I’ll readily admit to being as vain as anyone else. When I first started letting the world know that I existed with my initial blog posts (2007), first book (2008), and this website, I decided to Google myself to determine how “alive” I was to the larger world. My ego was pleasingly stroked when I discovered that I wasn’t entirely anonymous. An op-ed or two that I had penned for the Hartford Courant, a speech I had given to a New England agricultural organization, and even a photo of me popped up through the magic of digital storage and regurgitation. But imagine my surprise when my name also appeared under the photo of someone who didn’t look like me at all and, further, claimed to be an investigative reporter for Atlanta television station WSB. Who was this pretender with the unmitigated gall to encroach on the Google space reserved exclusively for me, the heretofore, one and only Mark Winne?
After my congressman told me that there wasn’t anything I could do about it—apparently, parents can name their children without consulting the person who claims to be the rightful heir to an uncommon surname—I slowly let go of my indignation. But without the power to license the Winne name, I had no choice but to engage in search engine optimization. My strategy was to shotgun blast as much mediocre content into cyberspace as possible to displace, erase, and efface all others who dare occupy my space!
The first evidence that my aggressive use of digital elbows was paying off came one day when I received a phone call from a woman who asked if I was Mark Winne. After responding affirmatively, she proceeded to tell me that her daughter was incarcerated in the Dekalb County jail and was suffering from an advanced form of cancer that the prison authorities were failing to treat adequately. She started crying half way through her account and begged me for help. I was stunned and began to think about what I could do. Then it dawned on me—Dekalb County was part of the Atlanta metro region, and I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I said I was sorry for her daughter’s suffering, but perhaps she was trying to find the TV reporter? That was the case, she unnecessarily apologized, and I wished her and her daughter well. Apparently, the reporter Mark Winne had carved out a special news beat that exposed the wrongful actions and neglect by law enforcement and corrections against the region’s more marginalized people.
To my chagrin, my domination of the Mark Winne Google corner had become so complete that I started getting similar calls once a month, then once or twice a week, and then by email and texting. On one occasion, I just happened to be attending a conference in Atlanta. As I was walking down Peachtree Avenue on the way to my hotel, my cell phone rang and the caller asked, “Is this Mark Winne in Atlanta?” Since I’ve been programmed to mostly tell the truth, and afraid that my denial might be contradicted by a nearby security camera, I said yes. After listening to another tragic tale of police abuse, an incompetent public defender, and an excessive jail sentence rendered by an indifferent judge, I did my best to deny being that Mark Winne and to direct the caller to that Mark Winne. At this point, I wasn’t sure who I was.
In an attempt to disentangle the growing identity confusion and to smooth the path to justice for those whom, based on the region’s racial incarceration rates, were mostly Black Americans, I reached out to WSB-TV in Atlanta. My hope was the station would be eager to rectify the problem with some kind of publicity blitz, and maybe even get a laugh out of the Winne doppelgangers haunting the airwaves. But after leaving several voice messages, sending numerous emails, and even using their “News Tip Hotline” (I suggested a headline: “When Two Mark Winnes Are Not Better Than One”), I only succeeded in reaching a junior assistant producer who told me, “I’ll look into it.” An appeal to a couple of Atlanta area social justice activists I knew was greeted with a sigh. “That’s only one of the many problems we have with the Atlanta media,” I was told.
By then I had resigned myself to the steady stream of importuning, pleadings, and prayers that came my way from those in crisis. Had I saved all the one hundred-plus messages I received over the last seven years, including those I cut off in mid-sentence out of respect for their privacy and dignity, I would have a lengthy record of how the most vulnerable and powerless struggle with the mischief and misery of the judicial system. With no basis by which to judge the guilt or innocence of those whose Google-search led them desperately to the wrong Mark Winne, I have born accidental witness to how an inhumane system takes sadistic pleasure from an extra turn of the screw for those already on their knees.
To my point, I received the following email in June from an Atlanta-area citizen. It is typical of what has come my way but was intended for the reporter. Though I have removed the proper names, it is reprinted here just as I received it:
Mr Winne, I would like to remain anonymous at this time but later actually speak with you. I will give you a little information about this case. Sheriff ****** and the District Attorney indicted Mr ****** knowing the autopsy done by the GBI came back a suicide . They’ve had the results for months and have not released it to the public. His constitutional rights have been denied and evidence withheld. No bail, no vistation and they’re still holding him under an alias. Mr Winne, there is corruption going on in ****** County. Please investigate this case. Sheriff ****** rushed to judgement in this case. He has tunnel vision and disregarding all of the favorable evidence that Mr ****** is innocent. He is corrupt. Thank u so much and I pray you will investigate this case.
Though my efforts to abate the confusion and improve the flow of queries to the right Mark Winne have failed, I am, unbeknownst to him, proud of our de facto partnership. He is an advocate for the disenfranchised and a voice for the voiceless. If the number and severity of the stories I have received are any indication, there are simply not enough of him to do justice to those whose pleas are often stifled. Rather than trying to control access to the Winne name out of a misguided fear of diluting the “brand,” I will happily direct traffic to the correct Mark Winne in hopes that a righteous tide of justice will one day wash across the state of Georgia.
To that end and until then, Google is certainly big enough for the both of us!