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February 07, 2006

Blog Stalkers - Personal Safety for Bloggers

Posted in: Miscellaneous Blog Tips

‘Stalker’ is such a harsh word and one not to be used lightly but in December of last year I realized that I had one.

I’ve hinted at this once or twice in this blog and in my email newsletter and some enternetusers readers did see a few of the comments that he left on this blog (he was the one that called himself ‘blogkiller’ - but I’ve avoided talking about it up until now for reasons of security and not wanting to agitate the situation further.

It’s been almost two months now since the situation was resolved and I believe it is now safe to talk about it without inflaming things (but hope you’ll forgive me for not going into too many specifics).

What I will say is that the situation arose when someone who lives in my city read a number of posts written on another blog about me. Before he read them I was unknown to him but the posts attacked me, made allegations about me which were untrue and it was written (in my opinion) without fact checking in quite an aggressive tone. Who wrote it and which post it is is irrelevant (in fact I’ve made peace with the blogger and resolved it) - the fact is the person who read it was in a place in their life where they were under extreme pressure and mentally unstable.

The posts were enough to trigger some extreme thought processes and obsessions in this person that led to a chain of escalating events that went from what I initially considered to be a harmless comment troll, to a cyber-nuisance, to a concerning threat maker, to what unfortunately became a situation where there was a physical attack made upon my property.

This process was very unsettling and in the end shook me up quite a bit.

As I’ve written above the situation is now resolved. I do not feel under threat - but in the process I’ve learned a lot and have a somewhat different view of blogging.

I wanted to share this story for a couple of reasons.

Firstly I think it’s important for us all to remember that the words we write might be written with one intention - but that they can be read and interpreted in a very different way. The blogger who wrote the posts that triggered this chain reaction did not intend for this to happen and could not have foreseen it. I don’t hold them responsible for it and as I say we’ve resolved our differences. However it has made me think twice before posting about other people since.

Secondly I wanted to remind bloggers to consider their personal safety.

While I’ve seen a number of articles in recent times about how to keep your blog safe and secure from hacking and accidental loss - it’s also worth considering how to keep yourself (and those you live with) safe and secure also. When you write in a public forum you are doing so with the hope that people will read you. The unfortunate side of this is that you have little control over the perceptions of others towards you and that from time to time people will disagree with you and even become agitated towards you. This is both one of blogging’s biggest strengths (ie the conversation, diversity and dialogue) but also one of it’s biggest weaknesses when it goes to far.

Lessons in Blogger Security

While I’m no expert on personal online safety I would STRONGLY advise you consider what information you do and don’t reveal online about where you live and your family. While this person tracked me down through offline sources it’s a good reminder that the things you write can often be used to track you down. Here are a few reflections on the experience:

Decide up front how much personal information you will share on your blog - I’ve always been reasonably careful about this. I don’t post my address (I have a PO Box), I don’t post the name of my spouse and I never post her picture or those of other family or friends. If I do post photos I generally ask for permission or make them anonymous.

Consider your offline security - Ask yourself - ‘How easy would it be for someone to find you in real life?’ As I say I was not found directly through information on my blog (although I’m sure knowing my name and city which I reveal in my about pages helped) but through offline sources. I’m sure there are different ways to add layers of security in different parts of the world but consider silent numbers, PO Boxes for mail, being silent on the electoral roll etc.

Consider the way you are perceived online - I work hard at presenting myself online in a fairly easy going, polite and well mannered person (I’m often made fun of for this even). While at times I don’t feel like being this way it is an intentional thing. This is partly because it’s my character and personality (I’m a shy guy who was brought up to always consider the feelings of others) and partly as a security consideration - I don’t want to inflame the wrong person. Obviously it doesn’t always work - but I do worry about some bloggers who seem intent on promoting themselves through angry, attacking and personal attacks. Consider the costs of your actions and words both on yourself and others before you post. You may still choose to take the attacking approach - but do so at your own risk and knowing the full extent of what it could one day lead to.

Have a plan of action - I would strongly recommend giving some thought to how you will deal with escalating situations that could lead to personal safety problems. This is part of the reason I wrote the What to do when your blog is Attacked post a week or so back. In the vast majority of cases things do not escalate to the stalker stage and can be resolved by using some of the strategies I mentioned there. However what if they escalate? At what point will you involve the police? How is the security of your home? etc

Don’t face it Alone - If things do escalate - I would strongly advise that you do not face the situation alone. The resolution of my situation came with the involvement of others. I don’t wish to go into details of this but ‘others’ could mean the help of other bloggers, others who live near you and others with some official and legal ability to help.

Online stalkers are not a common thing to my knowledge and I don’t share my story to scare anyone - but I do think it’s something to be aware of as you blog. Don’t let this kill your blogging but let it be something you give a little thought to in the hope the tiny chances of this happening to you are lessoned even further.


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