Friday, September 11, 2009

Public Identity and Bowerbird Privacy

My legal name is "Eric Sven Hellman". On Twitter, I'm using "gluejar". On Facebook, I took the username "eshellman", which I also use in a number of other places. For the most part, while I do try to separate my work from my personal life, I don't try to isolate my online identity from my "real world" identity. I used to use the identity "openly" in some circumstances for my work identity, but I sold that name as part of my previous company. My work identities can be easily connected to my personal identity, and as a result, the use of different identities affords me negligible privacy.

The very concept of privacy has changed a great deal over the last 20 years, in large part due to the internet-induced shrinkage of the world and the relentlessly growing power of large databases. Our traditional notions of privacy have had embedded within them an implicit equation of privacy with obscurity. Public documents with records of where we lived, what we owned, who we were married to and how much our house was worth would be available in the sense that anyone could go to a county registrar and get the information. If I walked to town, anyone who saw me and knew me would know where I was. In the not so distant future, it's not hard to imagine that an internet connected camera could see me, recognize my face, and post my whereabouts on the internet so that anyone searching for me on google could discover my whereabouts. It doesn't really matter whether that happens through Linked Data or by discovering my GPS coordinates on Twitter. As any computer security expert will tell you, security-by-obscurity is ultimately doomed to failure, and I'm pretty sure that the same is true of the privacy-by-obscurity.

Yesterday, Wired Magazine writer Evan Ratliff was found. As part of reporting an article about how hard is for someone to "disappear" in the digital age, Wired had offered $5000 to anyone who could track down Ratliff during 30 days starting August 15. Ratliff's downfall was partly that he "followed" a vegan pizza restaurant in New Orleans on Twitter. It should not be surprising that Ratliff was found, given that a Facebook group with 1,000 members formed in an effort to track him down, so the relevance to our everyday privacy is a bit tenuous. Hollywood celebrities are only too aware that privacy retention is much harder for famous people.

Partly inspired by Ratliff's article, I decided to do a bit of investigation of my own. If you've been reading blogs around the topic of e-book technology, you probably have encountered posts by someone that signs posts with the name "bowerbird". Bowerbird's posts are always on-topic, but they are written with oddly short lines, as if bowerbird was typing on a 40 character-wide terminal. Bowerbird's posts are often impolite and sometimes really insulting, and in several forums, the posts have provoked complaints of trolling or that bowerbird is "hiding behind a pseudonym". Bowerbird replies that "bowerbird" is his real identity "in many versions of reality". It's clear that bowerbird is an iconoclast. When bowerbird posted a comment on one of my recent posts, I decided to see what I could find out about him or her.

It turns out that "bowerbird" is really the first name of "bowerbird intelligentleman". He has used this as his professional name since at least the late eighties. The name is written with lowercase letters in the manner of e e cummings, and Mr. intelligentleman, as the New York Times might refer to him, is a performance poet, among other things. In fact, he claims to have started performance poetry as an art form in 1987, and was an early promoter of "poetry jams". In a charming, self-deprecating bio (PDF), he writes "bowerbird is also one of the world's worst poetry producers" and describes how his forays into computer typesetting of poetry magazines led him into the world of electronic publishing and ebooks. He was very active on the Project Gutenberg volunteer discussion list, where his talent for provocation prompted Marcello Parathoner to cathartically excerpt a collection of his postings. Much of his energy in the ebook arena was spent promoting his ideas about "Zen Markup Language" (z.m.l.) whose philosophy can be summed up as "the best mark-up is no mark-up". The short line endings in bowerbird's post appear to be his insistence on using z.m.l. for his posts. Or perhaps they're performance poetry. It's a cute idea, but personally, I find that the formatting makes the posts hard to read in their context.

When bowerbird posted his comment, he left digital footprints. He visited the blog on a link from LanguageLog. He lives in the Los Angeles area (he's posted elsewhere that he can be found in Santa Monica), uses Verizon DSL, and uses version 4.0 of Safari on the Mac as his browser. The blog uses to monitor usage, so a cookie has been placed in his browser so I can tell if he returns for a visit; bowerbird is able to control these cookies using privacy controls in Safari. DSL lines use a pool of IP addresses, so although I know the IP address he used, I can't use that IP address to persistently track him. However, StatCounter can follow him to other sites that use StatCounter. In principle, StatCounter could report his interest in my blog to other sites and perhaps even connect him to other identities he might have, which would bother me a lot and prompt me to stop using StatCounter.

What's interesting to me is that bowerbird has had an online public identity for over 20 years, and although his entire online life, warts and all, is open for examination (how many of us can say the same?) it appears as though he has successfully walled it off from his private life. Even if I go to the register of deeds in Santa Monica, I probably won't be able to discover whether he owns a house. I can't find out from fundrace if he has donated to a political candidate. I can find his cell phone number because he's chosen to post it, but I don't know anything he hasn't chosen to divulge. (He once owed 1-800-GET-POEM!) In the course of leading a poet's life, bowerbird has been living an experiment in public identity and privacy for 20 years!

I've previously written about the evolution and fluidity of personal names. The use of professional names for public identity is quite common in our society. Women who marry and take their husband's family name routinely retain their names professionally. Use of professional names is particularly common among authors, actors, and musicians. For them, the additional privacy afforded by the use of a professional name is particularly valuable. It strikes me that the separation and isolation of identities may become an essential privacy curtain even for people who aren't celebrities.

It's probably too late for me and most people of my generation. But "bowerbird privacy" could be a reasonable solution for the next generation. A significant number of my son's friends use Facebook under not-their-real-names, and I say more power to them. I think that privacy advocacy organizations should be working to put rules in place to prevent Facebook from enforcing its "only your real name" terms of service and prohibit companies such as Twitter and Google and Yahoo (and StatCounter) from working with ISPs to connect online identities with offline identies.

Nature's bowerbird gets its name from the bower, a structure that male bowerbirds construct to attract females. You might think of it as the bird's public identity. It's not sure why the females are attracted to the bower. Maybe it's privacy?

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  1. Interesting. There's speculation that similar sort of investigative work led to the disappearance of _why the lucky stiff.

  2. If I wanted to disappear in real life, I could Just walk off into the wilderness without any of my electronic or digital devices and effectively 'drop off the planet'. More old-fashioned methods such as tracker dogs would have to be employed to find me. On the other hand, having probably created several virtual existences myself, as well as those that others have created for me by way of official records etc, it must be well nigh impossible to eradicate all traces of those existences.
    All I can hope for maybe if I truly want to leave no traces of my digital life, is that such records as remain will be unreadable in the future.

  3. This post is a really rather clever piece of SEO. I was the lucky recipient of a bowerbird comment (a gnomic, rather beautiful comment) on a post about e-publishing. I wanted to find out more, and right at the top of bowerbird poetry came this blog

    I'd just like to say I do some stuff with slam poets so I guess it makes sense of how s/he found me, and I'm rather touched to have had him/her visit.

    Sounds a similar character to teh UK's Banksy

  4. the "real" name of mark twain was samuel clemens.

    bob dylan has "robert zimmerman" on his birth certificate.

    eric arthur blair is much better known as george orwell.

    ll cool j presumably carries i.d. that says "james todd smith".

    john wayne got picked on during school as marion morrison.

    do any of those pieces of information tell you
    anything important about the people involved?

    i doubt it.

    and you would be equally unimpressed if you were
    to discover _my_ legal name, i can assure you...

    which is why i don't really care if you learn what it is...

    or even if you were to announce it to the world...

    it's just not that big a deal. i don't know why you care.

    do i care why you called yourself "gluejar" on twitter?
    um, no, i don't. i mean, if there's a good story there,
    then sure, tell me. but will i do work to learn the story?
    um, no, i won't. indeed, i think that'd be rather ridiculous.

    i mean, it's nice to be linked with people like banksy (no "e")
    and _why the lucky stiff, but my pseudonym -- as cool as it is,
    if you know bowerbirds -- is nothing to get all curious about...

    there are a lot more important things to be wondering about,
    like when president obama is gonna start keeping his promises
    and introducing some _change_ into the world.

    and, mr. hellman, if i can call you "mister", your treatise here
    is interesting, but it's kind of off-base. i'm not trying to keep
    my "privacy" by using this pseudonym. if i wanted to keep my
    "privacy", i'd start by not posting comments to people's blogs!
    and i'd change my pseudonym on a regular basis, like my shirt.

    but i'm not about to stop using my voice. and i _want_ people
    to know that the person posting has a long and glorious past.

    i adopted my name way back in the mid-1980s, because
    all of the rappers had pseudonyms then, and i decided that
    performance poets should invent cool names for ourselves too.
    gradually, i started using the name for all my creative purposes.

    i could be nonchalant about telling people my "real" name,
    like my poet friend "lob", who will tell you if you ask him...

    it's just kind of a perverse inclination for me to deprive you
    of that information. creates a little bit of mystery, you see.

    (part 1 of 2, split for reasons of length.)

  5. (part 2 of 2, split for reasons of length.)

    anyway, the only thing i have left to say is that i am _not_
    "rude" or "insulting". a lot of people like to read my posts
    that way, i'm not sure why, i guess they enjoy being insulted.

    or perhaps rather they enjoy the rush of adrenaline they get
    when they feel that someone has insulted them, and they can
    then get all moral about how "improperly" they were treated...

    i write in a very placid manner, which is not surprising, since
    i am a very placid person, as you would know if you were to
    meet me in person, maybe even on the phone (310.980.9202).

    it's true that i refuse to sugar-coat things, and i have a very
    "colorful" knack for choosing stimulating words (i'm a poet!),
    words which might get that adrenaline running in someone,
    but i assure you that i smile when i write every single post.
    (and if i cannot smile when i write, i get up and take a walk.)

    i believe in honesty, integrity, and truth. i'm a "hit" man...

    i've also studied electronic-books for about 30 years now,
    so i've done a lot of thinking about them, which means that
    when a lot of bloggers start spouting off with ideas that are
    half-baked and easy to destroy, i know how to destroy them.
    (the ideas, not the bloggers. but some do take it personally.
    which is not my responsibility. don't play in the street, kids.)

    i also write posts that are rorschach blots, in the sense that
    if you _want_ to take offense at them, you certainly _can_,
    but if you _choose_ to interpret them in a benign manner,
    you can do that as well. my reason for doing that is to see
    just exactly how i am being interpreted by each individual;
    i want to see how they _choose_ to mold the interaction...

    which means the best way to "thwart" me is to be funny!
    if you respond humorously to me, i will respond in kind!


    p.s. to the agnieszka's shoes person, whatever _your_ name is,
    i discovered you because you're doing independent publishing,
    not because you "do some stuff with slam poets"... but hey,
    just exactly who are the slam poets who you do stuff with?
    i have been to slam nationals the last 14 years consecutively,
    so lots of slam poets out there know bowerbird intelligentleman.

    p.p.s. anyone can e-mail me, at bowerbird at aol dot com...
    plus, i perform at "da poetry lounge" on fairfax every tuesday,
    if anyone ever wants to meet me and see my performance poetry.
    or, if you're in santa monica, give me a call and i'll buy us lunch.
    this should convince you that i'm not hiding out from the world...

    p.p.p.s. i am amused that you talked about my "short" lines,
    but evidently they are too long for your stubby little column,
    at least when viewed at the size that i find to be pleasant...

  6. bowerbird,

    To answer your question, "Gluejar" is actually a part of a legal identity- that of Gluejar, Inc., a New Jersey Corporation. There's more of a story, of course; when I figure out an interesting way to tell it, I'll do so.

  7. Wow, the b-man is still doing what I'd known him to do about 10 years back. Virtually nothing. bowerbird's whole schema is to assert what an incredible visionary he is, and what deep credentials he has, and how necessary his voice is etc. This is asserted mostly by telling people who are actually doing things in some area (ebooks, poetry, programming, etc.) that he has expertise and that to not follow his great guidance is proof that the actually productive people are in fact narrow-minded losers who can’t handle the truth and are doomed to mediocrity. To easily illustrate the delusional nature of his claims you needn't go further than his claim of "starting the art form" of performance poetry in 1987. I guess the Bedouins, Yanomamis, Dadaists, Black Arts Movement, Creacionismo, Beats, and everyone else doing performance poetry prior to and without bowerbird don’t count. In the end, without doing anything noteworthy, but yet still obsessively craving attention without accomplishment, bowerbird has settled for a life of web trolling. Because through his trolling then at least people who are acknowledged in various circles and in various ways are forced to acknowledge him in some fashion. Even if that acknowledgement is simply banning him because of his insistent incivility. If this is the life he wants, that’s fine, but either through lack of ability, or choice, he produces nothing. He is the Paris Hilton of web trolls. Forget a Banksy comparison please - Banks actually produces work. Apparently it’s enough if someone, anyone, writes anything about b-bird. This is the proof that he matters. bowerbird, you matter as a human being. You do. Where's the love bro? Hell, I just gave him another paragraph to prove his (fruitless) point. As opposed to being somehow helpful to any movement, bowerbird is the height of narcissism. He goes on the web to tell you what’s wrong with your movement, and continues to produce nothing in the real world except list-serv opinions. It’s a free world and he’s entitled to do whatever he likes, but his self-exalted insistence on being seen as credentialed and accomplished in a range of areas (seemingly without any accomplishments or credentials beyond opinion) speaks volumes about his secret desires. Many of us want to seen or perceived by the world in a particular way. Many of us have a bowerbird in us to some degree or another, but that doesn’t require us to be sour and disagreeable, as the b-man choses to be on seemingly every list he chooses to haunt. Someone needs a hug. LHIO bro! You're better than your choices. The new and nicer b-man can start today. Like Pete Rock and CL said, “It’s on you!”

  8. He's not as anonymous as either you or he believe. He's been publicly tied to his real name a couple of different place online, but the sheer volume of his presence tends to mask these.