Tuesday, February 21, 2006

On Anonymity; Or, Hiding Your Light Under a Bushel

Recently it has come to my attention that a large number of bloggers not only post with a very small audience in mind (generally family and friends), but are actively opposed to the idea that anyone else will see their blogs.
I find this fascinating. After all, they are putting their material on the Internet, one of the most public spaces in the history of humankind.
Yet in the past week or so, I’ve repeatedly encountered people who want their blogs kept private. For instance, there are Fulbrighters who want only select people to see their blogs (and, being savvy people, most of them take steps to ensure that). An undergrad in a study abroad program was disturbed to learn that an educational blog had posted a link to the blog she envisioned as being purely for loved ones at home. An American working in Brno was disconcerted to find (months after the fact) that Jesse had linked to one of his posts about how things are done in Europe.
There is nothing wrong with making one’s blog or other Web page for a small intended audience, a niche market, if you will pardon the commercial jargon. In general, however, others will eventually find the thing. You cannot pretend that this won’t happen. The Internet is designed to be searchable. Internet culture stresses hypertext—that is, links to related material. Generally speaking, it is assumed that if you put something on the Net, you would like others to find you and link to you. The more links you get, the more your visibility rises in online finding aids, because many links suggest that you have valuable content—good information and images, entertaining writing, a worthwhile product.
Now, there are many things one can do to make a blog anonymous or hard to find. If creating the blog on Blogger, use settings that will keep the blog out of the directory. Disable RSS feed. More importantly, keep all references to your name and affiliations out. Don’t say anything personally identifying, or post any photos showing your face. Don’t write about topics that anyone knows you to be interested in, unless they are so widely written about and your views are so commonplace that no one could possibly identify the posts as yours. Most important of all, avoid using words; post only images, and without giving them identifiable file names. Because while some traffic comes through topic searches on Blogger, most of it comes from searches on Google, MSN, Yahoo, and the like. And, as the Blogger Help pages point out, you can make your site more anonymous and harder to find, but you can’t make it invisible (unless you can password-protect it, as universities do with content intended only for authorized viewers).
Well, you may laugh at the idea of a blog so restricted. But people create photo blogs which, if constructed properly, will not be found by too many outsiders. People also create anonymous blogs about their more intimate habits and fantasies, which, while very revealing and often widely read, do not tell the world who they are in any external sense.
This blog was intended to keep my friends and family informed and amused, and while I was initially surprised at the amount of other traffic it got, I had always known that the larger public could and would find it. It has always been written with the knowledge that to put something on the Internet is to publish it.
And, since it rapidly became clear that my readership is international and to some extent devoted, I try to make it easier for you to navigate and find topics. The del.icio.us tags at the bottom of each page and under most posts help you do that. They also bring in new readers who search del.icio.us or Technorati looking for topics like Prague, Toyen, Nezval, and gender. I link to sites that I think will interest my readers (some of these are also by my readers).
But if you have a site that you wish to keep under wraps, make it anonymous, hard to find, and above all, do make it as useless, boring, and forgettable as you possibly can. Otherwise, sooner or later you’ll see that some well-meaning soul has linked to you.

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