Hermits Rock

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Dear Reader,

Nothing you do online is private. You can take great pains to avoid using your credit card, your real name, your photograph, but your computer is a snitch, and even if your computer is not a snitch, your ISP’s computer is. I hope you don’t doubt it, but just in case, two weeks ago America Online dropped 658,000 users’ search queries onto the Internet (searchable here), including at least one disturbing string of searches by user 17556639, who searched twice for “how to kill your wife” and other morbid fantasies, here chronicled by Jim Henley.

As a reader I find all this nonprivacy a little disturbing, if only because sometimes, such as when I want to look at porn, I like to think my door is locked, my wife is out of the house, and nobody knows what it is I am doing. (There are ways to mask your IP address, but who really wants to go through that rigamarole for a few minutes of skin?)

But as a Web publisher, privacy’s lack is fascinating. Unlike any other medium, the Internet supplies publishers a way to know, precisely what readers read. Reader 61.x.xy.111, at 7.41 this morning loaded Hermits Rock in Firefox. He didn’t look at any other pages, although if he had, I would have known it, doubly so, because 61.x.xy.111 is me. With some diligence (because my IP address isn’t static) I could discover how often I have read Hermits Rock since July, how many hits per day I average, and that my hit count probably isn’t as great as J’s. In the same way that Amazon has algorithms to guess what you’ll buy based on what you search for, from our site statistics, which not only log what you read but also where and when you read, it would be possible to create a fairly sophisticated profile of you that could predict, with some good inferences, not only what you like to read, but also, and most intriguingly, why you like to read it. No publisher ever received more information about her readers than the online publisher.

While it’s nearly impossible to preserve privacy online, it shouldn’t be so difficult to maintain anonymity or its close cousin, pseudonymity (which I’ve written about before), because there’s a very real difference between anonymity and privacy. Publicity is a function of the machine; anonymity is an agreement between the persons who use their machines. Speaking only of the Hermits, for example, by your habits I can know you. Last spring J read Hermits in the morning from home; then, for about 15 minutes he disappeared while he biked to work. When he got there, he began reading Hermits again. If you readers were much greater in number than you are, perhaps, it’d be more difficult to keep track of J’s readings. For now, however, you’re a small bunch, and I like to think I know you all a little better by the small things I discover by your reading. Jimmy Stewart, in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window Like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, I keep your habits and the stories I make from them in your trust, and so long as you don’t make a habit of visiting here by searching Google for “what babies taste like,” you can trust me to keep your habits secret.

Anonymity should be easily kept, I say, and is usually, when it is understood as an agreement between publisher and reader. Some blogs, such as Unfogged, get it. Its commenters protect each others’ good names because they all have a respect for anonymity itself. Other blogs don’t. Not long ago someone “asked JH, rather pointedly and with not a little challenge, why he won’t come out from behind his letters. JH responded—appropriately, I think—by not explaining at all: “There are many reasons why I’m anonymous, all of them exceedingly wise.” (In all honesty, if I had a name like Jehosaphat Humper, I’d go by JH, too.) Worse than that, though, was yesterday: browsing another blog (no links this time, for reasons exceedingly wise), I discovered the blogger had gone even beyond the question asked above. He posted a direct request of a silent reader. “I see you’re from Albuquerque,” he said. “I used to know a guy from Albuquerque. Are you Steve?” Whoever Steve is, I hope he has the good sense not to say yes or no.

There is much we online publishers can know about readers because our readers’ reading is public; however, I maintain reading is primarily an anonymous affair, made anonymous because of a contract between me and you. I believe the breaking of our contract to be unethical. But why doesn’t everyone? If you think I’m wrong, what responsibility (if any) do those in control (in the know) have to protect those who wish to remain unknown?

 

Comments

Ahh, blessed internet. The one place in the world where I am JH and not Jehosophat Humper.

Have you seen how many blogs don’t lock up their sitemeter stats? Anyone who reads the blog can access them. That’s really horrifying.

I bet middle school was murder. “Hey! Here comes Humper!” And all the popular kids laughed.

At the same time, look at other peoples’ stats makes you feel all voyeuristic.

at least you weren’t eglon humper!

that’d be most unseemly

now that it is known that i obsesively check hermits, i will start my own blog so that greg won’t know how many times a day i do or do not check to see if anyone has said anything in my own little backwater.

Egoist!

J’s going stag! Let me know when you get your bachelor pad set up.

I’ve often toyed with the idea of pulling kb.net off the net, and emerging later with a pseudonymous blog…

but I would miss all those luscious stats…

and I’m sure the first post mentioning Yoder would give me away…

you’re right, this is less an opus and more of a taxi-cab confessions for voyeuristic lovers of prurience

actually, i’m too lazy to go stag :P

that or your first link to your flickr account gawking at an offensively large american flag

or, your first get rich quick off links to my blog scheme… which ever comes first

the more I think about it, the more I am drawn to the idea of faking my own internet death, and then coming back a few weeks later, but this time with my hair dyed and a nice moustache, and fewer flame-worthy posts…

i like the writing and all that, but the emails from baron are getting as monotonous and as boring as the posts that he replies to…

If you do it, GKB, it will mean you are more like a phoenix than like Jesus: you die a glorious death every year, to be reborn new again and to save HP another day.

oh, that’s right. it IS almost time for the “break from blogging/autumnal lent” season.

I don’t think a faked death is the way to go, because the name recognition of kb.net is helping me get in touch with long lost family members in Africa, who are slowly gaining access to email, the internet and Google. Just last week I got an email from a cousin I haven’t seen in 12 years who found me by doing a vanity search.

Maybe I’ll just let kb.net devolve (evolve?) into one of those xanga-esque diaries, and start the phoenix-esque blog somewhere else…

As a reader I find all this nonprivacy a little disturbing, if only because sometimes, such as when I want to look at porn, I like to think my door is locked, my wife is out of the house, and nobody knows what it is I am doing.

WHAT????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

What? You think I ogle porn when you’re around?

well, i will now sit by and watch greg pick up the bits of his life, now that the hit’s fit the shan… in the cozy non-privacy of the cyber-world…

i do think she cap and bolded that interrogative, exclammative, explicative

But she forgot the italics!

So, where does the analogy break apart between my conclusion and the fact that our telephone companies collude with the Feds to give away our phone records?

of course it’s unethical to break that trust.

why did elia kazan testify before the house un-american committee?

and that is just one or two reasons why people break this trust.

I don’t know. Why did Elia Kazan testify before the house unAmerican committee?

...Sigh. Don’t bother. I don’t think there’s any way you can make that funny.

I don’t think everyone believes your “of course,” J. I mean, I’m willing to accept that the person looking for “Steve” was largely ignorant of the trust he was breaking; he, like a redneck at Das Rhinegold, just couldn’t keep quiet about all the amazing things he saw. But what makes some people need to draw others out? I mean, what’s with the guy who needed JH to cop to being Jehosophat Humper? Or the people who couldn’t let Scott be GR?

Thesis: it’s because what many of us have in common breeds mistrust in anything that reeks of anonymity. The priesthood of all believers req’s that all believers be held to account.

So, we won’t be seeing any of those cathyolick confession booths in our megaplexes any time soon?

It’s much easier to confess, like to porn and so on, when you’re anonymous…

And when your wife doesn’t read your blog.

people insistent on outing scott or demanding that jh fess up to who he are of a different order than you or me saying… you know, i know this girl attending such and such a school, doing thus and such at her church, and going on to kb.net and writing hey everybody preacher molloy comments at my blog also… and preacher molly is actually felipa montega, for those of you who don’t remember her, she’s the one who very publically broke up with the student body president that we all loved because he’d do high kicks in chapel…

albuquerque steve, as you point out, is also of a different order, phylum and genus as well… but i don’t want to impugn anyone tonight

True, there’s a power dynamic (knowledge to be not/revealed) at play in the albuquerque steve scenario (as well as in Preacher Molly’s case) that’s not in play in folk asking JH/Scott to come out. Perhaps I conflate the two because Albuquerque Steve Blogger was of the same ilk as the others: at the same time as I write about this whole power of knowledge thing, I was/am also thinking about communities of people who fret about ano-/pseudonymity. My doublethink there has led to some conflation, I fear.

i’m dull… what is it that we have in common, despite prurient voyuerism and a love of gossip (which necessitates a real person whom we can malign)? neither of which, i think, you are alluding to.

along with curiousity, consistency and intimacy are also bound up in this. (and the fear that we are just blithely typing away and communicating with a faceless word-processing program… if i were a good buddhist i might affirm that and use it to kill the ego you said i have).

though neither consistency nor intimacy really at play with the desire to out GR… of bloggers he was extremely consistent and intimate, in ways that drove people nuts. but, i would still say that it is an intimacy issue… or really, the appearance of intimacy. we want the face and the name, and much prefer these to any real intimacy…

i’ve rambled enough!

i think, say in the scott/jh thing (which is different than companies colluding with the government), the anonymity of the web uncouples the comment from authority. authority is an elaborate cult of personality… it’s a trust in a brand… one’s real name and face, and knowing the real name of the person, is a vestige of this authority-personality link. when persons on kb.net want to know who jh is or who GR is (or readers of GR—and i’m excluding those who want to know their names for malicious intent) they not only want to know if there is a real person there, but who that real person is and whether or not that real person has the authority to speak to what they have spoken about. the outing is an attempt to either validate their authority or discard them as posers… if the first case, this keeps intact the link between person and authority, if the latter, it allows them to move into gossip mode…

i’ve helplessly digressed!

i just want the person who came to our site looking for what+is+something+that+machiavelli+from+the+Prince+said+that+yo+disagree+with…

to know:

i have been wanting to do a post on machiavelli for a few months now, on machiavelli’s Prince and eramus’s Institutio Principis Christiani and how in the spanish 16th and 17th centuries a whole bucket of books with titles such as Machiavellianism Beheaded by the Christian Wisdom of Spain and Austria and Treatise on Religion and the Virtues That the Christian Prince Should Have in Order to Govern and Conserve His States: Against what Nicolas Machiavelli and the Politiques of this Age Teach. were written.

i just haven’t had time to… sorry, i realize that when i get it written a few months from now, your urgent need for something brilliant for your class tomorrow will have passed.

but, then again, i doubt you’d find much of interest issuing from my keyboard.

g… have i broken trust?

Doesn’t matter. That person’s gone and should’ve been horsewhipped anyway for mistyping “you” and not immediately correcting his search out of shame.

On a similar note, I fully believe all our talk about Augustine will end up in an even dozen sophomore papers.

Speaking of, how come you didn’t want to say anything to the person who searched, “augie rocks! SO MUCH”?

I’m fascinated by the idea of sock puppetry. It’s like an internet version of that thing Andy Kaufman did with wrestling women in the early 80s.

I’ve suspected many times that Baron of kb.net fame was a total sock puppet with GKB’s hand. That would be a more comforting theory for me than believing he’s real, ‘cause that’s just weird.

I always believed in B—n, but there's certainly some other sock puppetry going on at kb.net.

It seems to me that sock puppetry has varying degrees of sinfulness. If you connect to your name some degree of credibility and or journalistic truthfulness, you are obligated a) to go fullbore anonymous on the internets or b) to go fullbore named on the internets, or c) to go half anonymous and half named, but to avoid talking about yourself. Especially with c) it’s important to be very careful. Apparently, Siegel wasn’t.

It’s shocking that he would be so careless. This is far from the first time someone’s been busted doing this sort of thing.

The counterpart to pseudo-/anonymity, of course, which we haven’t talked about above, is publicity. What pressures persist on one who attaches his or her full name to his/her work online are real and surely are more palpable in some contexts than others.

You knew it was bound to happen, didn’t you, Albuquerque Steve?

Well, what can you do? As I was telling a reader via email a few days ago, I really don’t care if the whole HU crowd finds me out. The most important thing to me is that I maintain professional anonymity.