On June 1, 2006, The New York Times reported on a Chinese phenomenon called "internet hunting." A husband, who believed his wife was having an affair with a college student she met at a World of Warcraft player gathering, posted the young man's real name to one of China's most popular message boards, along with a letter decrying the affair. According to the article, hundreds of people took up the cause of finding as much information as they could about the student, known as Bronze Moustache. After one poster, Spring Azalea, stated, "We call on every company, every establishment, every office, school, hospital, shopping mall and public street to reject him ... until he makes a satisfying and convincing repentance," the situation, and the number of participants, escalated dramatically. Bronze Moustache was chased off of his college campus, and his family was forced to virtually barricade itself inside its home due to the negative sentiment spilling off of the web and into their real lives.
People "from the internet" have been tracking down others for quite a while. Some Westerners may dismiss the scale of the Chinese incident as uniquely Asian, but "anonymous" environments like online games and message boards all have their share of so-called internet hunters. In virtual worlds like Second Life, revealing another resident's real-life personally identifiable information is arguably harassment and a potentially ban-able offense. Although prohibited by the terms of service, Second Life residents have discovered others' real-life information, and even "outed" residents on the official forums. In April 2005, such an action spawned a 29-page thread as residents debated the merits of a long-standing rule prohibiting people from not publicizing the link between a resident and his real-life identity.
People behave differently online. In meatspace, we have the punch-in-the-nose-factor. We tend to tone down our more abrasive tendencies to avoid being punched in the nose, or receiving some other kind of reprisal. Online, many people don't fear physical reprisal. Given the transparency of changing handles, it is possible for someone to behave poorly online, either trolling a message board, or perhaps ruining the others' gameplay. For most people who spend a large amount of time online, this is probably not a shocking revelation. Individual jerks are not always persistent, but they're rather fungible.
We are also faced with the reality that those who maintain any kind of consistent online persona, jerk or paragon of politeness, are susceptible to being tracked down. As such, they may have to someday face the "iMob" in one way or another. It also means that there is potential for truly disastrous crossover into real-life. For example, the QA manager of Ritual Entertainment recently posted on his blog that he was diminishing his online presence to avoid further unsolicited people crossing over into his everyday life. Judge Joan Lefkow lost her family because a killer obtained her address without her knowledge or consent. There is now a federal statute that both broadens the definition of cyber-stalking and also increases the penalties for doing it. It seems clear that we need to examine our own expectations about privacy online, as well as the expectations of others.
Given the plethora of drug and alcohol references one can find on MySpace pages, many people seem to think that personal information they put on the web will remain private. Those people are utterly incorrect. Take, for example, the Stolen Sidekick website that went live earlier this year. Based on an AOL Instant Messenger username and some photos that were stored on T-Mobile's servers, Evan, the owner of the website, began a campaign to recover his friend's stolen cell phone. Links to the site quickly spread across the web. In response, a multitude of people formed their own iMob, tracking down the home address of the thieves, as well as locating other personal information about them. A good deal of this information was obtained via their MySpace pages. Some people actually went to their home and harassed them, causing the site owner to ask people to stay away. What makes this interesting is that, similar to Bronze Moustache's predicament, people banded together to punish someone who had offended the herd.