Better Than to Fade Away

As I’ve learned recently, people really like to give advice to those who have experienced online harassment, threats, and abuse.  I could write a blog series simply collecting all the unsolicited advice (ranging from useful to absurd) that people (ranging from close friends to complete strangers) have taken it upon themselves to offer me after people started harassing me online.  (For the backstory on my experiences with online harassment, see my blog series here, here, here, here, and here.)

One popular piece of advice is that targets of harassment should minimize their online presence.  “You’re making things worse for yourself by writing about this,” is a refrain I’ve heard lately.  “You should minimize your online presence, stop blogging, take down your photographs, deactivate your Facebook account, stop tweeting, pull your picture and your CV off your faculty profile, stop commenting in online forums, and just generally disappear for a while.”  From talking to other people who have been targeted for online harassment, I know this advice is common.

A lot of the time — not always, but a lot of the time — this kind of advice comes from straight white men (who, in the aggregate, experience a disproportionately low amount of harassment) and is directed at women, people of color, sexual minorities, and other groups (who experience harassment at exponentially greater rates).  One of life’s mysteries is why people who have never experienced much (or any) online harassment themselves believe themselves so abundantly qualified to dispense advice to those who have.  Another mystery is why these people think their words of wisdom will be welcome: as Lindy West has said, “I’m sick of being told that I’m navigating my own abuse wrong.”  And yet another mystery is why these people think their “keep a low profile” advice is some sort of brilliant revelation: do they really believe that someone who’s the target of egregious sexual harassment on Twitter every single day hasn’t thought about deleting her Twitter account?

All that is a topic for another blog post.  This blog post is about why, for many people, the “keep a low profile” advice is not just condescending and obnoxious.  In many cases, it’s also really bad advice.

I want to make clear that the last thing I want to do is inflict still more unsolicited advice on targets of online abuse by telling them what they “should” do.  If someone in fact decides that the best thing for her physical or psychological well-being is to scale back her online presence, then by all means she should do that.  If she decides that the best thing for her safety is to lower her profile, then by all means she should do that.  Every person is different, everyone’s circumstances are different, and there’s not one correct answer to the question of how how someone should handle online harassment.

What I do want to do here is to outline some advantages of not lowering your online profile, and, indeed, of raising your profile.  And, for those who want to go that route, I also want to provide some concrete suggestions for how to do so.

One advantage of increasing your online visibility is that removing all traces of one’s self-created online presence leaves behind only what others have said.  Consider a woman whose vengeful ex-boyfriend blogs incessantly about her, starts threads about her on Internet forums, and perhaps even posts intimate pictures from their relationship.  If the woman purges the Internet of all the content she’s created, then her entire online presence may end up being defined by her ex and his hateful words and actions.

Likewise, there may be concrete economic reasons to maintain a robust online presence.  If, for instance, the woman I have described is in the middle of a job search, she may not want prospective employers to find the content created by her ex and nothing else.  Or if she’s someone whose career advancement depends in part on the influence of her words and views, lowering her profile may be detrimental, in very tangible ways, to her career.  If someone has a full-time job as a journalist or a blogger, she simply can’t purge the Internet of every vestige of her existence and expect to maintain her livelihood.

And finally, for many people, there is a real psychological cost to minimizing their online presence.  Disappearing from the Internet is self-silencing.  It can feel as though it’s giving online abusers exactly what they want, which is for you to STFU and go away.  For some targets of online harassment, threats, and abuse, this is the single most compelling reason to stay visible — or to become more visible — on the Internet.  As one target of awful rape and death threats said to me:  “If I shut up, that means they win.”

So how do you go about amplifying your online presence?  A good place to start is by creating and managing public profiles for yourself.  Get a Facebook profile.  Get a Twitter account.  Set up a LinkedIn profile.  Start a Tumblr.  Set up an Instagram account.  Create an About.me profile.  Set up a personal website for yourself.  Add some content to your Google+ profile.  Join Quora.  Pretend it’s 2003 and set up a MySpace profile.  If you’re an academic, like me, make sure your faculty profile is up to date and has plenty of accurate content.  (The same goes for profiles associated with other professions, of course.)  And whether you’re an academic, a student, or a researcher, you can also create profiles on websites like SSRN (where anyone can post research) and academia.edu.  I don’t have a Pinterest account because Pinterest and a lot of the people who use it frighten me, but that’s another possibility, along with Flickr, Formspring, Foursquare, Blogger, Reddit, Yelp, and so on.

Once you’ve created all this content, link everything together — that is, on each profile, include links to as many other profiles as possible.  One of the ways that many search engines determine where a site ranks in search results is by examining how many times other sites link to it.  Linking among your various sites helps to boost them all.

Ultimately, the point is that all the sites I’ve listed are sites that consistently show up high in search results, and creating content there will create a strong positive counternarrative — one that you control — to whatever negative content is out there about you.  It also sends a strong message that you’re not going awayAnd it’s not as time-consuming as you might think.  I did everything described in the previous two paragraphs on my laptop one weekend afternoon while I was sick in bed.  Once you’ve created the various profiles, it’s useful to update them with new information whenever possible, but simply having the profile in existence is already both helpful and free.  On that note, I should mention that there are “reputation defense” companies that will do this type of thing for you and more.  I looked into a couple of them and the lowest price I got quoted was $3000.  I have over $200,000 in student loans and I do not have $3000 to spend on improving my online presence.  But I think I still managed to do a decent job in one afternoon on my own — google me and judge for yourself.  Of course the negative content is still there for anyone who cares to dig deep enough, but the important thing is that it’s not the only content.

Likewise, you can amplify your online presence and build positive content by writing and commenting in various online forums.  One way is simply by offering your thoughts, under your own full name, in the comment sections of Slate, Salon, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Gawker, or whatever you read that allows comments.  Another is to start a Blogspot or WordPress blog.  The blog can be about anything that interests you — a blog with pictures of your cat’s entertaining antics is just as likely to show up in search engines as one about health care reform (and realistically, the former may well get more views and links than the latter).  If you do start blogging, ask your friends who also blog to link to your posts, or send links to other bloggers who write about similar topics.  Once you have a cache of interesting content, you can ask other bloggers to include your blog in their blogroll.

Finally, there’s the problem, or I tend to think of it as a non-problem, of the doppelnamer.  If you have a common name, or even if you don’t, someone may have taken your favorite user name on some sites already.  For example, this person is definitely not me.  But having one or more doppelnamers is not necessarily a bad thing.  More people with your name means more people whose various online activities will bury negative content.  My suggestion in this situation is to pick a single, consistent, variation on your name — maybe including your middle initial; maybe including your favorite number — and use that across various sites.  The idea is to have as much uniformity in your online presence as possible.

Of course, there are what some might consider downsides to increasing your online visibility.  Example:  someone recently started a thread discussing my Instagram account — a thread that ultimately attracted over a hundred comments.  (For the curious and bored, if you’d like to take a look at my Instagram, knock yourself out.  I keep it public because an elderly relative of mine — who I am confident lacks the tech skills to log into any website — likes to look at it.)  As a side note, what’s both remarkable and sad is that people exist who (a) I’ve never met; and (b) have nothing better to do than look at random pictures from a trip I took a decade ago.  My broader point here is that increasing your online presence inevitably means disclosing more information about yourself.  A lot of people might be deterred by that.  My personal view is that, if you curate the information you disclose, it’s a manageable issue and one that you can control.

Finally, maintaining a robust online presence is not inconsistent with minimizing safety concerns.  Here’s a non-exhaustive list of ideas.  Disable location services and geotagging features on your phone.  In particular, make sure you do so when you take pictures.  Don’t check into places on Facebook while you’re still there.  Or randomly check into places where you’ve never been.  Post Instagram photos of a trip you took last year.  Or post photos of your backyard while you’re on vacation.  There are ways to use the Internet in general, and social media in particular, to make it harder for people to find you in the real world, not easier.

Deciding how to handle online harassment is a personal choice.  I’ve chosen to increase my visibility.  I make no claim that it’s the right choice for everyone.  But if you’ve decided to make a similar choice, I hope this post is helpful to you.