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When I started working on my first book, I asked some writers I knew if they had any advice. Quite a few mentioned setting deadlines for myself so that instead of facing one Everest-sized due date, I could work through a series of more manageable, less Himalaya-sized deadlines one at a time; many encouraged me to try writing a few hundred words every day, but some said not to write anything until the whole book was outlined and I knew how all of the chapters worked; a few others suggested keeping up with the bibliography and footnotes as I did my research, and one even recommended starting a diary to track my reporting. As often happens with useful advice, I ignored nearly all of this. But, at some point in those early days, I did take a few minutes to do what one friend had suggested: I set up Google Alerts for the major figures in the book.

Google advertises its alerts as a way to “monitor the web for interesting new content.” To use them, you simply identify any word, phrase, name, or topic to follow; then the tech firm crawls the Internet looking for mentions, and delivers every new appearance of that term by e-mail. You can restrict the results by language and region, and choose among frequencies for how often you receive the notices (multiple times a day, in real time, or in digest form once a day or once a week) and also among sources (news, blogs, videos, or any Web site at all).

Most of my alerts for the book produced frequent, if unremarkable, results. “Harper Lee,” for instance, turned up mentions of the novelist that were occasionally useful—if someone had posted memories of her to a blog or if an auction house was selling a collection of her letters—but were more often a useless deluge of all the babies, dogs, and cats named in her honor. “Willie Maxwell,” however—the name of a preacher whose life Lee had researched and tried to turn into a true-crime book in the years after “To Kill a Mockingbird”—was another story. Decades ago, Maxwell took out life-insurance policies on his family members (five of whom he was accused of murdering), using several different names, among them Will, Willie, William, W.J., and W. M. Maxwell. Only one Google Alert reliably returned results: “Willie Maxwell,” a name that began appearing in my in-box with some regularity.

Every few weeks, I’d check my e-mail and find that Willie Maxwell was back in the news. A Danish songwriter was suing him for copyright infringement. Multiple outlets reported that police caught him drag racing while drunk on the Gowanus Expressway. He was arrested for allegedly assaulting three employees of the Mirage hotel in Las Vegas. His Hollywood Hills landlords sued him for nearly two hundred thousand dollars in damage to their house. Last fall, he was indicted for conspiracy to distribute fentanyl, heroin, and cocaine, and was released on bond after pleading not guilty. About a month later, he was arrested at Newark Liberty International Airport for an unrelated outstanding warrant.

My Willie Maxwell had been murdered by a vigilante during the summer of 1977, and, despite rumors that he was still haunting three counties in Alabama, he plainly had nothing to do with this Willie Maxwell. Willie Junior Maxwell II is the legal name of the rapper better known as Fetty Wap, whose musical career took off around the time that I started tracking the Reverend Maxwell. The year that I began writing, Fetty Wap became the first artist to have four songs simultaneously on the Billboard Top Ten for rap. “Trap Queen,” “Again,” “My Way,” and “679” were all songs of the summer, and Fetty Wap quickly became the star of my in-box.

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Since Google Alerts débuted, in 2003, hundreds of millions of people have set up alerts for their favorite actors, stock tips, television shows, experimental drugs, goose attacks, insulin prices, and, perhaps most often, themselves. Google Alerts can take users to unfamiliar corners of the Internet, introducing them to new publications and sources: an alert might take you to Fraud Magazine one week, the Journal of Forestry the next, and, a day later, to the Nome Nugget and to the historian Heather Cox Richardson’s “Letters from an American” Substack. Unlike search engines, the alerts don’t really rank their results, instead collecting any and all hits regardless of legitimacy or reach; if you opt for the daily or weekly digest version, you might get all of the related mentions of, say, “COVID-19 vaccine” nested under the New York Times or Science, but beneath those will appear all manner of Web sites, no matter how niche, offering any number of conspiracies or anti-vaccine propaganda.

If you set a Google Alert for “hot-dog cannon,” then chances are it works exactly as intended: infrequently delighting you with news about launchers designed to hurl hot dogs great distances. Broader terms, however, present a problem, especially when Boolean search isn’t an option: if ANDs, ORs, or NOTs might exclude the exact results you’re looking for, you end up suffering through the semi-relevant and not-at-all relevant in the hopes that, someday, the alert will turn up something actually relevant. My colleague Patrick Radden Keefe found that one of his alerts for his nonfiction book “Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland” was especially troublesome, not because people didn’t cover the Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.) and the “disappeared” enough but because he’d routinely receive e-mails like one that notified him of an article in the New York Post, titled “Real estate industry confidence skyrockets as commercial deals rebound,” which included one Ira Schuman saying, “The panic has disappeared.”

Google Alerts can cast a wonderful net, but mesh size matters: large holes and it catches nothing, too small and it catches everything. Consider the earliest and one of the most persistent reasons for setting these alerts: tracking yourself. All is vanity, perhaps especially on the Internet, so it’s no surprise that one of the things that we’re most eager to know is what the world is saying about us. The engineer who developed the alert system for Google told CNN that when he first presented the idea, twenty years ago, his manager was skeptical, worrying that it would starve the search-engine of traffic: rather than consumers constantly searching for fresh mentions of whatever topic interested them, they would wait for the alert, then follow its links not to Google but to outside Web sites, leaching away potential advertising revenue. In response, the engineer, one of the first forty or so employees of the company, took his prototype to Google’s co-founders, who approved it after watching him demonstrate only two search terms: “Google” and “Larry Page,” the name of one of the co-founders.

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Learning what other people thought about us used to take either a great deal of luck, like Tom Sawyer being mistaken for dead and then getting to eavesdrop on his own funeral, or a great deal of effort, like Harun al-Rashid, a caliph of the Abbasid dynasty, in the “Arabian Nights,” disguising himself in order to venture out into the streets and talk with his subjects candidly. But the Internet has made it easy—made it, in fact, almost unavoidable. The same Google Alert can make sure you know that your long-lost bunkmate from summer camp has mentioned you in an essay, that a friend of your deceased uncle has written a memoir of their time together in the Marines (including the care packages you sent them), and that the local newspaper has digitized its archives, thereby offering up to the Internet your high-school football averages and your arrest for vandalism.

Google Alerts exercise no judgment, so, in addition to sending you to your ex-boyfriend’s blog alongside The New York Review of Books, they fail to warn you the former is complaining that you got tenure before he did, while the latter is praising your academic research. As a result, they are not for the squeamish, since the good, the bad, and the unreadable appear together without any warning; the service promises content that is new, not content that is useful or desirable. Annoyingly for some, blessedly for others, the alerts do not generally capture mentions on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. For those networks, you have to search for yourself, hire someone to do that for you, or pay for a service or program such as Talkwalker, Muck Rack, or Meltwater. Snitch-tagging works the same way, although in those cases friends or enemies may well be alerting you to subtweets or mentions of yourself that you’d rather not have ever known about.

If you have an uncommon name, then all of the alerts will apply to you, but John Smith and Martha Wong might have to do some sorting through their results to figure out which of the results matter to them, as would Joseph Smith and Martha Stewart, assuming he wasn’t the reincarnated Mormon leader and she wasn’t the life-style guru. A Canadian political adviser named Stephen Taylor posted about being overwhelmed by his Google Alert the day Taylor Swift rereleased her song “Hey Stephen,” and the science-fiction writer William Gibson is sometimes besieged by notifications about productions of “The Miracle Worker,” since the author of that play had the same name.

Not everyone is bothered by these entwined fates; plenty of people enjoy celebrating the joys of their accidental imposters, tracking someone else’s life and career as if their own. The aleatory aspects of Google Alerts are like those serendipities of life off the Internet, when the barista says that you look exactly like her best friend and suddenly you’re learning about a person in California with the same cheekbones and eyeglasses, or the bank teller asks if you’re related to someone else with the same rare surname and you discover that there’s a whole other branch of whatever you are in West Virginia.

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Long before I set my Google Alert for “Willie Maxwell,” I’d experienced a case of mistaken identity. My Willie Maxwell was born and raised in Coosa County, Alabama, but it briefly seemed that he had taken his insurance fraud on the road and run a scam on the Atlantic coast of Florida. Reading through some newspaper archives, I’d found reports in the fifties of a Willie (Poison) Maxwell who had confessed to killing a man with arsenic for the insurance money after a body was found in a wooded swamp near Daytona Beach.

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For weeks, the police in Volusia County had searched for leads, only to have Maxwell walk right into the station and claim that the bones they’d found belonged to a man he’d murdered. Then, a few weeks later, the man he said that he’d killed was found alive. It turned out Willie Maxwell had lied about the identity of the skeleton, confessing to murder just so the police would declare his “victim” officially dead, leaving the man’s sister free to collect on three life-insurance policies. All this sounded an awful lot like my guy, but, when I finally got the original arrest record from the Clearwater Police Department, the Floridian Willie Maxwell, though he had the same name and birth year as my Willie Maxwell, had a different birthday, along with a slightly different physical profile and a distinctive facial scar.

Willie (Poison) Maxwell was the analog analogue of Fetty Wap: a coincidence of naming that introduced me to another Willie Maxwell. Neither one was the Maxwell I wanted to know more about, but both of them were worth knowing. I think of them as accidental imposters, a phenomenon known not only to reporters through cold calls or archival research, where you stumble around the world or through history chasing an idea or a story, but to anyone who has vicariously followed the life of someone else who shares their name: the version of yourself who has just graduated from high school, the version who has just died, the version who got a new job. These doppelgängers and their alternative lives remind us of the incredible specificity of our own, as well as the brilliance of our own inner search engines. Our brains may never catch up to Google in terms of the number of sources indexed, but they will always be better at one of the fundamental tasks of life: knowing what we’re looking for.

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