I try to keep my information freely available online, to reduce my stalkability.
I was astonished today to find that if google "invertible", my website, invertible.net, is on the much sought first page of hits. This made me realize how desperately I need to get update the site, and how valuable it turns out to be to have a web address based on a word that nobody can spell.
This self-googling came about because somebody googled my email address and actually found a posting I submitted to a Go programming forum. I've had two gmail addresses for several years now, and nobody has ever hit either of them in a google search, despite my rampant memberships with annoying mailing lists, four blogs, and a handful of community sites for which I've forgotten the account password. It never came up because all of these sites store my email address in a database, which is not what google searches. The Go forum was in an archive forum, and rendered an actual page of text with my messages, responses, username, and my email, thus creating an html form searchable by the google spiders.
This got me thinking about the rest of my online presence, which I've always tried to keep as public as possible, on the grounds that it pushes my fifteen minutes of semi-fame, and that I have little to hide.
Say you had my email address. Now if you punch in firstname.lastname@example.org in google, you'll come up blank. But invertible is a fairly odd word, so it may well be worth punching in invertible alone. Done. As above, this will bring up my professional if ugly homepage, if you skip down to the first non-math, non-dictionary entry. From here you can garner a few simple facts: where I live, my name, my phone number, my work, the hideously smug tone of a lot of my writing that I simply cannot escape, and a blurry impression of what I look like. Not bad, but it's a dead end, and an intentional dead end, because I don't necessarily want future employers seeing what else I have online. I don't actually want anyone seeing that page right now, but c'est la vie.
Now, an enormous number of people are on myspace. 62 million, I think. Assume 50 million+ in the US, just because it was started in and still targeted at an english speaking audience, and things started in the US stay fairly US-centric just because of the huge percentage of Americans with computers. So with a population of about 300 million, and not counting any demographic information at all, odds are 1 in 6 a given email address is somewhere on myspace. Since myspace is searchable by email address, might as well. Takes two seconds.
Now we're in money. My page there is rife with personal information. You can see what a fair chunk of my friends look like, check out the interests that I personally think make me interesting, the things I like to do and watch. It's essentially a giant personals ad with the benefit of fringe networking mystique, encouraging people to put more and more personal info up to the web.
Additionally, it has the link to my other blog, a far more personal one. Clickable as it is, might as well click, and bang, you've got new links, personal notes, bad music composed by moi, and a handy set of links extending my ego deep into cyberspace. From here, you can get to the community site I maintain,1 back to myspace, and even to a couple of websites I made or worked on professionally. Not bad. Add to that a chunk of personal essays, and you have a fair impression of what I do with time, which for the record, consists of drinking, writing, and working.
Now, I argue, anybody who has done this hasn't stalked me yet. I have been stalked; hate-stalked, too, not the friendly-creepy-shy-guy/girl kind of stalking we all know and avoid with varying sympathy. All of this has been easy. Stalking is when someone goes well out of their way to get information about where you are, what and whom you do, what you like, etc. The internet blurs the definition because it's so easy; why not not google an email address? It's an impersonal analogy to leaning over to a friend in a bar and saying, "Chuck, man, who's that chick?" From a strictly male perspective, I do roughly the following in a bar if I'm single and drunk: Notice attractive girl. Notice what she's doing. Notice her comfort level. If she's facing me, check out face and hair, scan down. If she's facing away from me, check out ass and legs, scan up. Next, how does she move, is she with anybody, etc. If possible, locate a friend and say, "who's that girl?" to avoid possible conflict-oriented, ego-driven male inebrieation ritual. With any luck, I can find out if she's single, if she's related to anyone I know, and a quick sentence about what she's like. Whether or not I know anything, approach or don't. Commence drinking either way.
Easy. Now, hanging around the bar, consistantly quizzing people about her, asking friends about her, watching her without saying anything, and quietly figuring out where she lives and going doing a list of facts to know turns into stalking very quickly; it becomes a silent violation of privacy, with the death nell of innocence being sounded when you get a phone number without asking.
These guidelines are fairly simple to see once you hit a certain maturity. It's not that the information is hard to find, it's just that at a certain point, determined by level of confidence, remoteness of person in question, and immediete access to information, it becomes easier to ask the person than ask about them, and that is where you have to cross the line or shove off.
Online, the immediete access to information variable becomes something else entirely. It's defining. So a vast amount of information can be quickly snatched in the space of a cigarette break, from little more than an email address. It's disconcerting at first; whatever you put online is not private. Even your most locked away notes to your future children are available to someone, somehow, unless you run your own server, and the fact is, most of what you put up is available to most people. That is, be honest, the reason we put it up in the first place.
Having my other email address, which is, for the record, email@example.com, suddenly brought up by google was disconcerting. It was the first time something went public that I didn't strictly intend to be public. Still, quizzing programmers on Go strategy isn't exactly child-porn, so I'm all for it.
It would be creepy if someone found my livejournal. Yes, I kept one for ages, and if you have taken the five minutes it would take to browse all the above-mentioned links, you, even as a complete stranger, would know I once kept it. However, I made a clean break from that community a few months ago, and haven't looked back. I've gone so far as to remove all links to it from anywhere in my small circle of online identity pages, so though a would be stalker would know I had one, it wouldn't be particularly easy to find.
If you went to livejournal and punched in the email you'd been following so far, it would come up blank. Neither is the username invertible, nor anything obvious. There are no pictures to help. At this point, it would be the end of the cigarette break, and you would be compelled to go back to work and leave me alone; it's already a little over the top to be digging into discarded journals, but it is admittedly there, so you're okay. It would take an average person some serious, calculated thinking to extrapolate my other email address,2 and figure that I might have used that one on livejournal, and that constitutes clever detective work, and clever detective work is exactly what you don't want to find yourself doing. My old journal, besides having three years worth of surprisely personal postings, has my IM name, so if anyone I've sent an email to IMs me one day telling me how sorry they are for my grandfather's death, I will be exceptionally cautious about encouraging their curiousity.
At least, I would have been before this essay. Full of emails and addresses, I have now finally made myself as stalkable as I know how. From this one entry, you can find nearly everything I've ever willingly put online, easily and quickly, and thus, I cannot be stalked online, because there isn't enough effort to be expended.3 If anyone actually started looking, they could find this essay easily enough, and that would be all they need. The rest is at their discretion.
I don't mind this because I see this as an electronic extension of curiousity, in exactly the same way I see the internet as an extension of my ability to process and access any other kind of information; the way myspace is an extension of a small town post office bulletin board.
href="...", the code behind the hyperlink and all those little blue underlined words, has, almost alone, erased the limits of connectivity. Privacy has stayed a mental and physical space; privacy on cyberspace is pointless, nearly impossible, and counter-productive. Anyone wading through the debris of the information revolution will have been fairly careful to not put truly private secrets online. As much as it's a precaution for oneself, it's considerate to the community, and by extension, the computer-owning population of the world, to keep your dirty laundry out of our guilty conscious.
1 inkpad.us, now defunct. This wasn't so much a community as one of my early attempts at achieving what this site achieves, except inkpad was trying to acheive it for several people at once. Really, it was an excuse to give the four of us an excuse to continue drinking on weekdays. Now that two are married, one is close to married, and I admitted to being an alcoholic, we don't need the excuses.
2 firstname.lastname@example.org. This is now on my contact page, but it wasn't when I wrote this.
3 Barring someone bothering to actually hack my accounts and get SS numbers and credit card info. As always, please try.