A new video … and thoughts about online identity and legacy

A new promotional video for Family Support Network of Western North Carolina and Mission Children’s Hospital featuring my friend Roxann Colwell, program manager of FSN, and myself just posted on YouTube. Ferriss Roberts, the communication coordinator for Mission Health in Asheville, N.C., created it from her interviews with Roxann and me. The little video is meant for outreach in this part of the state about what FSN has to offer families of children with special needs, in the hope that more families will access these resources and opportunities.

While I have a few roles with FSN — I’m chair of FSN’s advisory council, a support parent, what’s called a family leader, and a workshop trainer, and I recently ended a stint facilitating the monthly parent group night — here I’m speaking just as a parent.

Rather than share it solely via social-media channels, I decided to embed it in a blog post because: a) I haven’t done that in a while and wanted to make sure I remembered how (really, it’s easy, and I should think to deliver content in video format more often, having just recommended that to a friend yesterday), and b) a few thoughts cropped up around it — I wanted to share them, but I wasn’t sure they would quite hold up on their own as a post. So here we go:

 

I’ve had a few other small media mentions in the past few weeks, including:

And I’m posting all this for a reason, which I’ll finally get to … well, probably in a few paragraphs.

In this online/Google/NSA era, we hear a lot about how every single thing we ever write or say (or, hey, maybe even think) anywhere is captured for all posterity, always, with nothing you can do to erase it. And that’s probably true.

But I’m not sure it’s worth all that much concern. History has a way of rolling on and forgetting about us and so does the Internet. I marvel sometimes that the figures that dominate the headlines and hearts of any given decade in the culture and society — elected officials, pop-music and movie stars, sports heroes, business gurus, spiritual leaders, and (somewhat more surprisingly) even authors — recede, often even while they’re still alive, and are much forgotten just a few decades past their seeming world dominance and, soon, very soon, altogether unknown to the young people growing up after their time in the spotlight has faded.

So, too, with all of us and with me: If you Google search me now, you’ll find completely different results than you would have 10 years ago. Same thing if you’d googled me 10 years before that. (Well, you probably would have yahooed me then, if I’m remembering the timeline correctly. And before then I must not have existed at all.)

The identity you’d attribute to me from online search has shifted enormously, much more so than have my real-life identity, character, and personhood. Engaging in such searches would be like discovering entirely different people, instead of somewhat different people.

Which one is real? After I die, which one was real? I suppose it will depend on Google’s, or its successor’s, algorithms at the time.

What might you have found in those searches?

A little shy of two decades ago, my main identity would have been as a sports reporter. I was a sports guy.

A little shy of a decade ago, you would have found an array of mind/body/spirit interviews and trade-show programming from me, as well as business-media mentions on a variety of platforms up to and including the WSJ. Those would have been the two identities you’d discern. I had been editor in chief of a niche business trade magazine and then done some consulting. As well, searches on the names of many of the leading mind/body/spirit teachers and authors would have resulted — with almost every one of them — in a top-three Google mention of an interview with me or an article posted on my now-shuttered former site. I was a New Age guy, a long-form journalist, an interviewer, and a business consultant.

I had already worked closely with a lot of publishers, musicians, and artists, so you might have especially connected me, rightly, to the publishing world in different ways.

But, for the past few years, anyway, that’s almost all you’d see: publishing and crafts, reflecting my time at Lark Books as a senior editor for three years and then leading the Lark Jewelry & Beading sub-imprint for that group’s first three years. A few dozen books were authored or edited directly by me and attributed to me, and so most of the search results are for a wide range of bookseller links and sites, as well as pages and blogs from crafters and reviewers. (My former employer somewhat problematically — in a philosophical way — has long stripped off blog bylines for ex-employees, so my professional blog and social media posts are no longer easily discoverable by my name.) You’d still see some interviews by me with mind/body/spirit teachers, as I continued and continue to excerpt old ones and even occasionally do new ones, but they’re a lot harder to find now via search given the large swath of book- and craft-related materials and the fading of search relevance of the older work, especially as I let my former site discontinue.

Nicholas Hemachandra and Ray Hemachandra, April 2014

Nicholas Hemachandra and Ray Hemachandra, April 2014

And now, increasingly and as the beginning of this post suggests, my efforts in the autism and special-needs communities are starting to be represented, as are mentions of my son Nicholas, who I write about quite a lot.

I probably was even more business-savvy and business-oriented during those last three years at Lark and still now than I was when I worked for the business magazine, but that’s not what you’d find in a current search. I’m still a sports guy, as I was twenty years ago and when I was a kid: no inkling of that. I’m a political scientist by training at Georgetown and the University of Chicago: that training and education still inform my perspective and language, but you’ll likely find little indication of them with a contemporary search.

Mega data obscures truths while seeming to reveal them. My simplified identity — according to the broadest contours of the 76,000 search results about me, I’m a crafts guy, an author, and an autism advocate-activist, and really that’s it — is no more true now than its alternate versions were 10 or 20 years ago.

If I were asserting my own identity, it would be fuller and richer than search ever captures. Even just my professional identity would include my holistic business approach and people-first strategies, social-media and marketing expertise and sensibilities, and mind/body/spirit work in equal measure with the publishing, craft, and autism identities. And my personal identity would extend in directions both related, because the personal and the professional sometimes intersect, and completely, utterly unrelated.

That’s pretty easy for us to recognize about ourselves. The challenge is for me to remember it when I google you, when I search on your name: what I’m seeing may be a misleading caricature or, at best even if accurate, simply a thin slice of who you are.

In the age of Google, I still don’t know what I don’t know. But Google, as a metaphor as much as not, sometimes makes it harder to acknowledge such humility as our larger underlying truth.

We’re all indexed and famous now, but that doesn’t offer depth and meaning. These require time and listening and presence, effort and care, online or off — just as they always have.

Ray Hemachandra

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