| July 10, 2009 3:45 pm

An On Elephant Walkabout

Seven or eight years ago, I remember seeing a print advertisement for Apple’s latest computer: the MacBook.   Like most Apple ads, it hyped the benefits of a connected digital lifestyle promising things like “Web design for the rest of us,” and “Access to the ‘Podcast Revolution.’”  At the time, I remember thinking, “Why would I ever want to have a connected digital lifestyle?  I like my anonymity.  That just seems like a privacy violation ready to happen!”

And while I still hold many of those same opinions, I probably should mention that I have thoroughly changed my ideas on the necessity of the digital lifestyle.  And, ironically, it wasn’t the promises of convenience, understanding or creativity which resulted in my change of heart.  Not at all.  Rather, I came to realize that I should embrace digital existence for one simple reason: necessity.

Why A Personal Website Is Necessary

Your privacy is completely dead.  Just come to grips with it now.  With cameras included on every device, cell-phones everywhere, always connected “social media” and a general attitude of “Privacy?  Who needs that?” your hope of quietly avoiding the scrutiny of others might as well be a chemical induced fantasy.

Don’t believe me?  Take a moment to scroll through your Facebook friends list.  As you do, you’ll learn a host of details about what many people are doing.  You’ll probably see pictures of their recent outings and learn a tremendous deal about the people in their lives.  Now ask yourself, “How many people in that list am I actually friends with?”

If you are like me, the answer to that question is probably “about half.”  And the other half will be comprised of a bunch of acquaintances and relative strangers.  And yet, I either know (or can find out) all sorts of details about their most intimate lives.  This includes where they are, what they’re doing, who they’re dating, and even where they rank on the “irresistible meter.”

But while Facebook, MySpace and other social media might have delivered the fatal blow, they were merely the culmination of a trend that was already well underway.  Ultimately, the seeds of privacy’s demise were  planted twenty or thirty years ago when internet chat, message boards, and email arrived on the scene.  These technologies demonstrated one thing very clearly: the freedom and convenience of mass communication outweighs the loss of anonymity or the perceived security of privacy.

And even the death of privacy didn’t necessarily require that I embrace the “digital lifestyle.”  That particular honor goes to another implement of convenience: the search engine.  Whereas Facebook, MySpace, and other communications tools make it possible for us to give up our privacy, search enginesmakes it really easy for others to violate it.

I remember the first time that someone told me they had “Googled” me.  A friend and I had been talking about applications and graduate programs, and he asked me how I had become involved with a small humanitarian operation called CHOICE.

After I answered the question, I asked, “How did you know that I was involved with CHOICE?”  I was pretty certain that it hadn’t ever come up in casual conversation.

“Oh, I Googled you and saw a newspaper article on your project.”Snow Leopard Just Waking Up from a Nap

Since I generally had gone out of my way to avoid having my life archived by the Google, this was somewhat of a wake-up call.  (I wasn’t even aware of the newspaper article on the project.)  And, as you might guess, I politely excused myself from the conversation to head straight for my computer.

After typing in “Rob Oakes, Utah” into the little search box, I found out all kinds of interesting things.  I learned that a 1999 horsemanship clinic in Scotland had generally been a success and that I had been instrumental in bringing Patch Adams to the University of Utah.  I also learned that a group of mostly crazy philosophy students took issue with a letter I had written to my student newspaper.  Luckily, I didn’t find anything negative or terribly embarrassing.

Define Yourself Before Someone Else Does

In an age when Google can easily aggregate and filter the content of your private existence, the only real defense is to proactively define yourself.  Yell it to the world!  Tell them who you are!  Exhibit yourself and the things that describe you.  This might take the form of your thoughts, ideas, interests, hobbies, family, friends, feelings, or something you are passionate about.  Online diaries, self-written books, poems, pets, or ramblings on your favorite TV show.  What is important is that you are the author of your own persona.  And it is for this reason that every adult or professional should have a personal website.

A website is a tremendously efficient way to share with the world.  It is accessible to anyone with a browser and a bit of curiosity and can easily be the one single place where others can access all your writings, thoughts and curriculum vitae.  And while you’re at it, you should also include information about how people can get in touch with you.

A well crafted and maintained website is a sign of an organized and thoughtful professional.  If they are an academic, you can ask, “Does this person consistently publish?”  “What material do they exhibit from their work?”  “Are they proud of the things that they have accomplished?”  A highly visible person is often someone who who wants to collaborate and network with others, which is an invitation for future opportunities.

And given all of the above, what does it say if that information isn’t there?

Proactively defining yourself is so important that a mentor once told me me it is the very first thing any serious person should do.  “Everyone needs a ‘web presence’,” I remember him saying at the time.  He used his website for publications, helpful hints, pictures and other things that he was passionate about.  And, ironically, despite his status as a world famous researcher, the single most popular article on his site was about how to have a good time on a bike.  It had been viewed tens of thousands (maybe even hundreds of thousands) of times.

But a good-website goes beyond establishing your online persona.  It can be a tremendously valuable repository of knowledge.  After all, where should you leave notes on how to set-up and configure your home server, the instructions for installing PyQt on Mac OS X for the first time, or the essential (though obscure) Subversion commands that you infrequently need.

Others have successfully used their web sites to create a diary of  life, adventures, and miscellaneous travels.  Or to share pictures, videos or memories.  Or even to  release stress by spouting off at no-one in particular.  You can too.

Zebra Stripes

A Website Is More Than Social Media

Okay, so Facebook and MySpace can provide you with some of the same benefits as a good website.  But they aren’t really the same.  Consider: the very format of Facebook and related services doesn’t really lend itself to cohesive thinking or content.  Rather, they encourage the “Twitter” mentality.  That is to say, “Explain the state of the world in 120 characters or less.”  (In case you haven’t tried, it’s hard to communicate important things in 120 characters.)

And what’s worse is that those 120 characters have a tremendously short half life.  I’ve read in places that the lifetime of a “Tweet” or “Facebook Update’” is only about fifteen minutes.  In contrast, a good personal website or blog can make your work and thoughts permanent in a way that social media simply cannot.


A website matters because it allows for you to set your own identity.  When you type your name into the little search box, what you prefer to see?  A link to your website – which showcases your identity, your very best work and thoughts – or that picture where you passed out at the family Christmas party?  It’s a pretty good bet that Google will have links both.

Thus, take control of your digital existence and build yourself a website.  You’ll be glad that you did.


2 Responses to “Why Bother With a Personal Website?”

Stephanie Burchfield wrote a comment on March 18, 2010

Rob, stumbled on to your website while looking up stuff on Tom Dorrance. What a great read. I’m a pr person, and a horse hobbyist. Really enjoyed reading your thoughts on horses and personal websites. Also enjoyed your AF-MRI study — Most of my pr work is in the area of medicine…good stuff. Good luck with it all. Keep publishing.

[…] But even though many of the changes are positive, others are not.  In some instances, the changes negatively impact the program and feel like a step backward.  And  this is an absolute shame, since Windows Live Writer is the best way for a novice computer user to create a personal website. […]

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