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Search me...

Online privacy (or rather, the lack of it) has been making lots of people cross recently, with Facebook and Google the objects of particular wrath. Most of us who do the whole 'social network' thing have a lingering sense that we have probably given too much away already and are conveniently resigned to the fact that it's too late to do anything about it now. Contact details, relationships, evidence of wild nights out (which canny employers may correlate with lapsed productivity), preferences and consumption readily monetised into advertising and endorsement ("if you're not paying for it, you're the product").

All of which amount to an amplified, more broadly dispersed, and more succinctly codified representation of the public-facing 'you'. It becomes increasingly difficult to manage 'who sees what', particularly when you factor in the potential for other people's online activity to misrepresent or distort your 'image'. But there is equally a lot of scope for pruning and optimising your public projection: affiliating yourself with cool stuff and cool people, posting achingly witty status updates to endear and impress your peers, broadcasting poignant insights into the depths of your struggles in the hope of prompting people to be nice to you (oh how my judgment lapses when I'm deep in struggle) .... generating traffic for the blog where you persist in exhibiting your delicately crafted musings long after the time where most people have removed you from their newsfeeds ....

Search data is another story altogether. Whilst I might be lured into telling Facebook things I would only really like select close friends or family to know, I tell Google everything -- stuff I wouldn't even iterate out loud to myself. Google is well acquainted with my hypochondria, my anxious investigation into conspiracy theory, my occasional celebrity fixations, my bewilderment over rude expressions or jokes which I have encountered and am too embarrassed to admit that I don't understand. Plus, my natural response to any weird or inexplicable experiences is to search the Internet for explanation or reassurance that I'm not alone. And then there's the harmless but depressingly basic stuff that I really should know by now. I would be thoroughly embarrassed were my colleagues or possible future employers to find out just how frequently I need to remind myself of the formula for the correlation coefficient or how to correctly interpret a confidence interval.[1] And I hate to think how many times a day I ask the Internet to provide me with a synonym (though that probably wouldn't come as so much of a surprise to anyone even cursorily acquainted with my laboured, over-written style).[2]

In summary, I type some weird stuff into Google. My 'use' of the Internet is pretty innocent on the grand spectrum of such things, but even so I'd be mortified/alienated/unemployable if my search history was laid open to public view. This is just what happened to over 650,000 AOL users in 2006, when an 'anonymised' dataset of 20 million search keywords was released (and quickly, but not quickly enough, removed) for 'research purposes'. Of course, is well-established that removing names is seldom sufficient for anonymisation and search data are especially rich with personally identifiable information. The New York Times successfully de-anonymised user 4417749 as 62-year-old Thelma Arnold from Georgia, who was brave enough to agree to an article and whose own search history is wonderfully demonstrative of the mixture of odd, obsessive, funny, potentially misinterpretable stuff that we confess to our computers when nobody's looking (“numb fingers”, “60 single men”, “dog that urinates on everything”…) Unsurprisingly, there were also plenty of examples of a far less innocent nature in other users' cases.

Recently I have become increasingly aware of the uncomfortable truth that who we are in secret is who we are. So, who I am on Google is who I am… Or even, as the much-quoted Robert Murray M'Cheyne put it: “What a man is on his knees before God, that he is, and nothing more.” Indeed God, I believe (in fact, claim to have experienced), knows me even better than Google does, and even better than I know myself. He doesn't need to wait for me to iterate a thought, or even form it: "Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether." (Psalm 139:4)

Often when I read the Bible and spend time in prayer I am confronted unexpectedly with truth about myself that I would rather ignore. I really do encounter that convicting power described by the writer of the letter to the Hebrews:
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12-13)
However painful this process is, I have consistently found it to be one of grace and healing rather than one of guilt -- a case of 'godly sorrow leading to repentance', as per 2 Corinthians 7:8-10. I have noticed, as well, a gentle mercy in that, rather than find myself burdened with all my faults at once, they are usually revealed progressively and in such a way that I am simultaneously equipped to change, if only I am humble enough to trust and receive from Him. Resistance hurts -- not in a 'punishment' kind of way but in an 'indicator that something is wrong' kind of way. If I was resisting someone's attempts to drag me out of a burning building because I'd rather stay in bed, then feeling the heat of the fire would not be a bad thing because it might at least awaken me to the wisdom and kind intent of my rescuer. For resistance to not hurt it would be as though God had anaesthetised me to the consequences of my brokenness, and my experience is that He loves me too much to do that.

Paul encourages us to actively promote health in our secret life by 'feeding our minds' on stuff that we know to be good for us: 
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)
(This rather brings to mind the other side of that relationship with the Internet. What we search for says a lot about who we are already but what it sends back could be highly influential in who we are becoming...)

But it's not a matter of cleaning ourselves up to make ourselves acceptable. God, with His searing, inescapable insight into the mess of our hearts is no mere distant, angry observer, but one with the power and love to correct and heal what He sees. (Am I brave enough to actually invite Him to do this, like David does in Psalm 139...?)
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
    Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139:23-24)
The 'way everlasting'...hmmm. Later, Jesus was to describe himself as the Way (and the Truth, and the Life -- John 14:6). Perhaps a fitting reminder that we're not called to a life of moral-minded self-improvement but to a relationship and to a following after. Transformation is not a pre-requisite but a product...

[1] I have decided it is safe to mention this here as, in the unlikely case that any such person reads it, they will assume that I am exaggerating the reality in an attempt at self-deprecating humour.

[2] Did I just google 'cursorily' to double-check it meant what I meant it to mean? Oh, yes. I think I did.