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Thursday, April 06, 2006
That StatCounter Paradox
I have a love/hate relationship with StatCounter. On the one hand, I think it's a completely amazing tool; it is fun to see what countries readers come from (hello visitors from Malaysia!), what cities (I know who you are in Perth!), and which websites my visitors read before coming to this blog (ABDmom). But on the other hand, I'm really struggling with not being creeped out by the power of StatCounter and the knowledge it provides. And I am creeped out by it enough that I'm considering getting rid of it altogether.
I didn't even know about StatCounter until a few months ago, when Articulate Dad accidentally convinced me of its wonders. How did he do it? (AD, I hope you don't mind that I recount this story!) A few months back I asked AD a question about something unrelated to the blog and he replied to my email using his real name. I deleted the email after a week or so. Then a few weeks after that, I was reading AD's blog (part of my daily blog ritual) and I got curious about his work, wanting to know what his mysterious [Field 1] and [Field 2] were. Although I had deleted his previous email, I still remembered his real name (he has a lovely real name -- it sounds both scholarly and poetic, very unlike my real name) and so I Googled him to find his professional website. I found the answer to my questions about his fields, satisfying my curiosity and giving me more insight into the dilemmas he writes about in his blog. A few hours later, I received an email from AD telling me that he saw that I'd visited his professional website. I was astounded until AD revealed that he could trace me via StatCounter, and could match my identity from his blog to my identity as it came through on his professional website. (Which, of course, would not be difficult to do since I am a very regular visitor to his blog.)
Because the email was from AD, I wasn't creeped out. I trust him, he knows who I am in real life, and now we chat on occasion. I trust my academic blogging friends in general, and it truly wouldn't bother me if some of my regular blogging pals knew who I am in real life (and several of you do, and I'm happy about it). But as I started to think about it more, and as I explored StatCounter, I realized that I am not very comfortable with it anymore. I also realized that, simply by knowing about it, it has changed how I operate online. For me, StatCounter is a deterrent.
In my pre-StatCounter days, if I was curious about something, I simply Googled it and found out what I needed to know. If the information was about a person, I had no qualms about perusing personal websites to satisfy my curiosity. But since StatCounter entered my life, I don't do that anymore -- it feels wrong to me, especially if I my curiosity takes me to the website of someone I know or "know" online. It feels like a horrible invasion of privacy, an invasion I'm not sure I'd be comfortable with if it happened to me. Here's another example: I recently sent something to La Lecturess via regular mail, and to do that I needed her real name and her address. When she sent me that information, my first urge was to Google her -- after all, her blog paints the portrait of an endlessly interesting individual, so who wouldn't want to know more about her? But then I caught myself thinking, "What if she has StatCounter, and then takes the time to trace who's been on her websites [if she has any], and then finds out that I've been snooping around, finding out about her real life, and then gets all creeped out because she shared her real identity with me?" That seemed unfair to me, especially considering that Lecturess didn't have my real name at the time (although she does now). The asymmetrical information game is one that frightens me a lot, and moreso when I am the holder of the information.
I am not, by nature, a "snooping" sort of person. I do not open other people's medicine cabinets, I look away when someone is typing their password on a computer and I'm standing beside them, and I don't look up my professors' salary information when it's published in the newspaper. Google, however, makes it easy to snoop, easy to find out anything you need to know. It's wonderful and useful. But with StatCounter, the people who you're curious about know that you're curious about them -- StatCounter is the horrified homeowner who barges into the bathroom to discover you poking around in her medicine cabinet. And I do not like being the person caught in the bathroom with my paws all over someone else's personal items.
Maybe I'm taking the privacy issue too seriously. After all, if we didn't want the world to know something about us, we wouldn't be keeping blogs, right? We wouldn't post anything about our lives, and surely we wouldn't accept comments from strangers. We all know on some level that tools like StatCounter exist, and we must accept that people will use them and all of the consequences that go with that. We all know that posting completely "anonymously" is not really possible anymore because we all leave a traceable digital footprint.
For me, there's a StatCounter paradox: although StatCounter (and tools like it) make it easy for me to find something out about visitors to my blog, at the same time it deters me from trying to find out more about those visitors because I fear that they have StatCounter, too, and could see that I'm snooping. It's a security dilemma of sorts, I suppose. Now that so many of us have the bomb, do any of us dare to use it?