Online anonymity

The Ship of Fools website has, for the first time, revealed the identity of one of the posters on their bulletin boards. I think they were right to do it. In summary: (it is alleged that*) a vicar has been posting glowing reviews of himself on the Mystery Worshipper project and has been found out….

The Ship of Fools website has, for the first time, revealed the identity of one of the posters on their bulletin boards. I think they were right to do it. In summary: (it is alleged that*) a vicar has been posting glowing reviews of himself on the Mystery Worshipper project and has been found out. In addition (it is alleged that*) the individual has been guilty of creating ‘sock puppets’, (different identities used to deceive others) which is against the rules of their community. Full details are in the article here.

Online anonymity is a tricky thing. I have, on a number of occasions advised bloggers to either delete information or indeed their entire blogs because they were posting information that they might well regret in the future. I have seen people get into big trouble because of what they have posted online. I regularly read blog posts which I think the writers will live to regret. My advice regarding online anonymity is as follows:

  1. Everything you write online, whether it be in blog posts, blog comments or on a bulletin board will be searchable in the future. Probably long into the future. Therefore don’t write anything that you wouldn’t want to be found by anybody who is looking for the information. This could include friends, parishioners or employers, present and future.
  2. It is really really really difficult to keep up an anonymous internet persona in the long term. It is likely that sooner or later someone will discover your identity. This might be because you give one clue too many, or it might be because someone else ‘outs’ you inadvertently. For instance, if a friend links to your blog using your real name search engines will pick up on your name even if you are careful not to use it yourself. I’ve seen it happen.
  3. If you blog about your job and your employer doesn’t know about it you could be in dangerous waters. Trust me, I have been there and bought the goggles / swimming cap etc.
  4. If you blog or post from work it does more or less go without saying that your employer will know the sites you visit and what your online identity is.
  5. Everything I’ve written here applies even if you have the purest of motives. If you’re setting out to deceive as in the Ship of Fools example then the likelihood of your being found out in the long run is even greater.

I don’t normally like to be so negative in a blog post. It may be that one or more parades have been rained or at least drizzled upon, but I think that well intentioned precipitation of this sort isn’t always a bad thing.

Update: Ruth Gledhill on the Ship of Fools story.

Glowing mystery worshipper report rumbled ยซ Churchblogger
Deep Thought: Still a mystery?
42: Strange co-incidence
Of course, I could be wrong…: Ship Of Fools Fooled By Times’ Journalist
Ship of Fools publishes Bullshipper at Bene Diction Blogs On
Priest censured for false review – Newspaper Edition – Times Online
helmintholog: Sock Puppet in a dog collar
Sock Puppets, Trolls, and Secretly Blowing Your Own Trumpet at Exigency In Specie
Dylan’s Grace Notes: Internet anonymity
maggi dawn: Identity Crisis
Nick Page ยป Ship of Fools Fooled

*Update 2 (10th October 23.30pm): A clarification. The points above about the vicar posting glowing reviews of himself and the creation of ‘sock puppets’ are allegations rather than 100% proven fact. I may have overstated the case, in which case, apologies. The fact that Fr Peters had mislead his congregation by claiming to be the ‘unknown Westminster Abbey priest’ when he wasn’t is not disputed. You need to read the article for yourself and make up your own mind really.


  1. When I started blogging, I took your advice re anonymity. However, after a while I couldn’t square it with my faith. To put it bluntly, I attack people. I come from a culture where there were rules about this along the lines of if you hurt someone expect to be hurt back. Which is just. Everything I say on my site about somebody I would say to their face and expect consequences. But I was not giving an opportunity for the consequences to happen. So I went completely public. There will be consequences but I am now a honest blogger and I feel a lot happier about the situation. Also, in stead of having visitors, I now have friends.

    Mind you, I had very little to lose in the first place which is the right place to be if your vocation is to shout at people.

  2. That is all excellent advice, Dave.

    I know of a teenager who spills her heart out to her online “Dear Diary” but completely unknown to her, the rest of her family know her Blogger ID and read it avidly. I question the ethics of their doing so, but it is out there for all to read. I shudder to think of the transgression of boundaries in that family when intimacy can be intruded upon like that.

    And there is a 25 year old who empties all her most intimate thoughts on to her blog, including details of sexual encounters, and she fronts it with her own photo and family news where ID is completely disregarded. What kind of self hatred is tied up in that? It is hardly very wise.

    It is worth remembering that Search Engines not only collect data, but they store it cached for a very long time. What one might delete from a blog after second thoughts cannot be deleted from this kind of storage.

  3. I would like to see someone track me, Neil Denham from Exeter Devon, down. I can’t imagine they would ever find my Slightly Random Wiblog, or any of my identities as Starbelly on various discussion forums. I really have cover my tracks!


  4. this is v interesting to me. i’m always honest about who i am and i know that there are comments that i make elsewhere that will probably be ‘picked up’ by the powers that be.

    i think it is always best to be honest about your identity and wear the consequences. it stops us saying things we shouldn’t, or not, as the case may be………

  5. Y…I’m just not bright enough to keep up any sort os sustained anonymity, so have instead adopted a philosophy that “my bishop might read every word” and try to proceed accordingly.
    I do rely on friends to tell me if they think I’ve crossed the line, though.
    Quite overwhelmed by the yukkieness of the S o F deceiver, though. That’s really Not Nice!

  6. I agree Jody, there is nothing I would do or say online that I wouldn’t do or say on the net.

    Apart from the p*rn of course.

  7. I guess what is worrying me is how I have changed over the years and hopefully, by the grace of God will again. I probably will be ashamed in the future of what I write but I guess all we can do is be real and honest now. I hope I’m not preaching…

  8. I echo that Chris – and I guess I am quite glad my first blog, which was just a collection of sermons, is now no more.

    I feel convicted by this post Dave – and feel I might be one of the offendors. I have thought recently about whether or not to delete a few posts, and perhaps I still shall – but I guess I write knowing I have a wide readership (not big – but wide). My Aunty, parents in law, college colleagues, work colleagues, as well as people I have never met means I try and write for a wide audience – but inevitably I will write something I don’t want so and so to read – especially in those splurg moments.

    I’m undecided really. A part of me says that I am pretty open with friends and family anyway – so why not be online. Another part of me wonders if I will have any friends soon!

  9. I’m with Chris as well: everyone changes over time, and there is a record of past “me”s that are no longer truly who I am.

    One thing of note is that once uploaded, you cannot delete photos from blogger. I usually (but not always) upload photos onto my own webspace.

  10. Personally I try more and more to post only what I’d be comfortable saying to anyone. I think this is harder to do when feeling emotional.

    As to the Mystery Worshipper incident, the individual may well learn valuable lessons from this and quite probably feels deep regret, which is why grace and forgiveness are so important.

  11. Of course in a sort of odd way perhaps if he had been less anonymous (or his several identities) it would have been easier to spot the deception.

  12. It’s an interesting issue, and indeed your points are worth noting (or “worth nothing” as Ruth Gledhill mistakenly writes ๐Ÿ™‚ ). I’m usually more honest in blogland than I would be in real life but then it’s usually about stuff – God etc. – that I’d like to talk to people about except they never ask ๐Ÿ™‚ I figure if they’re interested enough to actually read the blog, good luck to them. I find it’s safer to assume that someone you know could find it and would know it was you. That said I avoid using last names and putting in the names of friends where possible.

    Judah’s comment reminded me of a time in ye distant past when my sister was blogging. My parents and brother all started reading it without her knowing (I read it, but she knew about that) – she was depressed at the time but the deception annoyed me so much I decided to tell her. It turned out all right in the end but not without some serious heartache!

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