Eve Fairbanks knew something was up four years ago when her mother drove six hours—from her home in northern Virginia to New Haven, Conn., where Eve was a sophomore at Yale—just to have lunch with her. After a meal of risotto came the moment of truth: "I know about the porn," Mom told her. It was an honest mistake: Eve's name popped up on a handful of X-rated sites when her mother had Googled her out of maternal curiosity. But that Eve Fairbanks wasn't her Eve—it was a "Googlegänger," a virtual doppelgänger with the same name. "Obviously [mom] wanted to hear my side of the story," says Eve. "but she put a lot of trust in Google as a source."
Just as "Googling" has become standard slang for "searching online," the term "Googlegänger" has also caught on with a generation of young people defined not so much by their accomplishments but by how Google-able those accomplishments are. "You are who you are because of Google," says Matthew Slutsky, 26-year-old Washington political blogger who has befriended his own Googlegänger on Facebook. For some, their Googlegänger is a rival in a race to the top of the Google hit list. (Despite all the articles I've written, there are still two Jessica Bennetts who out-Google me: one's a shoe line bearing my—sorry, our—name; the other doesn't even exist—she's a character NBC's soap opera "Passions." I finally out-ranked a 15-year-old high-school wrestler named Jessica Bennett just last week.) "Knowing that he's out there keeps me on my toes," says Slutsky, who has managed to overtake his Googlegänger by the popularity of his online podcast Doublespeak—which he hosts with his real-life doppelgänger, his identical twin.
For others, the Googlegänger can be an object of curiosity, of comparison—an alter ego of sorts. "Searching out and finding others with the same name online enables us to see ourselves mirrored back" and can boost our self-esteem, says Julie Albright, a sociologist at the University of Southern California who has studied online relationships. Of course, not everyone is happy with that mirrored reflection. John Corcoran, a San Francisco political consultant, shares a name with a literacy activist—a former teacher who, as an adult, couldn't read. "I'm neither a teacher, nor can I not read, so it wasn't so good for me," he says. "My friends probably thought I was hiding a second life."
Then there's Minnesota IT consultant Robert Fischer who had the misfortune of being 10 when "Searching for Bobby Fischer," the 1993 movie about a prepubescent chess prodigy, came out. At the time, it made things awkward at home where his grandfather was training him to be a chess champ himself, he says, "and here was some kid who was younger and better than I'd ever be." Today he introduces himself as Robert—never Bobby. And for good reason. Even still, it appears people are quite literally searching for Bobby Fischer: the chess champ has thwarted—you might say checked—Robert's many attempts at upping his Google rank. "I've spoken at conferences, I've consulted in a bunch of places, and I'm an avid blogger," the 25-year-old says. "After three years of posting my full name over and over and over again in my blog, I've just now gotten onto the first page of results for Google."
Of course, having a virtual double isn't always a bad thing. Maureen Johnson, a New York City writer, has many a-gänger: a realtor in Massachusetts, a crab lady in Cape Cod, a character in a sci-fi book (who makes a name for herself through her many "incestuous encounters") and the character in the Broadway musical "Rent," who breaks up with her boyfriend—the play's main character—for another woman. Johnson enjoys a good laugh when her readers ask: Do you know there is a Maureen Johnson in the musical "Rent"? Was she based on you? Are you Maureen Johnson from the musical "Rent"? "It seems to have blurred the line between fiction and reality," Johnson says. "Google makes no distinction between who's real and who's not, so when "Rent" Maureen and I come up in a mixed bag of search results, we're equally viable."
That's not always a bad thing—Googlegängers can bring real people together, too. Slutsky has befriended 42 other Slutskys on Facebook (although with different first names, they're not true Googlegängers). And Fischer says his daily Google battle with "Bobby" has gotten him into a lot of conversations he might not have otherwise had. "Even in this highly technological world, people are still social creatures and are driven to interact," says Albright, the sociologist. "The early Internet watchers said the Net could never sustain personal relationships because we're not in physical proximity to one another. Yet somehow, we've found a way to reach out and connect to one another-even in the least 'human' of social venues."
As for Fairbanks, her name was ultimately removed from the explicit sites, thanks to pressure from her mother and a cooperative user support team at Google. And, as it turned out, porn-star Eve might never have actually existed: her name, Google told her, might have been flagged as a marketing ploy to drive more traffic to the porn sites. Mom was of course relieved by that news, but Eve, now 24 and a journalist who has written about her "racy Google persona," wasn't so sure. "Nobody my age thought it was anything but a tragedy that these porn sites had disappeared" because it was so funny, she says. And maybe she was also a little sad to see her Googlegänger go.