Category Archives: Internets

Two interviews and a podcast

Some people care about my thoughts and opinions. Some even cared enough to ask me about them lately. Here are the results of those lines of inquiry:

Story in a Bottle, a podcast about journalism and tech by Dan Macarone

One of the best things about the world of technology is that you can end up in it having come from any direction. The most successful founders, venture capitalists, designers, etc. have fascinating stories behind their success, and every week Charming Robot‘s Dan Maccarone sits down over our guest’s favorite cocktail, wine or beer to hear where they came from and what they’ve learned along the way.

Arikia Millikan is a journalist and entrepreneur with a resume that boasts digitizing traditionally print-centric brands. It’s a career that’s given her a fair share of behind-the-scenes experiences with the epidemic that’s overtaking the industry – the continued and steepening uphill battle of maintaining the right motivation in the world of news and content. Over Bloody Marys (with a fun twist) at Fools Gold in NYC, she explains how her unique approach in applying engineering principles paired with a “squeaky wheel” reputation help her press forward and innovate within this challenging space.

Topics we discuss include:
*Me being dragged kicking and screaming into learning about journalism business models.
*Why Medium is the worst.
*How I tried to help several print-centric media companies monetize their online content before that was cool and nobody listened to me, even though I was ultimately correct.
*What I’ve been working on since LadyBits.

Safe (Digital) Spaces, an Inclusion.Tech interview with Claire Hsu.

In this issue, we speak with Cyber Communication Specialist Arikia Millikan, about why she started using digital security and privacy tools as a journalist and her recent efforts hosting CryptoParty workshops to teach people how to develop personal risk assessments and how to make use of increasingly broad-based and user-friendly tools to defend themselves.

Cyber-Feminism: Women Take Up Encryption In A Post Trump World, by Tracy Clark-Flory for Vocativ

Last week, journalist Arikia Millikan reached out to women-in-tech listservs with some basic pointers on things like encryption, warning that “now is a good time to get serious about online security.” The response was strong enough that she followed up on Sunday with what’s known as a cryptoparty, where just under a dozen people gathered to learn more about protecting their online privacy. They went over security best practices and swapped “keys” — a phrase that has nothing to do with swinging and everything to do with vouching for the authenticity of each others’ encrypted accounts. The gender ratio was evenly split, which is rare for these kinds of events, she said.

See? I’m still alive, I’ve just been underground.

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Defining attributes of the ‘open web’

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“Selfie,” by Systaime. Via NewHive

In response to a previous post where I asked “Where is the ‘open web’ now?”  I received some of the most interesting feedback I’ve ever gotten in all The Millikan Daily’s years online. In attempting to pinpoint where this site lies in terms of web classification, I learned it’s definitely not on the closed web, but it’s still not totally on the open web. Maybe nothing can be in either place in absolute terms, but we can definitely be working to make more things tend toward the open web.

 

The first comment hails from Matt Terenzio, who I thought about when I wrote the initial post because we used to talk about this stuff at a weekly web discussion hosted by Dave Winer at NYU. Matt wrote:

WordPress, even the hosted stuff on WordPress.com is more open because you can export your content and move it. https://en.support.wordpress.com/export/
But you raise a serious point. Even if you have control of your data, it doesn’t mean it stays alive on the web after you die. No business can guarantee that. A library, educational institution or the government seem more capable to pull something like that off, but as of now, we don’t have a great solution.

He raises a few important attributes of online content in the scope of the open web:

  1. Exportability – Can you take your content and move it somewhere else? With WordPress, the answer is yes, technically. WordPress offers this, as Matt points out, though maybe you have to pay something if you’re using the .com version (as I am) rather than the .org version. When you export, WordPress wraps all your content up and spits out a nice, zipped-up file that you can send elsewhere.

I’m going to add to this a few other related aspects to consider:

  • Archive transfer – Once you have your data exported from the CMS, you can transfer it somewhere else a few different ways. The old-school way would be physically via a hard-drive transfer, but more likely you’d do it online. This poses an interesting conundrum though, as various entities are at work to clamp down on the ability of average users to transfer large files. Why? Maybe because the assumption is that a large file transfer will be used for malice, like ‘illegally’ downloading a movie file. I’ve never downloaded anything illegally, to my knowledge, so it’s unfortunate that the tools I have to work with are limited in this respect. Once a friend gave me a chunk of the server space he owned and maintained so I could transfer whatever to and from it without paying extra. If I wanted to do it now, I would probably have to pay for some cloud hosting service who then might technically be able to access the data I was transferring. Right now we’re talking about being open so this doesn’t matter at the moment, but later on it will.
  • Importability – With facebook, I haven’t ever heard of someone importing their timeline to a different online framework where archives and data is displayed in any meaningful way. Which isn’t to say it couldn’t be done, I’ve just never seen it. If you have, please comment below.

Moving on, Matt also brings up an important second topic:

2. A shelf-life of content dependent on mortality – Even if you are diligent in following all best practices to maintain your own slice of the open web, there’s no guarantee they will continue to be maintained after you die.

Of course there are services that make it more likely your content will be maintained and accessible online at the original hyperlinks post-mortem. I met a woman in Iceland who founded a start-up to do something similar, though I’m not sure if it is still operational. I just emailed her to see what’s up.

Then of course, there is the Internet Archive which hosts the Wayback machine. While there are ways to get them to prioritize the archiving of specific websites, I believe their methodology is mostly random, and they will save “snapshots” of certain sites at various moments of time.

Which brings me to our next comment via Scott Rosenberg:

Hey, Arikia — I think of “the open web” as more of a spectrum; some sites and services are more fully “open web”-ish and others less so. If you own your own domain and pay for hosting for your site then that gives you the most control/ownership and puts you in the best position to preserve your work. (I’m still hosting pages I first posted in 1994!) The IndieWebCamp people and their work are definitely worth checking out — building open source tools and protocols for self-owned and maintained sites to thrive and connect with the various silos. David Weinberger’s book “Small Pieces Loosely Joined” put together a lot of the strands of what made the “open web” work and become valuable during the first wide flourishing of blogs beyond the tech scene in the early 2000s. Openness/permeability to links is so central here — one reason Facebook feels so closed is that you can put a single URL into a status update but you can’t simply add links to your content the way you can anywhere else on the Web. To me that’s what really makes it a closed system…

One thing is for sure, I wouldn’t have gotten this feedback had I posted this question on facebook! Two main points here:

  1. The open web as a spectrum – Cool. I like spectrums. Many of the human systems we are taught to think of as binary for the sake of mental simplicity are indeed spectrums—why wouldn’t the web be the same? Of course this introduces another layer of complexity to the answer to the question: Is any given website open or closed? It would be easy to lump everything into a bucket of open or closed, but it seems the answer will usually be “neither—it’s some point on a spectrum between open and closed.” Does the spectrum have endpoints? If so, what are they?
  2. Control/ownership – Scott owns his domains and pays for hosting, so he inherently has more control to make his content more open OR more closed, as he wishes. Let’s focus on the open side here, because keeping closed content closed is another can of worms I’ll want the crypto folks to chime in on.

Remember PicPlz? If you don’t, it was a photo-sharing application similar to the Instagram we all know now, but it was mainly marketed to Android users, which is why I used it, because I used Android smartphones for years before I was given my first iPhone in 2013. I uploaded a bunch of pictures to PicPlz, which were shared to other users through links created by the app that were anchored on its domain. When PicPlz folded, all those links evaporated. Who knows what happened to the images themselves, probably deleted. I don’t remember if they provided an option for the user to export their data, or if I chose to if they did. But it goes to show that if you depend on an entity outside of yourself to maintain the integrity of the links to content you create over time, well, you probably shouldn’t care too much about that content, because you’ll have no control over if it stays where you put it.

Next, Eas provides a recipe for their online content maintenance:

My general approach is:

1. Register my own domain name, separately from the publishing/hosting platform (so I can move things even if the publishing/hosting service goes out of business suddenly, or we end up at loggerheads).

2. Use a publishing platform that makes it easy to export data, including comments. I’m using WordPress.org, hosted on a virtual linux server from a established web hosting company with a seemingly sound business model (I pay them every month).
3. Publish under my own domain.
4. Make daily backups.
5. Switch platforms/hosts as needed.

I don’t use wordpress.com, but it would fit into my approach, since they let you bring your own domain, and provide a way to export everything. The exported data can then be imported into self-hosted WordPress, or another system that supports the format format.

In the longer run, I’m thinking of exporting dormant sites into a static format and hosting them on something AWS S3, with the knowledge I could move them to any other static file hosting in the future.

This all requires some ongoing effort on my part. At the very least, I have to keep paying the bills, and I have to move stuff when companies and product offerings rise and fall.

This sounds great! I am lost. I consider myself relatively tech-savy, so if I’m lost, I can assume most other people who aren’t specialists in online hosting and probably just want to write things and share them with other people who write things will also be lost. I’ll make it a point to understand what Eas is saying through online research, but my point is, there is a point where access to the open web breaks down for “ordinary users,” and this resistance is what feeds the establishment of closed systems.

Luckily, as a general principle of life, I always dig into the resistance as much as possible.

Finally, Bob Mottram writes:

I’m a firm believer in the open web, and I think in the not too distant future it could enjoy a new expansionary phase. I run a project called Freedombone, which was inspired by an earlier project called Freedombox. These and similar things are intended to help people take back ownership and control of their data and online presence in a more convenient manner (sometimes also known as “userops” because it enables users to do what previously only systems administrators could). As the hardware and software combinations are further developed it will be easier to run your own blog, wiki or social network node and so you’ll be able to decide what happens to your old photos, whether you want to license your content in particular ways or what happens to your data if you’re no longer around.

So a possible solution to the multitude of privacy and data ownership dilemmas is to “be the web”. My project has the concept of the “web of backups” in which friends can help to ensure they never lose data via mutual automated encrypted backups. The more you get into hosting your own services the easier it is to see how little value the big companies actually provide and how expensive their services are in terms of privacy.

Userops? This sounds like something that should exist, albeit something that those who favor from closed online systems won’t like very much. Count me in.

I want to be the web. Bob, I’ll be in touch.

These comments have been inspirational. If the open web is a spectrum, I’d like to push as many of the people I care about as possible over to the ‘open’ side when it comes to their online behavior and where they’re depositing their mental nuggets over time. I’m working on a few projects right now to do just that, so you can expect more posts like this from me, here and elsewhere on the open web :)

 

Where is the “open web” now?

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Photo: Arikia Millikan, Olympus Pen E-P5

I’ve been thinking a lot about the open web lately. As a concept, it is relatively abstract to me since I was born in 1986 and came of age in an online ecosystem where closed software systems were promoted in convenient packages. I got my first computer when I was eight (a Packard Bell with Windows 3.1), and my online consciousness began to develop within the confines of the AOL 3.0 interface. For those younger than me who don’t remember, it came on a CD-ROM and had a splash page of a few topics you could click to view content, which I assume some curator on AOL’s end manually updated.

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The chatrooms were glorious cesspools of humanity. My user name was SmileyA125 and I still remember the sounds of the door opening and closing when someone would enter and leave a room. Eight-year-old me could transmit messages to Japan in the blink of an eye! What power. But the closest I ever got to the open web via AOL was typing in a URL by hand. I remember I used to just guess which words to put between the www and the  dot com, and if a website actually did exist there, it was like winning a game.

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When AOL Instant Messenger came along, my peers and I rejoiced. It wasn’t so much that people my age (12-16) wanted to communicate within a closed system, but the features (profiles, fonts and text colors, and my favorite of all: the warn button) made it more appealing. Also starting was the tendency of people to be online all the time. As soon as hogging the phone line was no longer an issue, the concept of logging on and off began to fade. If you were AFK, you were simply idle.

I can’t even remember how I found my Sweet Valley High fanfiction sites—I suppose through a search on Netscape Navigator—but I think this was as close as I got to the open web. I wasn’t yet big on reading the news, so I have no idea what online news even looked like back then or how publications disseminated information online other than by email listservs or people manually keying in the homepage URL. I’d guess the news organizations would have to collaborate directly with the ISPs (like AOL) in order to get direct placement on their curated portals. I’d like to think we’ve come a long way since then, but I know of some news organizations that still require manual updating of their homepages.

I never used The Well or Mosaic or any of the other key things that came before, so I have to use my imagination where all the early stuff is concerned. After meeting Tim Berners-Lee by proxy of interviewing him with Nate Silver for Nate’s book, The Signal and the Noise, I read Weaving the Web which does a nice job of laying out the chronology and major players leading up to the AOL era. I know the open web he spoke of still exists somewhere. When I hear people like Chris Anderson and Ev Williams talk about how the Web is dead, it seems like they’re saying it out of self-interest rather than describing some factual reality. But I still don’t know what on the web is truly “open,” or what ever really was.

The summer before I began my freshman year of college at University of Michigan, The Facebook sent an invitation to my freshly generated umich.edu email address, probably along with all the other umich addresses and those of about a dozen other select Universities. We were to be the first users outside of Harvard. Now that I think about it, it’s kind of absurd that they were able to do that. I remember interpreting that invitation as a 17 year old and thinking The Facebook must be something the University was endorsing as a directory tool—a service it was providing to students like me. But why would some guy from Harvard be given (or be allowed to take) entire student email lists to promote his product, which was set up like a dating site at the time? What other closed web system that wasn’t proprietary University software got such preferential treatment?

My friends and I poured our college life data onto the Book of Faces, openly and assuming respect for our privacy at first, then more hesitantly and pulling back as cases popped up to indicate moderate to great harm could come from sharing too much. The most famous example at my school, which I’ve blogged about before, was when my classmate then two-time gold medalist Michael Phelps, lost a bunch of sponsorships because someone posted a picture of him smoking a bong on the facebook. I never deactivated my profile, but I went through at least 10 cataloging sprees to hone my privacy settings, as well as complete purges of photos of myself. None of that cataloging really matters anymore since facebook decided its users needed simplified options. Those photos I deleted may be lost forever to the internet Nothing.

OR, they may remain in data purgatory, inaccessible to me like much of the other data I’ve input into the facebook over the past 10.5 years, but stored somewhere in the recesses of facebook’s servers for whatever reason. In light of all the illegal government surveillance stuff that’s been happening, I’ve been thinking a lot about how if we give a company data, someone could then force the company to give that data to them if they want. I don’t think anyone wants pictures of me getting drunk as an 18 year old, but if they did and I didn’t want them to have them, I couldn’t stop them.

Facebook is definitely not the open web, and I’ve been posting less and less there the more I think about what it means to feed this monopolistic beast.

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In college, each student got some allotment of free server space hosted by the University. We could all store files in a shareable directory that said Index at the top. I filled mine with pictures from the internet, mp3s, and maybe some school-related things. It felt like it was mine while I was there. But it doesn’t exist anymore. It was wiped from their servers a while after I graduated. Nobody asked me if they could do it, they just did. The Nothing strikes again.

Now as I think about where the open web exists and how one could encourage publishing there, I’m searching for scenarios in which the decision-making power of what happens to user-generated content online rests not on a corporation that doesn’t share the user’s interest, but on the user, who should technically own her own data.

I’m wondering if WordPress is considered the open web. It certainly feels more open than facebook. I met Matt Mullenweg (the WordPress founder) on two occasions and he seems like a nice guy. But WordPress owns the servers where all the content I’ve authored on this blog over the past eight years is hosted. Matt Mullenweg could theoretically disappear my entire literary archive if he wanted to. He probably doesn’t want to. It would be unlikely for him to do that, but why should I assume that he wouldn’t? It’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility.

So, if the open web ever existed, and if it still exists, where is it? How is one to publish on it and what benefits does that have for the individual user and the overall health of the web in general? How can I be absolutely sure that content I publish on the web will remain there until I decide to take it down? How can i ensure it will remain there at its original URL after the event of my death? I’m going to do some research, because I’m prepared to go deep with this quest. But I wanted to share the beginning of my thought process, so feel free to leave comments if you can point me toward the open web.

 

 

 

“The canary in the cole mine for today’s teenagers”

friendfluenceThat’s how Carlin Flora described me in her new book, Friendfluence, with respect to my immersive online life, which I detailed for her in an interview last fall.

I met Carlin when I was an intern at Psychology Today and she was an editor, so it was kind of a cool time-warpy thing to become her interview subject. I’m super excited for her new book, which combines the latest psychological research on friendships with personal anecdotes.

Here is the excerpt about me:

Anyone over thirty can likely divide life into the pre- and post-Internet eras. They made friends before online socializing proliferated, and now they maintain those friends (and sometimes make new ones) online. But what is it like for younger people who have no “before” and “after,” whose friends have always existed in person and on screens? Arikia Millikan, now twenty-five, got her first e-mail account when she was eight years old, after her mom got her a Hewlett-Packard personal computer. In high school, she started wandering into online chat rooms. “I was drawn to the kind of disjointed interaction it offered—where you could walk away from the computer and come back and resume the conversation later.”

Near the end of Arikia’s freshman year of high school in Gainesville, Florida, when she was fourteen, her mother found an e-mail to her from a boy in her class. “It was sexual, but it was jokey—just innocent kid stuff. But my mom completely freaked out. She ended our Internet subscription. So all through high school I had to walk to the public library to get online.” She could IM there at the library but felt very distant from her peers who had constant access. “There was this whole conversation I was missing out on, and relationships I couldn’t forge. Knowing that I was missing out probably drove the tech obsession I later developed.”

Before going off to college at the University of Michigan in 2004, Arikia got a new laptop. It happened to be the year that Facebook first became accessible to colleges other than Harvard. “You would meet someone in a class or something, and then you would immediately look them up on Facebook,” she says. “You would have way more information about that person than was ever possible before.”

Reading Facebook profiles entailed more than just checking out someone’s favorite bands or movies, Arikia says. It was an intuitive process that yielded an overall impression of someone. “Throughout college I became really good friends with people who were really different from me, opposite in their political views, for instance. Facebook just framed the conversation going forward. You had access to things that person hadn’t told you, but that were fair game information to discuss.”

I wondered if maintaining her own Facebook page was a stressful game of image maintenance, given how crucial these profiles were to social life. “I was always pretty authentic,” she says. “But you want to have your best face forward, so there’s the process of deleting unflattering pictures, and crafting your updates to reflect the best parts of your personality. I was probably less self-conscious than other people about photos that were potentially incriminating, like of me drinking at a party.” Students were warned by administrators, in fact, not to post comments or photos that they wouldn’t want a future employer to see. “I was very quick to take the position that if a future employer was going to hold something silly I did in college against me, that wasn’t the kind of employer that I’d want to work for.” Spoken like a stereotypical millennial!

Yet it was a prophetic notion: Arikia is now an online editor at Wired, the tech and science magazine. Her natural passion for online socializing turned into a job offer when a Wired editor started following her tweets and gave her a few freelance projects to work on. Still close with many of her college friends, she believes she has personally influenced several of them to move to New York, where she headed right after graduation. “I think some of my friends were drawn to come here, based on my portrayal of my experiences in the city on social media.”

“I’m always online,” Arikia says. “I never disconnect, except when I sleep. I probably go to about four events a week; most are media or science related—it’s an opportunity for people to get together and see friends from the Internet and meet new people.” In an ironic twist, Arikia met her roommate—whom she considers to be her best friend—the old-fashioned way, at a bar. But their first conversation was about none other than Facebook. “We were thrilled to find another person who understood social media as much as the other.”

“Social media has made such a big difference on my well-being that I like to show other people that it can be a really enjoyable part of life,” Arikia says. “For me it’s really been the vessel to solidify friendships that I can’t imagine would have formed, or would have formed so quickly, if it wasn’t for the availability of the communication media.”

As for those who say people of her generation are empathy-less narcissists without real friends, Arikia says, “Anyone who would say that has obviously not experienced the full benefits of the Internet or even given it a chance. I feel sorry for them.”

The software patent system is broken, long live the software patent system

Tonight I went to a panel discussion, one of my favorite closet nerd things to do on a Thursday night in NYC. It was at Hack Manhattan, aptly titled “Software Patents Debate – FREE alcoholic and non-alcoholic refreshments.” Sold out, obviously. The panel was hosted by America’s Future Foundation and featured Nilay Patel of The Verge, Chris Mims of Quartz, Reihan Salam of National Review, and patent lawyers Christina Mulligan, Alan Tenenbaum, and Greg Maskel, moderated by Chris Gaun of Gartner.

The purpose of the panel was to debate whether or not software should be patentable, if the current system is broken, and if it encourages innovation. All the panelists agreed that it was not optimally functional, mainly because of the legal aspects. The main example they kept coming back to was of a 15 year old kid in Wichita who makes iPhone game apps in between homework assignments. The kid could get sent a letter from a company claiming he’d infringed on their patent. The letter may or may not be valid, but that doesn’t matter—even attempting to defend his app could require up to $30,000 in legal fees and a whole lot of time. And it’s not like he knew about the patent in the first place because there’s no effective way to search the system and see if what you’re working on falls under another patent, he’d just have to build the thing and wait to see if he got a letter. As Christina put it, “when you’re in the position of making a product, it’s mathematically impossible to know what patents you might be infringing.” This is in-part because of the rate of growth of the software industry, in which there are about 700,000 patents currently pending, and millions of others in existence. Understandably, if I had the skills to invent something new, I would feel really discouraged from sharing it with anyone.

Furthermore, it’s difficult to define who the patent trolls are and thus impossible to impose regulations preventing such trolling. They are usually companies who bought up a bunch of patents but aren’t contributing any innovation to the marketplace, and will sometimes send letters in the hundreds or thousands to people who could possibly be infringing seeking royalties, which many inventors are inclined to pay even if they didn’t knowingly infringe on the patent because paying the royalty fees is cheaper than the legal costs. So the trolls can just sit back racking in the dough they’re bullying out of anyone brave enough to attempt to innovate. It’s clear they must be stopped via a reform in the legal system, but the reason they’re able to do that is because the ability to claim royalties exists to protect inventors from getting their ideas ripped off by intentional copycats. SO we need to find a way to differentiate between innovators and leeches. Shouldn’t be hard in theory, but what metrics do you use in practice?

It’s a stifling atmosphere that makes a lot of true innovators throw up their hands and say “to hell with the system, I won’t use it.” This is often the case with proponents of the open source movement, who are clearly the ideological heroes. But in refusing to seek patents on the principle that they won’t engage with a corrupt system, they are choosing to be poor. As Nilay put it, “the people who need [the patent system] the most are the people who don’t believe in it.”

Then there’s the case of companies trying to discourage competition by trying to patent things like rounded corners. Obviously no one company invented rounded corners, and certainly not Apple, but they still won. So the system is clearly still having some problems establishing whether an invention is “new” or if the company is exploiting the shit out of it.

The lawyers were very lawyery. One of my favorite exchanges was when Christina pointed out that the vast majority of patents are never litigated but one could still never know if he was in the wrong. Then Alan chimed in and said it didn’t matter, “go forward with your product and if you become successful then you become a target.” So if you don’t get successful, don’t worry about it. Except… what’s successful? Selling 100,000 apps at a dollar each and having to spend half that on legal fees? A million?

Then someone said maybe software shouldn’t be patentable at all, because it’s this thing that’s way different from a steam engine or light bulb or whatever was being invented when the patent laws were made with a 20 year expiration date that doesn’t really make sense in the context of today’s rapidly changing software landscape.

Ultimately, we want as much innovation as possible in our society. But as usual, the dudes on the golf course smoking cigars are keeping the nerds from saving the world. One thing’s clear about this royal mess though: Something’s gotta give.

Easter egg of keyboard kindness

When I got my Nexus 7 (which i’m using right now to write this post), one of the first things I bought with the $25 credit to the Google Play store was a new keyboard. I selected the SwiftKey 3 tablet keyboard, which anticipates your next word by examining your facebook and twitter posts to “learn” your writing patterns.

One quirky thing that happens sometimes while typing is the keyboard will be overconfident of what you want to say and you’ll wind up with extra words in your message. I usually just delete and move on, because I’m usually in a hurry, but today while casually attempting to tweet a video, I noticed that if you keep pressing the space bar the keyboard will form full sentences for you.

The first sentences sound like something out of the Horse e-books twitter feed. For example,

“I have been living in the emails as I have heard.”
“So i just cuddled my laptop.”
“I am at least one of the few pieces of furniture.”

Weird, but not terribly bad guesses for me, at least the first two. But after a few lines of nonsense, you get something else, something hidden and deliberate:

“I am pretty sure that you can bring happiness to anyone, even if they don’t know you. 5. Every night, SOMEONE thinks about you before they go to sleep. 6. You mean the world to someone. 7. You are Special and Unique. 8. Someone that you don’t even know exists loves you. 9. When you think the world has turned its back on you, take a look. 11. Always remember the compliments you receive. Forget about the rude remarks. So…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. ”

I’ll be on the lookout for 1-4.

My First Cyber Stalker

I was cyber stalked my freshman year of college.

It was 2004 and I’d just started engineering school at the University of Michigan. I’ve never been limited by social conventions in terms of who I befriend, and I would go out to parties, flirt with guys, and carry on. It was the first time in life I had a chance to date, since I wasn’t allowed to growing up with my mom, and it was the first time I had my own computer and free reign over the internet, since I wasn’t allowed to use it outside of school research all through high school. It was my first taste of freedom.

So when I walked into the first day of biomedical engineering class and saw Andy, my little heart went aflutter. He was everything I ever wanted in a guy. He had spiky black hair and facial hair and was wearing a t-shirt featuring some band I’d never heard of. And he spoke, the first day of class. He answered a question that our professor, the ever-intimidating inventor of the multi-channel MRI RF coil and the corresponding fast imaging SENSE algorithm, asked us all, and he got it right. I was in awe.

Then one day, I was smoking a cigarette after a chemistry exam, and I struck up a conversation with these two guys, bonding over the intensity of it all. We all lived on North Campus, where the university exiles the engineers to slave away in silence, so we rode the bus back together, discussing the exam. I had never taken a harder exam, but they weren’t even doubtful. They were perfect study buddies, I decided, and the deal was sealed when I ran into them smoking outside the cafeteria a few days later. From then on Billy, Aman and I were friends.

Much to my surprise did I discover that Aman shared a room with Andy, and Billy lived across the hall. It was the trifecta of intense boys. I would go over to do homework with Billy and Aman, or pretend to do homework and drink Johnny Walker and play video games instead. We got to be rivalrous comrades, especially when Kelley, an emerging feminist from Bangkok who listened to hardcore music and lived upstairs, was involved in the discussions. But Andy remained a mysterious wall. I would try to make conversation, and he would shy away from me in a polite but gruff manner and go off to study alone. For someone so manly-looking and smart, I was baffled to find he was a total introvert outside of class. Combined with how nervous and awkward I probably acted around him, Andy and I were always outside of the realm of meaningful communication.

Once we may have connected over politics though. He was a total lefty and was always watching the Daily Show with John Stewart. In November, we all gathered there to watch the election that sealed another four years of this country’s decline. We were all devastated after, Andy the most, I think. I remember him going on a rant afterwards about how the government would drill all of the oil out of Alaska leaving a big hole, then take all the minorities in the country, push them in, bury them, and put an American flag on top. This was more than I’d ever heard him say. I was in a state of repulsed shock as well, which probably enabled me to snap out of my Andy-fog and say something intelligent around him for a change. I went home and furiously wrote in my journal about all the signs I thought I could tell he might be giving me, and how in love with him I was.

The next day, I got an instant message from someone with the screen name HowCouldBushWin. It was the point in history when AIM was just about to cease being the go-to service for instant messaging, before g-talk came along. If you had your screenname posted on MySpace, you might occasionally get random IMs from lonely guys in their parents basements, who you could quickly weed out. But the facebook had just launched that summer, providing new access for college students curious about their peers.

HowCouldBushWin began chatting me up about the election, and what bullshit it was. I responded at first, waiting for them to reveal who they were. I asked, and they asked me back another question, changing the subject and engaging me. Drawing me into conversation. Whatever, I have to go, I typed, and went on with my plans that night.

That evening when I came back online, I had a message waiting. A link to a funny picture. I smiled and went to sleep.

The next day after class, another message. I replied, assuming it was one of my friends, Billy or Aman, or maybe both, assuming they would reveal their identity momentarily. But the conversation drew on and on. He flattered me with attention asking me endless questions and attempting to intellectually engage me. It was obviously someone who wanted to know me more, who was too shy to approach me in real life. Or maybe they did approach me, daily even, but wanted to know a different side of me. I liked the attention.

I tried to get him to tell me where he knew me from, but he would evade everything while comforting me at the same time. I could tell he was having fun as I made gambles about who it was. Really funny, Billy. Are we still studying later? He let me believe I’d solved the mystery as I went through the list of likely pranksters, but only momentarily. Then he’d taunt me while, at the same time, flattering me with more attention and assurance that I’d be happy when I found out.

This was stupid, I decided. I didn’t have time for it, I had to study. In what I hoped was a last ditch effort, I bargained with him that I would invite him to my birthday party if he would come and reveal himself. I went to my party that night hoping to meet the man of my dreams, who was smart and political and shy despite a tough exterior. And most of all, I was hoping it would be Andy.

Andy never came, and nobody ever revealed themselves to me. But the next afternoon as soon as I got online, an IM window popped up. It was HowCouldBushWin telling me how great I looked at the party last night. I told him he was lying, that he didn’t go, and that he was nobody I knew — that he was probably just some internet weirdo who found me on MySpace and didn’t even really know me.

Then how could I know what you were wearing last night?  he asked. It was like that scene in Scream where Drew Barrymore thinks the phone stalker is fucking around, but then he says he’s on her front porch and the screen pans out around her shocked face.

I told him to go away, that I was hoping it was someone who I wanted it to be, and it clearly wasn’t, so I was done with this game. No wait, I’ll tell you who I am, he pleaded. That’s what drove everything that happened subsequently. I needed to know. The promise of finding out if I just engaged in conversation for a little bit longer outweighed the logic telling me to sign off.

And I didn’t want to sign off. It was my internet. My playground and work space. I needed to be on there. But every time I signed on, he would message me, saying he was finally ready to tell me who he was.

Eventually he let a detail escape him that allowed me to conclude that he was in Engineering school with me. He told me he liked my Radiohead shirt, but it was a shirt I borrowed from my roommate and only wore to class once, no where else.

In lectures, I examined every male skeptically. I tried to concentrate while I was discretely surveying the room, watching to catch anyone who stared at me a bit too long or looked at me funny. HowCouldBushWin told me he was going to give me a signal in class that day, so I would know for sure. Of course, I never saw a signal, and I was left feeling frustrated and unnerved that someone was watching me and I had no idea who. Later, he told me he did it when he thought I was looking. It was right in front of my face, and I must not have seen him.

I blocked HowCouldBushWin. I’d had enough. Game over. I was able to feel relief for a night, thinking that I could start putting this behind me, accepting that I may never know.

The next night, HowDidBushWin messaged me.

HowDidBushWin: TALK TO ME AND I’LL TELL YOU WHO I AM

Me: ok

HowDidBushWin: SEE I KNEW I COULD GET YOU TO TALK TO ME

Me: who are you?

HowDidBushWin: IT DOESN’T COME THAT SIMPLE

The conversation went on for hours and involved me breaking down into desperation. Eventually I blocked that screen name too. He made more.

HowdBushyDoIt

Blocked.

Conan4Pres

Andy liked Conan. Was there any way? No. I had to ignore his bait. He was feeding me hope that he was the person I wanted him to be, because he wanted to be someone I wanted.

It wasn’t, but it had to be someone I knew. Was it the man trifecta’s guy groupie who I didn’t get along with? The acid head serial gamer next door who was always playing an MMORPG with massive headphones? Their other roommate, the famously cool midget who rode around campus on a scooter? The senior in CS downstairs who taught me the meaning of trolling and tried to get me into S&M porn? The super shy, geeky guy in my chemistry class who kept inviting me to participate in clubs and stuff but I never went? The guy I met at a Halloween party and had a moment with who now was trying to date me?

It could have been any of them. Or, it could have been a completely random person who I’d never even spoken with before, who found my screen name on the facebook. I had no way of knowing for sure. Meanwhile, my stalker did not relent.

icanmakemoreforu: You’ll be sad that you never know who I am

Blocked.

talktomearikia: Please. Come on, I’ll be nice.

Blocked.

pleasearikia: I’d give you what you wanted eventually.

pleasearikia: talk to me :(

pleasearikia: I’ll write you a haiku, about you, if you talk.

pleasearikia: I’ll do anything. Right now. One time offer. 5 mins.

pleasearikia: you’re making me crazy

pleasearikia: i’m spazzing out

pleasearikia: are you happy now?

I got sucked into the debate once again. He told me now after how inappropriate his messaging had been, he was afraid to tell me because I would hate him forever, whereas if he didn’t tell me, he might be able to still interact with me in person without me knowing. I tried to convince him otherwise, because I needed to know. But he didn’t give in, so I blocked him again.

My class attendance declined. I couldn’t concentrate, so there was no point.

By that time I’d told some of my friends about it. Some were concerned, and tried IMing the stalker themselves to pull his identity out of him. It didn’t work, and he just got mad at me. He began to become verbally abusive in his messages. Following it up with an apology, and please don’t block me again, I’ll tell you. I would try new tactics of interrogation with him. Everything I could think of. I offered to meet him anywhere. He entertained the idea but refused. So I blocked him again, but he would spawn back up with a new screen name the next day.

stalkerdearest: why did you ignore me and make me go through all those names?

He told me what kind of late night sandwich I would always order.

That’s when I went to the police. I printed out all the conversations I’d been saving since my Drew Barrymore moment, took them to campus security, and told them I was being harassed and to do something to make it stop. I think they thought it was funny. Since he hadn’t actually threatened to physically harm me, they couldn’t do anything. They certainly couldn’t track his IP, though they said it was because they didn’t know how, which I believed.

I couldn’t sign online without a new message box popping up. I was furious. I needed to be there. I needed to talk to my friends and to virtually study. I was becoming a nervous wreck. I hadn’t been to class in weeks because I would distract myself by going out drinking with friends, to escape my computer and my stalker.

My friends were worried. I stopped entertaining the idea of dating, because I was skeptical that anyone who wanted to get to know me was this person.

My stalker told me he would admit it was him if I asked him in person. So I confronted people who I thought it might be, which is of course a really offensive thing to be confronted with. “Am I cyber stalking you? Are you serious?” Desperate to cover all bases and resolve the mystery for good, I  asked Andy about it after class one day. I explained what had been going on. “That sucks,” he said sympathetically. Finally I blurted out that if it was him, he could tell me, because I understood why he would do that. He practically laughed in my face. No, of course it wasn’t him. Then I backpedaled by saying I thought it might be his roommate, the midget, and he got really pissed off that I would think that. That was me officially blowing it with him. It was probably the most embarrassment I’d ever felt in my life at the time.

I went home to another message from a new user on my screen.

The stalker wanted to make a deal. If I told him who I thought he was, he would tell me who he was. I wouldn’t. You’re just being stubborn because you’re afraid of being wrong, he accused.

Blocked.

onemorestubborn

Blocked.

In the end he made 18 total screen names and I blocked them all. I changed the settings on my AIM account so that nobody who wasn’t pre-approved on my list could contact me. I felt defeated. I hated it that I had to sacrifice potential approaches from decent human beings and close myself off online because some lame guy couldn’t control his impulses online.

I eventually ended up dropping out of engineering school and matriculating to the Literature, Science & Arts college. It wasn’t just because of the stalker, but that happened so early in my college career that it set the tone for my whole experience there, and the tone of my GPA. I was in the 20% female minority there, surrounded by guys who were always giving me unwanted attention. I was skeptical of them all. Then I got it from one of my professors too, and I just decided that engineering wasn’t where I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be in an environment where the few women were objectified by the sex-starved majority of men. And all that locking myself away studying wasn’t really my thing anyway. I’m a social animal.

I never found out who it was, but I still idly run the possibilities in my head sometimes, coming up with nothing again every time.

It was like being mentally raped. It marred the start of my college experience. I bounced back, obviously. Because that’s what I do. But even now, when someone contacts me anonymously and carries the joke on for longer than a minute, I start to panic.

That’s why when someone messaged me anonymously four days ago by posting this via formspring, I felt like Julie in I Know What You Did Last Summer when she got that note. Mine read:

I think you were in love with me, but never admitted it for obvious reasons – the first being that I had a girlfriend. But, I’m single now.

I initially got the same hopeful excitement that I did with my first college stalker. I wanted badly for it to be someone who I did fall in love with. I’ve been lonely lately, and I’ve encountered some people along my post-college journey that I’ve been holding out hope for. At the same time I worried it would be another stalker who would never admit his identity, especially after a few exchanges that were unsuccessful in figuring it out. I decided I wasn’t going to make the same mistake in confronting people who I thought it was. I entertained this person’s anonymous messages strategically for four days. I was going to smoke this person out by being smarter this time.

And I did. And it turned out to be a really sick joke.

I hope who did that realizes how hurtful what they did was to me, and that anyone else who may be reading this thinks twice about engaging in anonymous stalking behaviors.