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If Bill Clinton's "bridge to the 21st century" ends in an America where every junior-high-school brat is connected to the Internet, and hence has access to my home page, I think I might just stay on this side of the water--dealing with college-age 'Net surfers is difficult enough.
Let me explain.
Late Monday night two weeks ago, I was trying to focus on reading Tocqueville when my computer "eep" ed. I lunged for the mouse and clicked open my new e-mail. I could tell from the subject line--"You are a huge f***ing culturally deprived moron"--that this wasn't just a brainless forward or more propaganda from Clinton-Gore '96.
A student named Brian at Washington University in St. Louis has stumbled across my home page (http://www.fas.harvard.edul/~gupton) and had decided to take issue, in hateful words, with my choice of the best songs and movies of all time--particularly my tongue-in-cheek selection of "Pretty Woman" as the greatest film ever. "I could see a 60-year-old former Walmart greeter making this choice, but a Harvard student?"
A few hours later, my Mac "eep" ed again, signaling the arrival of a second message from St. Louis, bearing the subject line "Gupton, How Can You Be Such A F***ing Dork?" This e-mail, allegedly sent by Brian's roommate Adam, read, in part: "In reading over your resume packed full of things which would make any God-fearing rotarian cum in his pants, I found myself repeatedly drawn back to a single question. Why have you been allowed to live?... You should have been tossed to the wolves the second you thought of mentioning your distinction as an (drumroll please) AP SCHOLAR WITH HONORS." The assault continued for dozens of lines, and was signed, "With Love from The Harvard Of the Midwest, Adam Bonislawski."
For almost an hour, I felt downcast and angered. But I was also curious. What were these people like, who would address someone they did not know in such callous terms? Why me? Were Brian and Adam really two different people? Tempted, I sent back a brief reply to Adam, stating that his problem was a lack of love and attention.
Well, Adam admired the brevity of my reply, and our e-mail correspondence persisted into the wee hours of the morning. I described my musical tastes in greater detail, in self-defense, and upon my request, he cut down on his use of profanity. Perhaps I was reforming him! He even told me I wasn't such a bad guy after all. As I started enjoying our e-mail parley, I began thinking of the mean initial e-mail messages as silly and benign conversations starters.
Quickly, however, Adam seemed to get frustrated with my short replies, and I got tired of trying to match his biting wit. Despite his incivility, there was little question that Adam's e-mail was more spirited than mine. So I went back to my reading.
Three days later Adam sent me another message, scolding me for not replying to his e-mail. The message sarcastically rang of jealous love. "Your seductive home page, the coy messages left on my computer in the early morning, how could I avoid making you a part of my life," the message read. "And now you want out, to be done with me forever. Well, I have to tell you Gupton, IT'S JUST NOT THAT EASY. I will fight for you Gupton, I will not let you slip away. I know where you live." There was an unmistakable jocularity in Adam's tone, but nonetheless, I was concerned. After all, I really didn't know this person at all. And after all, he really did know where I lived, since I had listed my addresses, both at home and at Harvard, on my home page.
That week, I told people about the incident, I discovered that a female sophomore friend had also received mail from Adam and Brian, though their correspondence had been more civil (maybe her home page wasn't as dorky) and had ended more quickly. The knowledge that I wasn't the only target of the boys from St. Louis was reassuring.
Nearly two weeks later, at 1:45 AM on a Sunday, my phone rang. "Hi, can I speak to Gupton please?" an energetic voice asked. I only needed to ask whether it was Adam or Brian on the other end. (It turned out they were two different people--I spoke to both of them.) They were calling from North-western, where they were drunk and bored. I acted casually, as though I had half-expected their call, and passed up the chance to scold them for their harassment. I wasn't angry anymore, and I had lost all interest in their twisted comments.
Adam promised to call back the next time he gets drunk. Whether or not I hear from him again, however, I have become a more cautious Internet homeowner thanks to his attention. Shortly after receiving the first message from my friends at "the Harvard of the Midwest," I took my home phone number and address, my Harvard phone number and a few personal details off my page, to protect myself from unwanted attention.
In most ways, having a home page is a good thing. A page gives you the power to express yourself in any way you choose. It can connect you with interesting people the world over you'd otherwise never meet. It can give you a sense of pride in yourself, and establish your presence, however small, in the vast electronic universe.
But by revealing your personality in posting your likes and dislikes, your accomplishments and your vital statistics, and maybe even photos of you and your loved ones, you also run a few risks. Since it is virtually impossible to limit access to your home page, any of the dozens of millions of Internet users world-wide can hone in on you--and can do with your information what they will.
If today's rate of growth continues, everyone on Earth will be on the Internet by 2004, according to http://www.openmarket.com/intindex. That means many more home pages, and many more people whose personalities will be on display for the world. Issues of electronic identity and security are bound to become increasingly important.
And don't think that you're still anonymous if you haven't made a home page. The new reality is that if friend or foe is looking for you, you made be only a key stroke away. Try plugging your name into a search engine (e.g. http://www.altavista.digital.com) and see what you get. Your e-mail address is probably out there too (http://www.yahoo.com/search/people/email.html), as are your home address and phone number (http://www.switchboard.com).
There is one consolation to those of us sad to see our anonymity slipping away: No one is immune in the wired world. Just as swiftly as I can find the address and phone number of an elementary school friend now in Illinois, using the Internet I can obtain the phone number of Adam Bonislawski's parents. Don't you think they might be interested to know what their son has been doing with his free time?
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