Ivory Tower Syndrome – Social Media, Stalkers, and You

Super dooper up-front mega major 92 point font bold blink tag disclaimer: Your mileage may vary.

I am not a lawyer.  I am not an “expert”.  I am likely not in your day to day life, and so I don’t know the specifics of your situation.

I’m just a guy.  I’m a geek, I’m a dad, I’m a husband and I’m a friend.

But I’m still just a guy.

So what follows is a series of nothing more than my opinions.  My thoughts, my ideas, and my conclusions that I’ve come to based on my own experiences over the years.  Whether that be from my own personal situations, or talking with friends going through crap like this, or even conversations with random strangers who have found themselves victimized by someone and they don’t know what to do.

Oh, other official disclaimer – this isn’t a “Don’t Be That Guy” or even a “How Not To Suck” entry.  There probably won’t be a lot of laughs in here either, mostly because it’s not a very funny topic.  There are hundreds of other entries that we’ve got out here if that’s what you’re looking for…feel free to go ahead over to http://www.itinthed.com/blog/ and click a new one.

Still reading?

‘kay.  So let’s talk a little bit about when this awesome and wonderful world of social media that surrounds us isn’t exactly a safe place to be…

Once upon a time, back about 15 years ago when I was working in the Emerging Technologies group of a very large corporation, I got really frustrated during a meeting.  I couldn’t understand why a system required streaming video instead of just text because that basically meant the infrastructure and network requirements made the project ridiculously cost prohibitive (remember: “15 years ago”) and impossible to pull off.

A co-worker pulled me aside after the meeting and told me that I needed to stop living in an ivory tower.  I didn’t understand what he meant, and so he went on to explain that like the fairy tale princess who lives in an ivory tower and becomes accustomed to a certain way of life…it’s very easy for people deep in the information technology industry to forget that things we take for granted and know off the top of our heads…are not common knowledge at all.  I can’t assume that people operate in the same playing fields I run in, and I can’t make the leap that everyone knows what I know, lives how I live, and that’s just the way the world works.

If you’re out there, Mike Truss…thanks.  That still sticks with me, and I’m carrying that forward here so that others can learn from it, too.

Because a lot of us live in an ivory tower when it comes to our day to day lives…on many different levels.  I mentioned this back around our December event as it related to a young soldier named Aaron Ullom, and how so many of us take our daily freedoms for granted.

The same is true when it comes to the internet.  We have our Facebook profiles, our Twitter streams, our LinkedIn Profiles…and we go about our day to day lives sharing those lives and those experiences in an open, pretty carefree manner.

But there are some people who can’t operate in that manner.

Cyber-StalkingDuring yesterday’s gig over at WDET 101.9fm (wdet.org), a woman called in that had a very different perspective on social media…because she had a stalker.

Sidenote: if you want the full context, you can listen to the podcast of yesterday’s show here – http://wdet.org/shows/craig-fahle-show/episode/podcast-craig-fahle-2-29-2011/ …the segment I was involved with is at about the 1 hour mark, and lasts for about 30 minutes.

Now, we didn’t get too deep into her situation.  I don’t know if this is a former husband, ex-boyfriend, or a random stranger that developed an insane obsession.  I don’t know if this person has threatened to harm her or not, or perhaps even attempted to.

So…again…scroll up and go read those disclaimers again that I started off with at the beginning of this entry.

And then add “First and foremost, above all – do nothing that makes you uncomfortable or in any manner threatens your own peace of mind and safety.”

Now…with that firmly in mind…let’s talk about a few ways that you can still take advantage of what social media has to offer, without putting yourself “out there” completely:

Don’t Use Your Real Name.  Kind of a “duh”…but you can sign up for Facebook, Twitter, even LinkedIn and just about every other social media site under a pseudonym.  Nobody says you have to use your real name…well, they kind of do, but there’s no way they can really check it, so go ahead and keep yourself safe.  Now, be smart about this – you don’t want to use an obviously fake name like “Studs McKenzie” or “Suzie Homemaker” (no offense intended if that happens to actually be anyone’s real name…but…seriously, call your parents and yell at them), but assuming that you have a common enough last name, you can probably even get away with using your middle name as a first name on sites like these.  Got a really unique last name?  Well, hello there Mister or Miss Smith.  Pleasure to meet you.  Setup a free GMail or other free email service provider account using that name.  Use that for all of the registrations for the various sites…nothing that comes back to anything “real” for you.

A Picture Is Worth 1,000 Words…So Stop Talking.  Don’t blow everything by attaching a real photo of yourself to these new accounts.  Find a random picture of a dog or cat or some other pet and use that.  But not your dog or cat or pet, just to be clear.  And if you’re a fish freak, don’t use fish.  Again – this is like doing your own little mini version of the Witness Relocation Program…and so nothing that ties back to you.

Trust No One.  I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t already know here.  You’re going through all of this trouble to make yourself visible while maintaining invisibility…so don’t blow it by being careless now.  Again – “Witness Relocation Program”.  This new version of you doesn’t know any of your old friends.  Doesn’t know your co-workers.  Doesn’t know anyone that has anything to do with your day to day life.  You don’t send them friend requests.  You don’t ask them for recommendations.  You don’t follow them on Twitter.  Your new “life” stands on its own, creates its own connections, own followers, own…well, life.

Put Yourself on Lockdown.  Security is the key here.  On almost every site out there, there are security and privacy settings that help you control who sees what, when, and how.  I’m not going to go into a great level of detail here, for a number of reasons.  First, they keep changing everything.  Every time you turn around, Facebook is resetting everyone’s security settings because they’re making some tweak and you have to do it all over again.  Second, there are plenty of places out there to help you understand this and that provide step by step walkthroughs in painstaking detail every time one of those changes does take place.  So, I suggest you start working on your google-fu, and invest a few minutes researching things like locking down facebook profile or securing facebook profile, etc.  You’d be surprised how much of this is easy enough to figure out yourself (I’m not in that ivory tower again, I swear…it really is) just by clicking around.  I mean, you go into “account”, “settings” and “security” (specifics may vary from platform to platform, but they all have the same basic functions) and you see options like “How do you want your name to display?”  Well, you might only want that fake first name and a last initial to show.  Or maybe just a first and last initial.  Completely up to you.  If you add your work history, you hide it so that only people you explicitly allow can see it.  Your stalker probably knows where you work, and so might be keeping an eye on anyone at that company, which is easy enough to do, and again…Trust No One.

Anonymity Isn’t Invisibility.  Just because you’re using an assumed name doesn’t mean you can’t still claim your work.  Hit WordPress and fire up a blog under your new name.  Run your Twitter account and follow and post.  Just remember to leave any personal details of your own, real life out of all of it.  If you do get to a point where you’re interviewing for a job, and you say “this blog is me”, you can always offer to post something specific in order to prove it, or answer an email from the prospective employer under the correct email address.

Look…nobody’s saying this is going to be completely comfortable…or even easy.  It’s probably not.  And even though I most likely don’t know you…I feel for you that you’re in this situation.  I do.  I’m sure it sucks, and I wish I had a silver bullet for you.

But I don’t.

All I can do is offer you the above advice…and offer to help you with any of the above steps if you’d like.  My contact information is everywhere all over this site if you’d like to use it.  If not, also understandable…you don’t know me, either.

I can also tell you it’s possible, and it can be done.

No, I’m not about to do some huge reveal that I’m really in the Witness Relocation Program or anything out of the pages of a soap opera like that…this is really “me”.  But I have done a lot of the above for one purpose or another over the years.  Whether it’s because I wanted to experiment with something random, or wanted to play in a sandbox that “Dave” shouldn’t be playing in, or wanted to isolate myself for some reason…well, I’ve got about nine different Facebook accounts.  Four on LinkedIn.  Seven on Twitter.  A matching seven on WordPress.  Some of those are “attached” to me in some manner…but most aren’t.  Some of them are “friends” with me so that I can use them to experiment with my own security settings and see how things look…but most aren’t.  One is a connection on LinkedIn for the same reason…but most aren’t.  Some follow each other on Twitter…and some don’t.  Some I check in on daily…some I get to maybe once a month at most…some I only hop into when I need to check something specific.  Those…”echoes”…of me…live their own lives.  They have their own friends on Facebook, follows and followers on Twitter, and connections on LinkedIn…and they’ve never met a single one of those people in real life.

The internet is a fascinating, helpful place to be at times…and you shouldn’t isolate yourself from it completely, at least not with the knowledge that I’m giving you here that there are ways you can participate in at least something approaching a “safe” manner.  If I can do it for my own purposes…well, hopefully you can, too.

But…again…and I cannot stress this enough…do nothing that can compromise your own safety or sense of well being, and I’m not pushing you out of the boat as a means of teaching you how to swim.  You have to want to do this…I’m just hopefully giving you some tips on smart ways to go about it.

And yes, I realize that in part…I’m still in my ivory tower.  I can never truly understand what you’re going through, how you feel, or what your day to day life is like as a result of everything you’re going through…I just can’t.  Freely admitted.

Hope that some, any, or all of this helps…and I hope to hear from you some day that it did…even if I don’t know that it’s you telling me.

And lastly, if anyone has anything that they think is a worthwhile addition to this piece, I’d love for you to reach out.