of Gathman’s long-running MMORPG characters).
Despite being a full-time scholar of human-internet relations, Gathman says she and her husband ignored SEO when choosing her new child’s name. “Look,” she says, “Nobody wants to admit the degree of uncertainty that exists there.” Today, search and social are the “two major paradigms. But who knows what it’ll actually be like tomorrow?”
One morning this summer, I received a friend request on Facebook from an account with no profile photo and no friends. I froze for a few moments as the account sent friend requests to a random cluster of people who’d written on my wall for my birthday earlier in the week, including my wife and my mother. Within the space of five minutes, this person had opened a Facebook account, located me, sent me a friend request, and spread outward from there, finally taking a break to upload a sideways profile photo, all from a mobile phone.
I didn’t need to see the photo, though I’ve looked at it a few times since. It was my mother’s ex-boyfriend from my high school years. Late one schoolnight, years ago, I watched his shadow in the hallway as he held a knife to my mom’s throat, screaming threats. It wasn’t the first or last time it would happen, but I remember that night particularly because he made me part of his threats, daring her to call for Channing. It never occurred to me that my name could betray me like that.
I has the same feeling when I got his friend request, alone in my apartment. Fifteen years have passed since I shared a house with my mother, a 2400-baud modem, and a lunatic. And in those years, my name has transformed from my secret strength into a publicly accessible incantation, with the power to summon all sorts of shit about me: my job, what city I live in, what shows I’ll be doing next week, what my wife looks like, everything I’ve ever signed my name to. Despite my adherence to privacy settings and my decoy real first name, “Channing Kennedy” pointed him right to me. I don’t think he wanted anything more than to wish me well—I can’t imagine how it feels to lose a surrogate son—but I felt betrayed by my name for not serving me better after all this time.
I get now why some people don’t want to be found. I never heard back from Channing Kennedy or Channing Kennedy. Perhaps they’re content living their lives—going to work, riding motorcycles, “liking” Michael Phelps—in the shadow of my Fbig, stupid, doomed command of our search term. Maybe I’m the only stranger who ever keeps tabs on them, and even that’s too much. Maybe they’re glad for my obfuscating presence. Or maybe they’ve anchored their names to something other than internet algorithms, and in their lives, I have no relevance at all.