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.

The common element to both of these incidents is that both started online, but quickly spiraled into meatspace. It is not far-fetched to imagine that this could happen within an online game’s community. In the past, Western gamers have banded together to identify and harass other players that have exposed themselves in some way. For instance, when a hapless adventurer named Ceciliantas used his apartment in EverQuest 2 for some “quality roleplay,” the torrid logs were quickly posted on the independently-hosted forums for his server. The story quickly spread across the internet, and the player was harassed to the point of making a new character. Although the harassment didn’t spill out into the real world, going that extra yard would not have been too difficult. For instance, as a result of his posts defending himself, the owner of the message forum had his IP address captured. With that IP address, it is not too difficult to locate its physical location. Police departments use this software to track child predators, and it’s also available to the general public.

While most people would never dream of intruding on someone else’s solitude, this sentiment seems to fade when they are online. From gamers who engage in griefing to the nefarious individuals who fill our inboxes with spam and phishing scams, some of us abuse our online anonymity. This same anonymity seems to empower these iMobs, who have a very real target with a known identity. Each member of the iMob is just as anonymous as he or she chooses to be. It seems much easier to point out the mote in someone’s eye when nobody can see the beam in yours. It is even easier when several hundred to thousand people are after the same person. Much like the lynch mobs of old, it is easier to persecute someone when “all the other kids are doing it.”

One example of this behavior is the outing of Prokofy Neva, a resident of Second Life. Prokofy was a vocal and often controversial poster on the Second Life forums. Nolan Nash, another resident, began posting Prokofy’s real-life information to the forums. While many Second Life residents expressed their outrage that someone would violate another’s privacy in that manner, many intimated that Prokofy deserved it. While the information was easily discoverable, Prokofy’s expectation was that nobody would delve that deep. Although there were no reported repercussions in meatspace, this “outing” compromised the purported sanctity of Prokofy’s online persona. Ultimately, Prokofy was banned from the Second Life forums.

His banning was the result of the Second Life equivalent of an iMob on the forums – people who, possibly with the endorsement of one of Linden Lab’s employees, pursued the controversial poster, attempting to enrage him to the point of violating the in-game terms of service or forum guidelines. Instead of changing avatars to return to the forums, or simply to hide from those who dislike him, Prokofy has remained in-world, managing his businesses.

When people are victimized by online stalkers, the damage to the person behind the keyboard can be severe. Although it seems easy to minimize the plight of people who “deserve it,” being hounded by others and chased away from a community is no less hurtful because the victim is unpopular. As long as the herd mentality is alive and well, drawing the attention of the iMob is a risk any outspoken online persona takes.

Matthew ‘CmdrSlack’ Hector is a licensed attorney in the State of Illinois. He is currently writing for Real Name Gamers.

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