“Our dreams are a second life.” ~Gerard de Nerval
by Flor Nachtigal
Five to one, baby
One in five
No one here gets out alive, now
You get yours, baby
I’ll get mine
James Douglas Morrison, Five to One
This has been drummed into me in RL, over and over. My life’s experience bears it out. Integrity means to do only what you are ready to do and defend publicly. Have I always lived by that? No, I’m no saint. I have the scars to show for my mistakes.
Why do I say this? Well, look around the Internet, into blog posts, product reviews, forums, chats, and, while we are at it, Second Life. We talk about things here with an openness we wouldn’t have in a face to face conversation with our peers in RL, and that is a good thing. But at the same time, hurtful and questionable things are said and done under the cover of anonymity – things are said that we wouldn’t say to anyone’s face, things done that we wouldn’t do where our RL peers could see us.
I’ll not bother you with moral judgments, those are not in my domain. Instead, let me take you back in time to the dark past, after the invention of the wheel and before Google, to the summer of 1994. At the time I had an RL friend who needed help finding a relative that his family had lost contact with. All he had to go by were a series of old letters dated 1958-1960. I perked up at the challenge. We called the Royal Air Force for service records, collected names, dates and places from the meager sources available to us, put many, many miles on our motorcycles, dug through old telephone directories, read How to Locate Missing Persons in Britain in a mad three hour rush, knocked on the doors of perfect strangers, got the Salvation Army involved, got sunburnt, had flies between our teeth and dealt with a heavy dose of doubt. It took a few months, but we found our person, alive and well. Why am I telling you this? Because even without the awesome power of the Internet you can track down a person on the basis of the most sketchy information. I know, because I did it.
Now, fast forward and it’s 2012. We live in the world of social media, free online speech for all, and total visibility. And we live in a virtual world, where we may feel exempt from the constraints of RL. But just how exempt are we?
Let’s construct a hypothetical scenario, one that is fairly common in Second Life. An SL marriage breaks up, with hard feelings on both sides. Let’s assume the lives of the partners had revolved around things they might not like to discuss in RL. Like homosexuality, furry avatars, BDSM, pick your poison. True, the relationship was anonymous with regard to RL, and out of the public eye. But we get close in these online relationships, and we reveal ourselves in small ways. Imagine one partner letting little pieces of information slip over time, none of them revealing by itself. Like this: “I’m not that young anymore, my daughters are grown.”, “I divorced my husband when my youngest left the house”, “I teach college History”, “What State? Oh, Rhode Island…”, “I’m Irish not only on St. Patrick’s Day!” Now sit back and contemplate. Irish-American female, old enough for grown daughters, divorced, professor of History in Rhode Island. How many people do you think that applies to? Let me run the numbers for you: The population of Rhode Island is just over a million. This bit of information already eliminated over 99% of the US population from the search. Add the information that we’re looking for a woman, and we’re down to half a million. If we add in age, ethnicity and marital status, we may get to a pool of several tens of thousands. That is reasonable anonymity. But other information is much more treacherous.
Rhode Island has twelve universities and colleges, I checked. Maybe half of these have a history department. Let’s say each of those departments had five faculty members, give or take. Of those, about half may be female. We are down to a shortlist of around fifteen by now. Better still: all of them will be listed on the faculty pages of their departments, with headshots, work phone numbers, email addresses and their professional biographies. Check the names and images against the fact that you know you are looking for someone with an Irish background, in her mid-forties or older. That may leave one or two on your list. Run through the lists of publications on the faculty pages and you might suddenly understand why she knew so much about Renaissance clothes. Or run a Google search for the names and be directed to the Facebook pages of the three young adult daughters. Oh yes, you found her without ever leaving your computer. The whole search may have taken less than an hour.
Now, what’s to stop anyone from sending a few juicy SL images and maybe some damning chat logs to the department chair or, much worse, her daughters? Quite honestly, there is only one line of defence I can think of, one used by a RL acquaintance of mine. She is also a college professor, and every year the rumors run rampant across campus that she’s a lesbian, living with another woman, and how scandalous this all is. “Well”, she says to those confronting her, “I am a lesbian, and I have lived with my partner forever. Everyone knows.” That is all the protection she needs.
So what do I make of all this? SL is a huge closet full of skeletons. They can haunt and hurt you, and hiding or avoiding the fact does no good. Even in Second Life, where the darkest fantasies can come to life without causing apparent harm, you have to account for what you do, and ask yourself the same hard questions you would ask in RL. Really, it doesn’t take questionable viewer features, redzone, or illicit hacking to track you down. All it takes is a keen observer who knows how to connect the dots, and you are toast. I mean it.
Republished from rez magazine, September, 2012.
Images by Flor Nachtigal