Thursday, February 28, 2008

Internet identities

I've been part of several online discussions where women have been taken to task for not revealing their names (other than an internet "handle" or nickname), for not revealing their full names, or for not revealing other personal information such as where they lived, what church they attended, the name of their pastor, etc. Usually it's been men who have gotten their knickers all in a twist over a woman not wanting to give out all her personal information, and I've usually cut the men some slack because...well, they just have no idea. (It reminds me of the time that my husband was shocked...I mean SHOCKED! discover that there was no honor code among criminal sorts and that mothers with babies were not safe from harm.)

Usually when I've explained internet safety in these discussions, the men have --- sometimes very reluctantly --- come to see that there is great wisdom in women not revealing their names and personal information online.

Back when I was brand, spanking new online, I was advised by some of my friends who were internet savvy that the safest approach was to adopt a gender-neutral "handle" and avoid disclosing anything of a personal nature. So that's what I did. However, that led to some humorous email exchanges when men in online theological discussions would assume I was also a man and would email me with a hearty "Amen, brother!"

All that came to a screeching halt when I set up my first website in order to provide an online means of distributing a paper that I'd written. Suddenly my name and some personal info was out there for all the world to see.

There has been a real downside to that, and it's one that I would warn women strongly against. Literally within hours of my full name appearing on the internet, I received a horrible, threatening, violently obscene email. Sent anonymously, of course --- but using my full name.

I have received threats since then. I've learned to be wary of "innocent" questions, such as, "What sort of car do you drive with all of your children?" I've had people figure out who my pastor was at the time, and harass him. I've had people email me that they know where we live and that maybe it's not a good idea, if I love my children, to let them play in the front yard. I've received emails telling me that I need to be "stopped permanently", and maybe the email author will take that task upon himself. I've been told that I'm "easy to follow".

So I tried to become anonymous again. My attempts have never worked. Apparently my writing style is so distinctive (odd grammar, constant typos, bizarre punctuation, and use of sayings such as "more than the socially acceptable number of children") that people instantly recognize me and "out" me.

My children are older now. As a family, we have become more public, at least in some arenas. Two of my adult children have their own online presences. I'm less careful than I used to be, back in the day when I removed all photos from my website after the first threat against our family.

It's been a long time since I've received any real threats (other than the usual chest-thumping "Give me your husband's email address" type nonsense that is laughable on so many levels) Maybe it's because we're trained martial artists. Maybe it's because I've posted a picture here and there of one of my sons who looks quite imposing and would prove a formidable opponent to any threatener, especially the out of shape blow-hard types.


If I had to do it all over again, I would stay anonymous. I've been extremely blessed --- I can't even be positive that any of those who threatened me actually turned up in person. There were a few times when different guys parked across the street and watched our house. I ran them off. Usually all it took was going out with a clipboard and making a big show of writing down their license plate numbers. (NOTE: Eldest Son was watching from inside, phone in hand, with 911 already punched in.)

However, I know people who have been stalked. I've read the horror stories of online predators. Not every victim survives.

I urge women to stay anonymous online, if at all possible. While I cut some slack to naive men for not understanding basic safety issues, I have far less patience for women who make a big deal out of demanding to know personal information about others. Just because a woman may delight in giving out her full name, posting her family pictures, and being all chatty about every detail of her life does not mean she has the right to demand that of everyone. Just because a woman may be willing to take that sort of risk does not mean she should encourage other women to cast safety aside.

Another warning: I could easily create an online persona, complete with fake name and fake gender, and claim to be anybody I wanted. I could even find some pictures of someone else and post them as my own. People do this ALL THE TIME. Grown men pose as young teenage girls in order to prey on trusting young girls. The person who posts in your favorite online discussions may go by the name of "Tusnelda Jones" all over the internet and may have a blog with pictures purported to be her smiling face --- but that doesn't mean she is who she claims to be. Unless you've met her in person, you should be very careful about answering any of "her" questions --- especially if she's hounding you to post your real name online. very cautious about meeting her in person, no matter how many emails you've exchanged and how well you think you know her.

Be careful out there. Be very careful.

And those of you who have the wisdom to be anonymous online --- don't let anyone pressure you otherwise. Stand firm. Anyone who doesn't respect your privacy and your safety has, in my opinion, no right to know anything about you...and their motives are highly suspect.


  1. Thank you for these thoughts, Rebecca. As you know, I'm one of those "she-wolves" who won't even tell people "who I am."

    There's a VERY good reason for that. That reason is none of anyone else's business, but let's just say that I learned the hard way that it's not always someone just whistling Dixie when you get threatened online.

    Let me add that I don't recommend providing an e-mail link. Yes, I might cut myself off from hearing from some very delightful people that way, but I also don't hear from some decidedly UNDELIGHTFUL people, too. I maintain a safety-layered e-mail address (as in, not related to my personal account) for those so-far very rare times when I feel a need to invite a private e-mail conversation.

    Anyway, your wise words are well worth considering. I hope people will take them seriously. And perhaps, if God is gracious, one or two of the demanding folks will also read it and realize how unreasonable they're being to expect others to be as reckless with their identities as the demanders are.

  2. Great post, Rebecca. As always, you have some great wisdom in this area. I love the demands for the name of my pastor and for my husband's info. I once had a pastor demand my husband's email address and when I told him that I will surely pass on his email information to my husband, my husband will contact him. I told this pastor that my husband does not want me to give out his email address, too. Well, did this patriarchalist respect my "head's" request? Nope. He wrote me back and threatened me with legal action. For what? It was an absolutely juvenile thing to say and totally out of proportion to the situation. His wife had privately emailed me and I responded to her- privately. I still have those emails and look back at them to remind me that I need to stick to my guns and not be pressured by the bullies into giving out more information.

    Psalmist, I was looking for your email address so I could email you and now reading your post, you have answered my question. :-)

  3. "I've had people email me that they know where we live and that maybe it's not a good idea, if I love my children, to let them play in the front yard."

    That happened to us. Replete with phone calls and multiple emails from someone who was mentally unstable and so. . . unpredictable.

    Thankfully it came to nothing. (Nothing? But fear and learning to use a gun and being a lot more internet safety conscious.)

    When I was a 'net neophyte, I belonged to an email list of Christian families with certain shared beliefs. I thought an email list was private. (I was naive.) I shared a lot of personal details about births, beliefs, children, names, locations. It wasn't wise. Nothing I shared am I "ashamed" of--I feel I can own those words as mine, even though I have changed and hopefully matured since those days. But it was very, very unsettling when I found out this email list was archived. Not only that--the archives were available for purchase. I felt very vulnerable.

    When we moved overseas (and because of what we were doing there) I did use my given name in various overseas-related places online. But for a long time now I've used the same handle. . . It is "me"--but one step protected from the crazies out there.

    Actually, it was something you wrote years ago in a footnote of a paper that had the biggest impact on me being more careful online. I want to protect my children's privacy--both now and in the future. So, I'll share cute stories and the occasional photo, but I strive to not share anything embarrassing and always be respectful.

  4. Of course one can always hide in plain sight. If you really want to go anonymous again, Rebecca, you can do that by building a completely different online persona, the more different from the "real you", the better. Use a different name, write in a different style, and from the standpoint of a different sex and educational level, (not a different age though, too hard to maintain) and, use a different ISP and don't let your cover slip!
    It's an acting challenge... but it can get you into some interesting places, and you'll learn all sorts of stuff about the people there, and I ain't just whistlin' Dixie... right now! ;)

  5. Back in the day, when I was on AOL, several of us started --- as a joke --- creating all kinds of alter egos and different personas. Then we would debate each other. The fun of it was trying to figure out who were the real people and who were the fake ones, and who the fake personas belonged to. For awhile, I really had people fooled with one of my made-up characters. But then I was having way too much fun with her and went way over the top with having her attack the real me and shred me in debates.

    The worst thing I ever did with an "anonymous" AOL screenname is loan it out to someone for the purpose of her monitoring an email list that had become increasingly more secretive. I thought she was just going to read the list as part of some research she was doing for an article. Instead, she created this horribly wacko person who sounded so twisted and deranged that I was aghast when, months later, I signed on under that screenname and read some of the emails. Moral: don't loan out your screenname. At least she didn't write anything so outlandish that the FBI showed up on my doorstep.

  6. Moral: don't loan out your screenname. At least she didn't write anything so outlandish that the FBI showed up on my doorstep.

    ...good point. And with that in mind, it's always a good idea to be circumspect, too, LOL.

  7. "Anonymous kooks." "Heretics." "Downgraded." "Raving radicals." "Wolves." "Fallen." "Equalinators." "Radical equalinists." "Kool-aid drinkers." "Magic Mushroom eaters." "False teachers." "On the outer fringe, the outer limits of kookdom, of hyperdom, of uberdom."

    All that in one blog post, supposedly in protest against (alleged) ad hominem, just because another blog owner moderated her comments (which by her own admission, included at least some of these "loving" epithets).

    It can be ugly out there. This very vitriolic, vocal critic of "anonymous" online writers/commenters just proved my point of why it's unwise for me to reveal too much about my identity online. Unbalanced, nasty people with an axe to grind against those they disagree with, often take it on themselves to bomb other people's e-mail and even physical mail with more of the same unwelcome garbage.

    Who I am is simply none of anyone else's business, unless *I* choose to reveal that information to those I wish to know it. I'm just not that important that any and all need to know my name, my my state, number of children, marital status, etc.

    So thanks, D., for reminding me why mine is a wise decision.

  8. Good thoughts!! I first "found" you by searching for that weird definition of grace: "God's enabling power to do his will" (not knowing it was a Gothard thing). Google linked to an older website of yours that did have your name on it. It's a small world.

  9. Related to this. . . I'd like to hear some of your thoughts on kids being online. To this point, our boys have been aware but not actually on the internet, aside from occasional research that we've opened up and then they've read. But they are getting older and so we're thinking through some of the options and ideas and concerns about kids online. One of my concerns is their future privacy. I canNOT believe how naive and transparent I was online. . . How many details I gave out to what I thought was a "private" email list that was then monetized and archived. Ugh. Not that I'm "ashamed" of anything I said (though I've definitely grown and changed) but there are things I thought were private that really weren't. . .

    I'm concerned about their naivety and their future privacy. . . Not to mention the usual concerns for safety and not being exposed to yucky stuff, etc. . .

    Thoughts? Experiences?

  10. Ummm. . . feeling sheepish. . . after I posted (again) in this thread, I realized a lot of what I wrote was redundant. Still, I'm interested in how a family who isn't fearful of technology has been balanced (and safe!) with her kids online.