On being anonymous online

Although quite a few people know who I am, in the sense that they know my face and name and where I live and all that, it is not very straightforward to connect my Hippocampa identity to the identity in my passport.

1374633424543There are quite some people who think that being anonymous online is sneaky and cowardly. Cowardly might apply to me, but not sneaky. I have a very good reason to want to keep this online identity separate from my official identity, which I will explain in this post. Of course I am on philpapers and academia.edu and such with my actual name, so it is not the case that I am anonymous everywhere online. It is here and on twitter and such.

440181-Royalty-Free-RF-Clip-Art-Illustration-Of-A-Cartoon-Mad-Granny-Waving-Her-CaneWhen I first ventured on the interwebz, back in 1997 or so, I thought it would be nice to explore the possibilities. I heard about chatting, and I thought it must be truly mindless, a bit like the phone chat lines that you used to have, or maybe like citizens band radio chatting, which I always thought must be rather inane too (apologies!). But well, the internet puts everything at your fingertips and a bit in the spirit of 1 Thessalonians 5, verses 19 to 22, one should investigate everything and hold on to what is good.

So I found a chat place called Virtual Places, and for reasons too long to go into here, I picked the handle Icerabbit, and ventured into chat rooms to see what was happening. It was kind of nice actually, on my very first venture I spoke to a hot air balloon driver, or how do you call that, from Australia and a carpenter from Alaska. I found that the nicest people were in a room called Davinci’s Notebook, and started to get to know people, and got into the bantering and stuff, it was pretty cool actually. I ran into a nice lady from Amsterdam; we “clicked” and within a few months, she invited me to her home. Weird! But that was 16 (wow!) years ago, and Charlotte has been one of my very best friends in the world ever since. So that is a wonderful aspect!

Virtual Places died, and I moved on to where the name icerabbit was already taken (yes, that is weird), so I changed it to hippocampa. I like that nickname a lot better, and I have gotten pretty attached to it, actually.

There’s all sorts on the web. I talked to a guy who had a fetish for bugs being crushed under high heels; that was probably the weirdest person I ever encountered. Unless it was the young man from Bangladesh who was madly in love with an Anime cartoon character and had been so for years, that was kind of sad, really.  I talked to people from cultures I had never been in contact with before. I made friends with a girl in Pakistan who was battling with her mother in order not to get married off. I argued about the virtues of driving with a nice bloke from Saudi Arabia which we totally disagreed about, but it never got unpleasant. I helped a struggling Baghdadi physicist with locating papers behind the paywall, before that term even existed. I dodged a lot of innuendo, too. Back then webcams hardly existed, but that changed. Also you could notice the spread of web access across the world. I was in contact for a while with a very talented Berber who herded goats for a living, but made the most beautiful drawings and knew a lot of stuff about Tifinagh. Really fascinating!

1146398_53855669Then I ran into this very driven haematologist from what I later discovered was Transylvania. It got weirder. He wanted my blood. To drink. Took his ancestry a bit too seriously, obviously. And then he started coming up with information about me that I never told him, including where I live. He was a very clever googler and I thought ohhhhkaaayyyyy… We need to be a bit more careful about these things, then. It is nice to have frank discussions with people about all kinds of stuff, but if they get wound up, for instance, you don’t want them on your doorstep. So I cleaned up any cross references on the web.

I started chatting with an engineer from Morocco who seemed erudite, but his English wasn’t that great, so we chatted a bit in French. I thought it was a nice way to brush up my French. Sometimes being nice gets misinterpreted though. This guy became rather possessive: started to follow me around in chat rooms, wanted me to convert to islam and marry him while calling me nasty stuff. All abuse was verbal of course, and you don’t want to be rude, especially since it all started pleasant, but at some point I said, Enough, clean up your act or I am going to block you. Which I did. That was in May 2005. I didn’t block his e-mails but rerouted them into a separate folder, because sometimes it is handy to see what a person with bad intent towards you is up to.

Checking now. Yup: the most recent e-mail is from this morning, something with ça va, cherie, whatever, with the umpteenth different e-mail ID. In the past 9 years, there were days I received up to 40 e-mails a day from this guy. Doesn’t bother me when it drops into that folder unnoticed of course. But it is not just that: wherever I sign up with this ID, I get followed by this guy.  Being pretty good at pattern recognition, I know in split seconds it’s him again, so it’s not that horrifying or anything. I got invites from all kinds of IDs from facebook, friendster, and lord knows how many other social media. I am boring, so I am only on Twitter, but I have had to block a number of his IDs there. Tenacious dude, you got to hand him that.

facebook-logo-thumbs-upFacebook was an interesting case. They kept sending me reminders that Mr Twerp wants to connect to me. So I contacted facebook and informed them that the guy they keep reminding me about is a stalker, and that therefore they are effectively enabling a stalker. They informed me I should just get a facebook account, so I can turn the notifications for friends requests off and it’s not their business!!! They don’t give a hoot that they are enabling stalkers. See, I really do Not Like Facebook.

Thanks to the fact that it is not so easy at all to locate where I am from this ID, it is merely a bother, but it does keep me on my toes to make sure that this ID stays disconnected from my official ID and location. Which makes sense, right?

At first I occasionally checked what the e-mails were saying, to see if he got nearer to figuring me out, which would be unpleasant. I discovered he wrote extremely deluded things about the wicked West and going to arms and embarking on jihad and bombing the evil westernised Moroccan government. Then he would disappear all of a sudden for a month or so, and come back again. I was thinking maybe he was either in jail or in an asylum in those times. I wondered whether I should inform someone about this lunatic, but heck, Morocco is far away.

143099-virginia-tech-shootingsThen the Virginia Tech Massacre happened in 2007, and I read about this guy Cho who did it and I got a bit of an eery feeling because he reminded me of Mr Twerp. I thought ok then, maybe I actually should warn someone. So I contacted a Dutch government agency that deals with cybercrimes, explaining the situation, that I wasn’t overly bothered by the stalking, but that I thought the stalker might be dangerous. They advised me to block his e-mails. Duh. Not the issue, people! Tried some other authorities but got nowhere. Tried to find a Moroccan agency where I could report this dude, but to no avail either.

Well, I tried.

Anyhow, to make a very long story short, I prefer to stay anonymous with this ID, not because I am sneaky, but because other people are sneaky. It is cowardice, perhaps, but cowardice might well save lives. And to those who know who and where I am, please help me to keep this ID anonymous.

Thanks 🙂