On the fragility of comfortable privacy on the web
Well, I suppose perhaps it was inevitable. I experienced my first serious discomfort today with having so much information about me online.
Ill-advisedly, I got into a tangle on the radical feminist blog “I Blame the Patriarchy“. The bone I foolishly chose to pick was about whether it was, in fact, a good idea to pre-emptively castrate some schmuck who had written an email in stunted English in which he asks how he can avoid being a rapist, and says that “when women’s and girls are very open, I could hardly control myself.” While this doesn’t sound at all reassuring about this fellow’s future as an upstanding citizen, I thought that actual forced castration might be going a little too far, given what was known of the situation. Apparently, that was an outrageous suggestion.
You can read the whole debacle here if you’re bored and have a lot of time. It goes on for a while. I might have more to say about the issue, and why reaction was so violent and nasty, at a later time, when I have calmed down a little and gotten some perspective. In the mean time, though, I would like to talk about an issue tangential to what was actually being debated.
I was surprised at the level of hostility I ran into, but I was even more surprised when a handful of commenters decided it would be a good idea to leverage the information available about me on the web to make fun of me. So, in the course of the afternoon, I was treated to someone wondering out loud if I had secretly been hoping for a son instead of a daughter:
I continue to read that the child is named Ryan….Ryan Marie.
Are you familiar with Kathleen Parker, a columunist who goes to very great lengths to support everything that males do? And to make excuses for everything that a male does wrong? I refer to it as the “Katey P” Disease…and I think you just might suffer from it.
Were you disappointed that Ryan wasn’t a male? Have you been so throughly dipped and fried in Patriarchy that you are willing to come onto a Radical Feminist blog and spout off about how rapists’ nuts need to be defended?
– slade [an anonymous pseudonym]
slade carries on some more in a later comment about Ryan’s name. One of these is plenty, I think, to get the flavor, and if anything, the later comment is even more vicious, so if you care you can go look it up. As if this weren’t enough, someone dug up a link to a self-portrait on my photoblog, and had some fun with that:
I’ve done better [at taking pictures] with a Canon TX. I used to just love getting A1 with my TX while the guyes (check the shot) always had the big penis I mean lenses, the most expensive camera, wore those dorky pseudo-military hats. Oh geez, perhaps I could send him a pair of fingerless mittens?
– Pony [another anonymous pseudonym]
I can only assume “Pony” didn’t read the image comments where I mentioned I was suited up to go snowboarding. Oh, well.
I just love that shot of him on his blog. How long do you think he had to hang in front of the mirror to get everything just so. The stubble, that hat, squint, no the other eye, umm no this lens is too small the other, and that way, I look more…dangereuse. Har. Poseur.
My initial reaction was to be surprised and taken aback that anyone would go off searching for personal details about me just to fuel personal attacks. My second reaction was to be angry. My third reaction was to consider why I was feeling angry, since after all, all this information is readily available online, and more besides, and I have nobody to blame for it being there but myself.
Lots of bloggers write from behind pseudonyms and take care not to reveal their identity. I have never done that, partly because this blog started out as my personal observations about what it was like to get clobbered by a car and have a titanium rod threaded into my femur, and during my recovery, my only audience was friends and family. Since this blog became political, though, I still never bothered to use a pseudonym because, as I now realize, it never occurred to me that someone would come digging through the information here in anger, or with malicious intent. I’m starting to think now that that may have been naive.
The idea that this afternoon, at least a few people came digging through this site and my photoblog looking for something, anything, that they could use to attack me makes me deeply uncomfortable. Being open about my life, sharing my artistic efforts, and talking about my family are things I felt comfortable doing because I trusted that anyone who cared to stop by would bear me no ill will. I assumed that if I stayed calm and well-reasoned when having discussions elsewhere, nobody would take such great offense that they would make it personal. It turns out, I was wrong.
I’m not sure what to do now. I suppose I could retreat behind a pseudonym, like everyone else seems to have already done, and stop mentioning anything about who I actually am. Or, I suppose, I could just shrug off the feeling of violation that came with people using my daughter and my appearance to attack me.
I know that several people reading are my close friends and that you run blogs under your own names. Perhaps you never participate in discussions where people may go off the deep end, so your risk is lower. I’m not saying not to carry on as you have been, but take a moment to think about the worst case. Are you comfortable with everything that is available about you?
What I found most upsetting out of all of this were the attacks on Ryan’s name, to the extent that I’m wondering if it’s wise for information about my family to be available. Both Laura and I are dismayed that anyone would think to drag a baby into the middle of any this ugliness.
Take a minute to inventory what’s available about you.
Update: Readers have left a series of extremely thoughtful and perceptive comments; please take a moment to go through them.
Confidential to Elena: I’m not editing comments to select only positive ones, as you imagine. Feel free to leave a comment of your own!