Press "Enter" to skip to content

Byte Me

Jennifer “Jay” Poole

Ladies and gentlemen, we have made ourselves so deliciously stalkable. Our blogs, our profiles, the polls we fill out, the mailing lists we’re on – they all say things about us, and we leave sasquatch-sized footprints all over cyberspace. We rarely think of the consequences of broadcasting our personal details; we’ve been lured into a false sense of security – the blissful alleged anonymity of the Internet.

So. You like anime and Siamese kittens. Using AOL’s Instant Messaging Service, you make yourself a screen name. What’s one more anime, kitten-loving fan in a pool of AIM’s 53 million active users? You put in your name and your e-mail address, and you choose a silly handle. PrettyPrettyMangaKitty83 or something. You sign up to some web forums where you can discuss your love of anime and kittens, but to become a member, you have to give a name and your e-mail address. Once you’re in the forums, you notice that you can also put in your AIM screen name in a user profile. And you do.

You make some friends on these forums, and you end up chatting with them on AIM. It’s fantastic to find people who are into the same things you are. You rack up names on your buddy list, you brag that you’re talking to people in Europe. In fact, you’re a little happy when it’s 1 a.m. and your European friends are waking up and signing on. Maybe you say good morning.

To keep in touch with friends both online and IRL (that’s In Real Life, if you’re not hip to it), you get a MySpace account. Once again, you hand over your name and e-mail address, and then you fill out some questionnaires where you put your school and past schools, workplaces and past workplaces, your screenname, and your hobbies, favorite books, types of music and physical characteristics. You also name your sexual preference, and if you’re looking for a partner, and if so, what you look for in a partner. Do you see where I’m going with this? Of course, nobody is making you fill any of this out. Nobody forces you to complete a form or forces you to use your real name. But so many people do.

So, let’s say one of these online friends becomes obsessed with you, mentions they want to meet you. Being the smart person you are, you most probably say no. But you might flirt with the idea, and you’d be safe about it – meet in a public place, bring a couple of friends. Everyone knows that, right? And of course, it’s not like you’d give them your address. Or have you already?

Large web communities like MySpace, Friendster and Facebook may be great for meeting people and keeping in touch, but they are the devil’s playground. Especially that past schools function. If you went to a public high school and you listed it and your graduation date in your profile, it’s easy to get a copy of your yearbook, easier to figure out what district you’re from. And even if you listed neither, someone could find enough similarities between your profile and the profiles of your friends and draw the appropriate conclusions.

According a United States Department of Justice report on Internet crime, almost 25 percent of stalking incidents among college-age women involve cyberstalking. And, as the Working to Halt Online Abuse Web site says, “The very nature of online crimes means that we have little information regarding the harassers, as most victims … do not know enough information about [the harassers] for us to record.” Also, according to WHOA, harassment begins primarily in e-mail, with message boards, Instant Messaging and gaming Web sites close behind.

It isn’t difficult to track someone across the Internet, even for a novice. You can Google a screenname; you can even search LiveJournal’s userbase for them.

Most forums have a function where you can hide things like e-mail addresses and screennames or make them visible to the people you mark as friends. Which, don’t get me wrong, is a fantastic function. But how stringent are your guidelines for people you call “friends”? Do you limit them only to people you know IRL? How paranoid are you? How paranoid do you need to be?

Incredibly. You can make multiple e-mail addresses, one for every web forum if need be. Have them point to each other for verification. Keep one for known, trusted friends and family only. Be smart, and be careful about what personal photos you attach to your profiles and online photo albums. Make sure those pictures don’t have anyone’s license plates visible.

Google your home phone number and see what happens. Google indexes phone books, and you have the option of removing your number. Better yet, if you really want a scare, go to and look yourself up. Look up your parents. And know that anyone with an Internet connection can do the same to you and yours.

It can start with something as simple as a screenname.

Don’t become a statistic.

Byte Me

SixApart bought Livejournal; eBay bought Skype; Microsoft wants to buy AOL. But who’s going to buy our Excedrin once we’re all finished reading the new Terms of Service agreements?

Giant blogging mogul SixApart bought Livejournal, a smaller and more community-oriented weblog service, and offered a stronger and more experienced management, more capital and less site downtime. The caveat? Fewer user rights to content … but they’ve managed to distract us with fancy new blog templates.

Nobody but the involved parties knows why eBay bought Skype, and eBay isn’t required to give investors any information because Skype is a privately held company. One helps people sell stuff they’re not using to people who desperately need stuff, and one uses voice over IP technology to make broadband phone calls for free. Maybe eBay wants to use VoIP for their auctions, like those fast-talking fellows who sell cattle. Microsoft has been eyeing AOL and may strike some sort of 50/50 deal with Time Warner for it. Let’s go over that one again. Microsoft, Bill Gates’ baby, wants to purchase AOL, responsible for CDs-cum-beverage coasters the world over. I’m not sure I’d be able to handle that kind of dual mass marketing.

In November 2004, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer found out one of his employees was leaving his company for Google. He threw a chair across his office and swore to said employee that he would “kill Google.” With the potential merger of AOL with MSN, he may be doing just that.

Google relies heavily on Yahoo! for the advertising generated by its searches, syndicated solely to Google. One estimate suggests that Google could lose $380 million in ad revenue if AOL syndicated its searches only to MSN in the partnership.

And there’s no way Google could entice AOL users to their side with their new VoIP program, said to rival Skype, because AOL has been beta testing its own since August 2004.

What about the users? What about those of us who use all these services – who chat on AOL Instant Messenger and use Microsoft’s Internet Explorer to check our Google Gmail? Are we pawns in their electronic war, or are we the new battlefield? And if advertising generates so much cash, where’s it going?

And why? Sure, these companies have made their products and services indispensable, and many of them make our lives simpler (when was the last time you opened an encyclopedia?), but what’s the point of gobbling up your competitors at the risk of alienating and confusing your users – who earn you the money in the first place? No one likes to be manipulated. Especially not when they’re paying for it.

Mergers largely mean nothing to the average consumer. All we want to know is if we can still use the services with which we’re familiar, or if we’re going to have to download something new, or if it’s just less hassle to pay for something once-and-for-all.

Truth is, it’s all about the money. It’s about advertising dollars, or how much you’re willing to shell out for the newest version of Microsoft Office. (I’m still waiting for the version where the animated paperclip makes me coffee.) The goal isn’t equal access to information or to better educate an electorate. Conglomerates are most efficient at distancing you from your hard-earned.

Next up? Google meets Amazon: GOOGLEZON.