BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 04 JUN 09
Featured in
Issue 124

Being Jennifer Allen

What it means to have countless namesakes on Google

BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 04 JUN 09

Lena Malm, Have you ever wondered how many people have the same name as you? I did (detail), 1994-9. Courtesy: the artist

Things are definitely slowing down. My writing contracts have dwindled from a tide to a trickle. And yet judging from Google, I still seem to be sooo busy. Not content to review only art exhibitions, I also assess cookbooks and scented candles. I have written books about football, real estate and literacy. In my spare time, I work for a private Swiss bank, a Canadian agricultural ministry and an Ashtanga yoga centre. I am a dancer, a potter, a film technician and a publicist who has handled the biggest Hollywood stars, like Kate Winslet and Matt Damon. Why, maybe I’m even f***ing Matt Damon!

How do I do it? My name is Jennifer Allen – and there happen to be thousands of other women with the same name running around the world and even in the art world. I realized that there were a few more of me a couple of years ago during an art fair. Some charmer rushed up to gush, ‘Jen, congratulations on screening your porn film in the Saatchi collection!’ and then left me in a cloud of air kisses before I could ask any questions. I wasn’t sure what was worse: the film (which turned out to be a Feminist Paul-McCarthyesque striptease), being in the Saatchi collection or Charles Saatchi watching me strip. Probably the latter.

It’s strange when someone mistakes you for someone else. But it’s even stranger when someone mistakes someone else for you. Facebook has made such confusions commonplace. While sealing zillions of friendships, the social network produces a fair share of enemies, if not misunderstandings. I met someone who thought they had been communicating with me on Facebook who told me how much they had laughed at the picture next to my moniker: ‘a black woman, with big boobs? Jen, you’re such a joker!’ Once again, I wasn’t sure what was worse: the belief that I, as a white, flat-chested woman, would make such a joke, the joke itself, or the laughter.

The moment of discovery – which, like the moment of deception, occurs beyond a face-to-face encounter – can be equally telling. ‘When I received hundreds of naked pictures from that Jennifer Allen, I started to wonder.’ Me, too. Am I capable of posting one racy picture but not hundreds? Do people think I am just a dabbler or, worse, a provocateur? Many laughed in an uncomfortable way when my name appeared as an assistant in the catalogue of the 5th Berlin Biennial – because I wrote a review of the show. For the record: I am not on Facebook (nor Twitter); I did not assist the Berlin Biennial; and just because I don’t eat pasta doesn’t mean that I smear it all over my naked body. As for the porn flick …

Before Google, Facebook and Twitter, the easiest way to find people with the same name was through the telephone book; one of my favourite pubescent pastimes was calling up international operators, which were free at the time, and asking for listings under the names of dead writers and their fictional characters. It was also a good way to practice foreign languages with a native speaker. ‘Signor Kafka a Roma? O a Firenze?’ Eventually, I compiled an international Gregor Samsa telephone directory – the numbers of all the people with the name of Kafka’s famous anti-hero. In America alone, there were five: three in San Francisco, one in San Antonio, and one in Anchorage (unlisted).

In 1994 – anticipating the invention of Google (1998), if not the film Being John Malkovich (1999) – the Swedish artist Lena Malm started locating women named Lena Malm across Sweden (and found 107 through phone books and the Swedish national registry, then the only centralized sources of information). Have you ever wondered how many people have the same name as you? I did (1994–9) culminated with a lunch for 55 Lena Malms at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet in 1999. Indeed, the restaurant filled with women who answer to the same name was a rudimentary Google search. Malm took five years to gather her namesakes; Google can find 197,000 hits for Lena Malms in 0.18 seconds. If social relationships once gained value through time, now celerity counts.

Like Jennifer Allen, Lena Malm is not just a common name. The web makes any name into a global brand: united by the same logo at the same place. Google turns a profit from public property – birth names, street views, library books, Prado museum paintings – while producing nothing itself, beyond sheer circulation and a terrifying monopoly. One day, I will likely be paying Google for the right to use my own name. I used to have a secret life; now I have thousands of lives that are known to others but remain secret to me – until someone rushes up to gush, ‘Jen, I didn’t know you were breeding Yorkshire terriers!’ Before I tried to correct; now I figure it’s probably good PR. But for Google or for me?

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.