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A nation of voyeurs

How the Internet search engine Google is changing what we can find out about one another — and raising questions about whether we should.

Michael is a clean-cut 34-year-old working in a professional job at a Boston medical school. You’d never know he did time for burglary and is a former drug addict. Well, actually, you would if you Googled him. Go to the home page and type in Michael’s name (for obvious reasons, we are not including his last name here). That simple step produces more than 100 links to documents written by and about Michael. The search, Google proudly notes, takes just a 10th of a second.

Michael has never hidden from his past, and in his 20s, he even wrote for a few specialized publications about his brief stint behind bars as a 17-year-old. He was happy to share his exploits with that sliver of the population genuinely interested in the issues of incarceration. But Michael never saw Google coming - how those tiny publications would go online and into the claws of the nation’s top Internet search engine, and how a bored co-worker or prospective employer would be able to get up close and personal with Michael’s wild ride as a teenager.


Dazzlingly fast, vast, and precise, Google has made our lives appreciably easier. The first tool truly to make sense of the white noise that is the Internet, Google has become essential research for everyone from sales people calling on new accounts to single people taking another spin with blind-date roulette. It’s reconnected long-lost biological brothers and battalion buddies. And who dials 411 anymore, when it’s cheaper and faster on Google, and you don’t have to explain to some headset-wearer in Terre Haute how to spell Worcester? Google saves time, saves face - it may even save lives. Instead of calling their doctor, some people type their symptoms into Google; a few have learned they were in the early stages of a heart attack.

But somewhere along the path toward changing our daily lives, Google changed our concept of time as well. It has helped make our past - or oddly refracted shards of it - present and permanent. That’s a radical notion for a medium usually defined by its ability to constantly update itself.


You don’t have to have a rap sheet from deep in your past to be affected by the long arm of Google’s Web crawler. Maybe it was a stupid fraternity prank or a careless posting to an Internet newsgroup in college. Perhaps you once went on a rant at a selectmen’s meeting or signed a petition without stopping to read it. Or maybe you endured a bitter divorce. You may think those chapters are closed. Google begs to differ.

While most of your embarrassing baggage was already available to the public, it was effectively off-limits to everyone but the professionally intrepid or supremely nosy. Now, in states where court records have gone online, and thanks to the one-click ease of Google, you can read all the sordid details of your neighbor’s divorce with no more effort than it takes to check your e-mail.

“It’s the collapse of inconvenience,” says Siva Vaidhyanathan, assistant professor of culture and communication at New York University. “It turns out inconvenience was a really important part of our lives, and we didn’t realize it.”

Google has quietly but unmistakably changed our expectations about what we can know about one another. But this search engine that fields 150 million queries a day is of no use in helping us determine how much information we deserve to know about one another, or how we should proceed once we know it. Should we confront friends, dates, or co-workers with the damning details we unearthed while cyber-snooping? Or should we say nothing?


Michael has felt it both ways. He first learned about the new Web order in 1999, early on in Google’s life, when a woman he had just begun dating confronted him about his prison past. “Why didn’t you tell me about this?” she demanded to know. The question exposed a new double standard. “When you meet someone,” Michael says, “you don’t say, `I had an affair one time,’ or `I was arrested for DUI once,’ or `I cheated on my taxes in 1984.’ “ Since then, there have been other confrontations, but what Michael finds most disturbing are the sudden silences. “Instead of thinking, `Was I curt last week?’ or `Did I insult this political party or that belief?’ I have to think about what happened when I was 17.”

When he was searching for an apartment, Michael met with no fewer than 30 potential housemates and never got so much as a callback. Once, as a finalist for a job, he was courted aggressively through three rounds of interviews and a host of phone and e-mail contacts. Then, suddenly, they stopped phoning or taking his calls. His hunch: Someone Googled him. But the worst part is, he’ll never know. “If someone asks you about your past, that means they are willing to consider what you have to say about it,” Michael says. “But if they don’t ask, that means they’ve made up their minds.”


Yet he finds it hard to blame Google. Asked if he uses the search engine himself, he smiles and says: “All the time.”

LIKE EVERY SILICON VALLEY STORY worth remembering, this one begins in a garage. Actually, it begins in the computer science department at Stanford University, but that’s so much less compatible with the demands of dot-com lore. In 1995, Sergey Brin, a native of Moscow, and Larry Page, a native of Michigan, met as students in Stanford’s PhD computer science program. They began tinkering with search-engine technology, focusing on how Web pages link to one another. By 1998, that work led them to found Google, with the help of nearly $1 million collected from friends, family, and a couple of Valley investors. That same year, with their new search engine online, they moved the operation out of their Stanford dorm rooms and into the garage (and three bedrooms and two baths) of a five-bedroom house their friend Susan Wojcicki had just bought in Menlo Park.

She wanted them to pay her $1,500 a month in rent and give her a piece of their new company. They were smart enough to offer her a straight $1,700, with no equity. She didn’t fight too hard. Although Brin and Page were as brash and confident then as they are now, telling her, “ `We’re going to take over the Net,’ “ Wojcicki says, “I didn’t take them seriously. Inktomi [the search engine powerhouse at the time] was worth like $20 billion, and these guys were renting out my garage.” They were fairly good tenants, though she occasionally found herself having to bang out e-mails - “Googlers, you need to clean up!” - and was a little freaked out when their intimate holiday gathering grew to a 400-person guest list.


In the beginning, Google - which takes its name from “googol,” the mathematical term for a 1 followed by 100 zeros - was a hit mostly in techie circles. Brin and Page began building a staff; Craig Silverstein, a classmate from Stanford, was the first on board. “Google’s first hire” is how he’s still known around the company, even though his official title is director of technology. Wojcicki eventually began working for her tenants and is now director of product management, though most people still think of her as Sergey and Larry’s former landlord.

Anyone who is anyone at Google, it seems, has a similar handle, a shorthand identifier that stresses the company’s institutionalized quirkiness - from the former neurosurgeon who now operates Google’s vast computer network to the former chief of staff for then-US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers who now oversees one of the company’s revenue streams to the former personal chef to the Grateful Dead who now dishes out organic grub in the Google cafe.

In just a couple of years, the operation has blown past its garage-band days. An infusion of $25 million from two high-powered venture capitalist firms in 1999 put it on solid footing. A contract signed the following year to provide additional search results for Yahoo! gave Google instant credibility, revenue, and exposure. The company’s reputation has grown virally ever since. (Even AOL signed up Google to power its search engine last year. Yahoo Inc., while still a client, is so nervous about Google’s growth that it launched a bid in December for Inktomi.)

Google now occupies three tan buildings spread across a bland office park in Mountain View, California, which is about 10 miles northwest of San Jose. The company has had to erect a heated tent and mobile kitchen to relieve the cafeteria congestion. It has more than 600 employees in 15 locations worldwide. It offers search results in 36 languages, and half its traffic comes from outside the United States.

To walk through the “Googleplex” headquarters is to step back in Silicon Valley time. While most other dot-coms have gone bust or are in full retreat, Google is living like it’s 1999. All the discredited accouterments associated with the dot-com era are still on defiant display. There’s the pool table (with dry-erase board hanging nearby, in case workers get inspired midgame); the lobby featuring a baby grand piano, 1980s-style arcade games, and constellation of lava lamps; the twice-weekly staff hockey games; the on-staff masseuse; the brightly colored exercise balls that serve as extra seating for impromptu meetings; the mountain bikes and unicycles that clog the hallways (and the cramped office that the founders still share); the massive wall chart documenting the company’s growth that was drawn entirely with a 64-pack of Crayolas and annotated with milestones like “Nov. 1999: Angie starts!”; and, of course, the free lunch and dinner - all-organic, all-gourmet. Brin is all of 29, his fellow founder Page is 30, and they look almost wizened next to the rest of this ultrayoung staff.

There is a palpable culture to the place that occasionally borders on the cultlike. Almost every employee I talked to, for instance, shared the conversational tic of ending sentences with an octave-climbing “right?” as if waiting for my buy-in. Many began their responses to questions with an extra slow “So-o-o,” as if to say: “I’m going to make this simple for you.” Employees tend to quote the founders liberally, saying things like, “As Sergey said at our holiday party, we have to think about Google’s impact on the world . . .” or “As Larry and Sergey say, our goal is to organize the world’s information!”

Still, there’s an overall current of fun and innovation flowing through the place. And there is ample evidence of the profound impact the company is having on the rest of us. In the lobby, behind the free juice bar that doubles as a receptionist’s desk, a screen displays a constant scroll of search words being typed into Google somewhere in the world at that time. As I looked up at the screen, I saw: Adult education Ontario; David Blaine; wrap around tummy tuck; Forta Patchie (honest); Oakland Fire Dept; Barbara Hershey (perhaps typed in by the actress herself, hoping to find out where her glory days went?); stinger amplifier kits; Dennis Franz salary; and a host of Asian search words I could not decipher. But Google’s computers would be able to make sense of them.

Humans are hardly involved in the actual searching or sorting. That’s done by more than 10,000 servers, which in Google’s case are cheap PCs loaded with memory and sitting in tall racks in several high-security data storage facilities around the country. Speed and relevance have always been the hallmarks of Google’s approach. All these computers help keep search times below half a second, but so, too, has the founders’ refusal to accept ads with images, which would slow the process.

Google quickly distinguished itself from other search engines with its rapid responses, its refusal to let paid advertisers pervert the integrity of a search (advertisers are labeled “sponsored links” and cordoned off), and its uncanny ability to know just what you’re looking for. As a measure of the founders’ confidence - or cockiness - in their search algorithm, they designed an “I’m Feeling Lucky” button: Type in your search words and hit that option, and Google takes you directly to the Web site it believes you’re looking for.

The Google search technology is based on something called PageRank (named after Larry Page), which determines relevance not only by counting the times a search word appears in a particular Web page but also by factoring in how many other pages are linked to that page as well as their general reputation. Google’s sophisticated approach, combined with its crawler’s insatiable appetite for uncovering new corners of the Web, simply works better. That has propelled its meteoric rise.

Ask people in the industry how Google was able to outdistance the competition, and they say the same thing: focus. While other Web sites tried to be all things to all people in an effort to get profitable, Google stubbornly concentrated on just building the world’s best search engine. By the end of 2001, Google not only had reached its goal, but, surprisingly, it had managed to find profitability along the way. Many analysts expect Google to go public when the market’s distrust of dot-coms begins to dissolve. Google embodies the original ethos of the Web - free, fast, and democratic.

But will success lead to its undoing? In the last year, Google - whose youthful founders eventually relented and brought in an adult CEO - has introduced new sites focused on news and shopping ( In other words, it’s looking a lot more like an all-things-to-everyone portal and less like simply the world’s best search engine.

AMANDA HAD BEEN DATING HIM FOR about a month. She liked his laid-back style, dug his shaved-head approach to male pattern baldness. Then, late one night, she received an e-mail from him containing a few angry words and a link to a short story she had written for an obscure online zine.

Amanda, a 26-year-old graphic artist who lived in Providence before moving west, had published the story under her real name, confident that only fiction aficionados would go to the trouble of finding the site. “Gee, thanks, Google,” she says now.

She and her new beau had met online, and this particular story that he had found by Googling her revolves around a young woman who - surprise - meets a guy online. Everything goes well until he neglects to call her back a few times, and she quickly turns into an obsessive, spurned girlfriend of near-Fatal Attraction dimensions. “It was fiction,” Amanda says, but the guy thought otherwise. She admits, “If you assumed it was me, it would make you freak out, but you should stop and ask.”

Amanda decided it was pointless to argue with him. “By the time somebody’s convinced you’re obsessive,” she says, “trying to convince him otherwise is only going to make you look more obsessive.” But the more Amanda thought about it, the more steamed she got. “The hypocrisy of it all - you think I’m an obsessive person? Well, you’re the one Googling me!”

So she opted for Google revenge. Amanda created an alternate digital identity for her former boyfriend - a personal Web page that would, in all likelihood, be accessed only by those people Googling him by name. On this over-the-top Web page, the guy makes a series of mock confessions that, if taken seriously, would be toxic in any future dating situation. He “admits” to being untrustworthy, jobless, sneaky, a lousy lover, and, finally, a carrier of venereal disease. Hey, Mom, let me tell you a little bit about my new boyfriend.

The cases of payback can be even worse. According to Web lore, a Midwestern college student named Libby Hoeler once sent her boyfriend a video postcard of her doing a striptease to a suggestive soundtrack of Marvin Gaye and the Divinyls. As the story goes, she eventually cheated on him; to get back at her, he shared her private peep show with the Internet masses; Libby was so embarrassed that she ended up having to drop out of school. Who knows if any of these details are true? It’s not even clear that Libby Hoeler (or Hoeller) is her real name. God help her if it is, for the shadow of this performance will follow her for the rest of her life. Today, there are entire Web sites devoted to Libby, attracting disturbingly animated fans proffering marriage proposals and sharing random details about her that they gleaned from Google searches. And, naturally, there are now a host of porn sites peddling full-length footage of the dorm-room dance.

Most young single people confess to Googling their prospective dates, but there are no societal norms yet on what to do with the harvested information. If a Google search reveals that you and your blind date share an appreciation for Veruca Salt or Bavarian poetry or Leonard Nimoy’s aborted attempt at a singing career, how can you bring that up gracefully, without making your snooping obvious?

Veronica Leger, a 39-year-old marketing professional from Charlestown, was sitting across the table from her blind date when the topic of clothes came up. “Oh, yeah, you’re a clotheshorse,” he said to her, grinning. She instantly thought back to a distant interview she had given to the Globe for a story about laid-off dot-commers, in which she confessed to cutting back on her shopping addiction. “Oh, you’ve done your homework,” Leger told her date, but what she was really thinking was: “It feels kind of creepy to be Googled.” Her date admitted to Googling before all first dates but said he had good reason. Once, when he delayed his search until after the date, he stumbled onto an obscure portion of an out-of-the-way Web site where the woman he had just dined with was mentioned. “That’s how he learned she had been a he,” Leger says.

Google has built up such a reputation for reliability that we simply assume what it produces must be what we’re looking for, even though context is often absent from the search results.

Anne Savage, a 26-year-old from Brookline, once got an urgent e-mail pleading with her to provide advice on how to care for an ailing, pregnant tamarin monkey. Because she had previously Googled herself - known as “vanity Googling” - Savage knew she shared her name with a prominent veterinarian. She e-mailed back to explain and ended up starting an electronic correspondence. The tamarin ended up delivering a healthy baby.

Chris Cormier, a high-tech worker from Natick, gets e-mails all the time from people asking for body building tips. Cormier, who bears no resemblance to his impossibly chiseled, world-class bodybuilder namesake, recently got a fax inviting him to a competition in Timisoara, Romania.

Because we know Google will be able to meet whatever our informational need may be at whatever moment we need it, it has, in many ways, made us all a little lighter. “Rather than having to carry the factual baggage around in your head, you have this electronic prosthesis,” says Sven Birkerts, a noted author who has written about the intersection of technology and society. “You can get it anytime, and the doors don’t lock.”

But as we lean so heavily on the prosthesis, will part of us atrophy? Jonathan Zittrain, co-director of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, recalls a story by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. “There’s a massive library of all knowledge, but somebody messed up the card catalog, and it might as well not exist, because you have no idea where anything is,” he says. “Likewise, if it’s not in Google, there’s an important way in which it might not exist.”

REVOLUTION IS BREWING INSIDE THE BOSTON OFFICE of the register of Suffolk Probate and Family Court, the oldest elective office in the country. A locked closet houses the wills of some of the biggest names in Boston’s past - Isabella Stewart Gardner, Mary Baker Eddy, John F. Kennedy. But barely 40 feet away stands the conduit to the court’s future. It looks like nothing more than a Xerox machine, but the $15,000 e-Cabinet can convert reams of court documents into searchable computer files. That means it can go a long way toward helping the register, Richard Iannella, realize his dream of creating a fully digital court.

During his six years in the post, Iannella, a kinetic former Boston city councilor who has a habit of tapping your forearm repeatedly when he’s trying to make a point, has railed against the institutionalized, almost antagonistic inefficiency of the Massachusetts court system. He has worked to get his 55 employees to view each person walking through the door as a customer, or, more to the point for Iannella, a voter.

As much as he and his lieutenants have made remarkable steps toward improving efficiency, they believe the e-Cabinet offers the possibility of a giant leap. Iannella envisions a time not so far off when people can avoid coming to the courthouse altogether, instead logging on to the court’s Web site to peruse Uncle Ernie’s will or file for a change in child support payments. If a judge gets a call from the cops late one Saturday night seeking an emergency restraining order, he would be able to call up the accused’s complete court record from home and make a more informed decision.

Even though Iannella can only go so far without the blessing of the state’s technology-tepid judicial leaders, he’s determined to press ahead. So there’s now a new “To Be Scanned” bin on the desk of Genevieve Donnelly, a white-haired clerk who had to fill her fountain pen with “Massachusetts standard ink” to do her recording when she joined the register’s office more than 40 years ago.

But where Iannella sees efficiency, privacy advocates see danger. Robert Ellis Smith, a Providence lawyer who publishes the newsletter “Privacy Journal,” worries about the benefits all these online court records will have for stalkers, identity thieves, and insidious commercial interests - especially when the online records make their way into Google’s grasp. Cindy Southworth, director of technology for the National Network to End Domestic Violence, is concerned about the information-on-demand implications for women fleeing abusive relationships. “My biggest fear,” she says, “is that it will take a horrific murder - because some court put something on the Web that wasn’t supposed to be there - for people to begin taking this seriously.”

In the absence of any standardized approach, individual courts nationwide are doing their own thing. One of the courts in the digital vanguard is in Hamilton County, Ohio, where most records are searchable through the court’s Web site and, by extension, of course, through Google. I’ve never met Suzanne or Gregory, but by simply poking around the Hamilton County Web site, I was able to read the full appeals court judgment in their divorce, complete with their salaries and competing child support claims, down to the penny. When I then typed their full names in Google, the same document popped up instantly. Even more distressing to advocates like Southworth: The Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, court posts on its Web site the names and addresses of not just the suspects in abuse cases but the alleged victims as well.

Thankfully, many of these fears still live in the realm of the hypothetical. Pressed for concrete examples, Smith cites the horrifying 1999 case of Amy Boyer, in which a stalker paid an Internet search service for the 20-year-old New Hampshire woman’s Social Security number and work address, which he used to track her down. He then shot her to death. But the Boyer case cuts both ways. After her death, her stepfather lamented that if only he had typed Amy’s name into a search engine, he might have realized the danger she was in by coming across her stalker’s Web site, where he had detailed his plans to kill her.

Of course, most court information has long been public. But there is a profound difference between records buried in a county filing cabinet and the one-stop precision shopping you get from Google. People now refer to the protection of the disorganized, inefficient past as “security through obscurity.”

Craig Silverstein, Google’s first hire, says society has tried to have it both ways for too long. “We’ve had this ideal of having lots of information open to the public,” he says, “but in practice it hasn’t been available. Now we have to decide.” If Google is helping to force society’s hand, he says, so be it.

SO ONCE ALL THIS INFORMATION ABOUT YOU is out there in Googleland, is there anything you can do about it? Like so much in life, that depends on who you are. Google indexes more than 3 billion Web pages, 400 million images, and 800 million newsgroup postings (including an archive of embryonic Internet chatter it purchased from an outfit called, but it is willing to remove certain information, under certain circumstances.

If you desperately want that picture of a bleary-eyed you in an ill-fitting toga to disappear from Google, and the search engine found the photo on a Web site you control, then all you have to do is take the picture down. (However, the image will continue to be accessible for a month or even longer to users who know to click on the “Cached” link that appears on search-results summaries.) You can also keep Google’s crawler away by building code into your Web site that acts as an electronic “no trespassing” sign.

But in the more likely event that Google found the offending information on someone else’s Web site, you are on your own. Google will not remove information from its index unless the Webmaster in question requests it. So say you flee an abusive relationship, move to a new state, and decide to run in a 10K road race, only to realize later that your home address got posted next to your time on the running club’s Web site. If you want that information removed, you have to appeal to the good graces of the running club Webmaster, not Google.

That issue of control apparently changes, however, if you’re a deep-pocketed, heavily-lawyered entity making a copyright infringement claim. Last year, lawyers for the Church of Scientology insisted that Google remove from its index links to, a Web site that is highly critical of the controversial church. They claimed that the site infringed on the church’s copyrights and trademarks. Google promptly complied, to the horror of many Google fans who saw it as an abdication of the company’s longstanding commitment to search purity. Google said it had no choice but to abide by federal copyright law, but critics pointed out that Google had in fact removed more than was required under law. In the end, Google restored some of the links and explained its reasoning to users. “Ultimately,” Sergey Brin says, “where we ended up was the right conclusion, but we didn’t initially handle it correctly.”

Harvard Law’s Zittrain says more clashes are on the way. “The cutting edge on such battles is often the Church of Scientology,” he says. “They have very well honed procedures and tactics to remove information that they find objectionable.” Check out a site called to see the growing list of letters from various parties demanding that Google remove information about them. What seems clear is that just as in Washington, some parties will have more power than others in the Internet democracy governing Google Nation.

I ask Brin if there is anything about him a Google search turns up that he wishes wasn’t there.

“There are certainly some embarrassing photos from my younger days,” he says, chuckling. “I had not the most stylish of hairdos.”

How about his home address?

“I hope not,” Brin says, no longer chuckling.

Would it bother him if it was there?

“Hmm, I think it would,” he says.

As it turns out, his current address does not show up. Nor does the personal information for many of today’s digital power brokers. Most of them were smart enough to begin years ago the process of making their personal information invisible online. So much about privacy is preventative, because once the information gets online somewhere, it spreads so fast that it’s virtually impossible for it to ever be private again. (Google says its employees must follow the same procedures as the general public when requesting that information be removed.)

Brin didn’t cover all of his tracks, though. Type his name into the cheery but disturbingly comprehensive Web site, and up pops his birth date: August 21, 1973.

IN 1996, WHEN MOST AMERICANS STILL DIDN’T HAVE e-mail addresses and most companies had yet to get their Web sites up and running, two tech guys sat in a rented office in San Francisco thinking about the earliest television work of Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan, and Dave Garroway. Actually, they were Internet guys, and they were really thinking about the future. If somebody doesn’t do something, they told each other, the next generation is going to be asking the same questions of Web leaders that we ask of television’s pioneers: Why didn’t anyone take the time to save the early stuff?

So Brewster Kahle and Bruce Gilliat began the process of archiving the Web - literally, taking regular snapshots of as many of the Web pages as their crawler could find and putting them in a big, permanent album. That’s how the Internet Archive was born, and six years later, it is still crawling away, benefiting from vastly improved technology and taking a fresh snapshot of the Web every two months. The site ( features a nifty tool called the Wayback Machine - an homage to the time-traveling duo of Mr. Peabody and Sherman of Rocky and Bullwinkle fame - that re-creates a Web page on various dates over the past six years. At first blush, this seems cute but superfluous.

Will there ever be a time when our grandchildren will need, desperately, to get back to the actual Web site where fans of Justin Timberlake breathlessly discussed his appearance with the rest of N’Sync on the May 4, 2000, episode of The View?

But thinking about it in television terms, there’s no question we are poorer for not being able to review the television coverage of the 1948 presidential election or most of the early episodes of the Today and Tonight shows or even the game that changed football, the 1958 overtime win of the Baltimore Colts over the New York Giants. And the Internet promises to be even more influential in shaping us in the new century than TV was in the last. “The Internet is now the information resource of first resort for millions,” says Kahle. “And, increasingly, it is the resource of only resort.”

So the work being done by the obscure Internet Archive and the mainstream Google in helping us order and preserve our online lives may prove vital to future generations. The irreversible course we’re on will no doubt trample the privacy and security of more than a few among us.

As a nation, we need to put measures in place, before it’s too late, that provide some basic protection of vital personal information, like bank account numbers and Social Security numbers and, most important, details that have personal safety implications, such as the addresses of victims. But, in the end, given how much of life is lived online nowadays, the greater good is served by making most information accessible and permanent.

In time, we will adjust. “People get used to invasions of privacy,” Zittrain says. Who would have thought even a year and a half ago that we would all readily submit to taking our shoes off before boarding the shuttle to Washington? What we will likely see, though, is a privacy premium - protection far more available to people with power and money. “When pagers and high-end cellphones first came out, the only people who had them were top executives,” says Sven Birkerts. “It was a mark of their prestige - they were so important that they needed to be reachable wherever they went. Then the technology trickled down. Now the mark of prestige is the person nobody can reach.”

And as much as organizing all the world’s information is Google’s goal, the people there insist that day is still a long way off. “Google doesn’t catch everything,” says Silverstein. He says the last time he Googled himself, he found a lot about his work at Google and in the computer science field, but the search produced nothing about one of his big personal-interest areas. “I am very active in the Muppets community,” Silverstein says. “I maintain the FAQ list on a Muppets fan Web site.”

Then again, Google gets better every day. In .17 seconds, a recent search for “Craig Silverstein” and “Muppets” produced 72 results.

Neil Swidey is a member of the Globe Magazine staff.