Sunday, November 18, 2007

Anonymity and Paranoia

One of my favorite blogs disappeared from the Internet recently. I didn't think much of the disappearance when it happened. I figured that either there was a technical problem or that the blogger had gotten too busy or had decided that blogging was too lame an activity for him to continue.
And it didn't matter much to me which explanation was right. I liked his blog a lot, but if the disappearance were indeed to prove permanent, I would still have liked reading it while I was reading it. In certain quarters, there is a great deal of lamentation when a blogger stops writing, as if that blog's end has some greater meaning for blogs in general. Blogs are just another form of writing, and it's the nature of writing to stop, eventually. As much as I love, say, Pride and Prejudice and Our Mutual Friend, I am confident that I would have loved them a great deal less if Ms. Austen and Mr. Dickens (respectively) had gone on for a few thousand pages more. Even Samuel Pepys died eventually. And I think we can all agree that Atlas Shrugged would have been much more readable and effective if it had been confined to the length and format of a Chick tract.
The best written blog I know has a planned obsolescence and is due to finish after either two or three (I can't tell whether post 2473/4 counts towards the 250) more posts. I've loved reading almost every post, but I agree with the author that it's time to finish.
So when I saw that the blog in question had disappeared, I wasn't disturbed. I figured it would either be back or it wouldn't, and it was all good. But it wasn't all good. I was online last night, and the blog's author started a chat with me and told me that he'd had to shut the blog down because of extortion. I'm paraphrasing a bit here. I don't want to identify the blog. Some of you who read The Neighbors Will Hear probably know which blog I'm referring to and have probably heard from the author yourselves, but most of you probably didn't read it and no good can come from identifying it or getting too specific about the circumstances. I will say, however, that while the blogger was relatively anonymous on his blog, he clearly wasn't anonymous enough. It's also clear that this guy doesn't deserve the way he's being treated. I don't feel any sense of loss from the disappearance of the blog, but I do feel substantial amounts of both outrage and sympathy at what he's going through.
While it's clear, however, that he's being unjustly victimized by a crazy (and likely jealous) person, and while that is in no way his fault, it does highlight the fact that if you're going to be open about the details of your sex life (assuming, of course, that your sex life is at all interesting, and this guy's sex life was absolutely spellbinding), then you better make sure that nobody you know in real life knows about your blog and vice versa. Or at least nobody that you can't trust absolutely. The number of people that you can trust absolutely, by the way, is usually very small indeed.
I think it's terrific that people make friends with their fellow bloggers and build some sort of sense of community with their readers. If you're going to do that, though, you're going to want to avoid saying anything too specific about your sex life. Otherwise, you run the risk that someday someone's going to show your blog to your boss or your partner or your kids or your mom. Just the other day, I was browsing through my reader statistics (which doesn't take very long), and I noted a hit from someone in my little exurb and my home ISP. This is not a terribly rare occurrence: it happens every time I post an entry and then check to make sure that it's posted properly. But in this case, it happened while I was at work, where I'm on a different domain altogether. There are probably a number of gay men in my town who use Verizon, but I immediately wondered whether b&c had stumbled upon my blog. Fortunately, whoever it was didn't stick around past the first page view, but the idea that he might be reading my blog troubles me. I don't think that I say anything bad about b&c on here, and he's fully apprised about my sexual activities, at least in general terms, but I still wouldn't want him reading about all the details. Or about anything else I write here: it's private.
I'm not sure that b&c would know I'm the blogger if he just read one sex post, but I reckon the talk about operas we've seen coupled with the pictures of guys tied up in our bedroom would be a pretty good hint. Fortunately, I can't think of many other people who would read The Neighbors Will Hear and would have any idea that it was written by me. If someone went to my boss, for example, and told him I wrote this blog, well, my boss probably wouldn't give a fuck. If there was someone at my company who did give a fuck, I think I'd have pretty good plausible deniability. I'd just read some of the blog entries, blush furiously, and say, "Goodness. Can you honestly imagine that I am that person?" I'm pretty sure they couldn't.
It's pretty clear to me that, all other things being equal, revealing more information (especially photos) about yourself is a good way to increase readership. And people have a natural inclination to talk about themselves. So it's understandable that bloggers want to share as much as they can about who they are. And we should all be able to. I should be able to name names and give all the identifying details without fear of reprisal. I should be able to sleep with whomever I please and talk about it without fear of consequence. And money should grow on trees.
The Internet, let's face it, is a public medium. And we all want people to read what we write. We all want our privacy rights, too, but you can't have it both ways. You put your sex life and your identity out there for public consumption, and the public will consume it and poop you out the other end. Pleasant metaphor, no? But that's your choice: a)you can be extremely circumspect about your identity, b) you can be extremely circumspect about your sex life, or c) you can expect to see more awful scatalogical metaphor. I choose a). Most bloggers choose b). Both are valid choices. Frankly, a lot of your sex lives are not all that fascinating, and I'd rather read about the rest of your lives. The rest of my life is not all that interesting, and my sex life is a lot more fun for me to write about, and that's really all that matters to me.
None of which, by the way, is meant to put anyone off. I get email from readers, and I love it. I get comments, and I love those. More of those, by the way. Especially if you're local. Sometimes I'll see that someone in, say, Rockville or Chevy Chase has spent an hour reading the blog and hasn't left a comment, and it makes me sad. I probably don't want to meet most of those people, but I might want to ask them about good cheap eats or where they get the best local produce or sex toys. (I know there are CSAs and farmer's markets, and I agree with people who want you to reduce your carbon footprint by buying foods grown locally. I'm not sure whether there's a similar movement for sex toys, but maybe that guy in Rockville can tell me.)
And, clearly, there are some bloggers I would trust enough to hang out with. I can think of a few that I actively hope to meet someday. ("Actively" here is intended to mean that I already know that I would like to meet them, not that I want to top them. Though, now that I mention it, I'd probably enjoy that, too.) You can be sure, however, that if and when I'm comfortable enough to do that, I'll have all the cameras confiscated before I arrive. Trust no one.


Steve said...

It's interesting that the last time I visited your blog, I felt very lambasted by an entry in reference to me. The irony is that it's 3 months later and that stuff is still going on. And here you are encouraging people to remain anonymous; which is what I've maintained all along; and it's held against me as proof of being a fake LOL. Heheheheheh Your like a confederacy of contradictions!

Jake said...

I would never be able to be's too much against my nature of individuality.

The Neighbors Will Hear said...

Steve, I'm not encouraging anyone to be anonymous unless they're very explicit about their sex lives. Or unless they talk shit about their co-workers, I guess. If you don't say anything that could get you in trouble, then there's no need to remain anonymous.

In any case, the issue with you was never anonymity: the issue was lying. Writing about my sexual activities without giving my or anyone else's identity away is anonymity. Writing three (or more) different blogs while pretending to be three (or more) different people and creating deaths and sundry other disasters from the whole cloth is lying. Along those lines, it's a little bit incredible to me that this is the first time you've been here in three months and it just happens to be the time when you can comment on this.

Jake, I'm glad that you don't feel the need to be anonymous, but as you say on your own blog, there are varying degrees of anonymity, and if I wanted to find out who you really are, I wouldn't be able to without asking you. And your and my subject matters are very different. Everyone can see how I got my blog's NC-17 rating. God alone knows how you got yours. I'm sure you have a fantastic sex life, but I wouldn't know it from your blog. And that's a good thing since you're not anonymous.

Jake said...

I choose not to blog about my sex life, that's why. It's not for the public to see. And even without stating flat out my name on my blog, there are several ways of finding out who I really am to the ultra-determined. Same goes for you, if someone really cared to.

I got my NC-17 rating by posts about the current trial of Harlow Cuadra, that's how.

Steve said...

But I didn't lie. Everyone said I did and a decision was made about me; which you went into great detail giving your opinion of me; and it continues on many blogs to this day! And my lack of defending myself had to do with anonymity; as people were demanding 'proof' from me; which would jeopardize my comfort level in regards to how much I'm willing to share with belligerent strangers! Everyone says I lied. But if you look at what people are saying about me, it's assumptions! It's very dangerous to spread assumptions around as truth!

Frank said...

I just saw this post via Technorati, and was flattered by your assessment of my blog.

Reading the comments made me slightly curious what you might think of my own anonymity. I do write about my sex life, but the anonymity is much more because of how brutally honest I am about my emotional life.