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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?
Posted with care by Prof. Me @ 4/06/2006 09:30:00 AM  
12 Words of Wisdom:
  • At 11:45 AM, Blogger BrightStar said…

    I know that people have found out some things about me via stat counter, and I don't really mind. People can look me up and Google me or whatever. I don't really mind. I just don't want my blog obviously Google-able to my own identity IRL.

    But I do see that others might be creeped by stat counter and such.

    I also want to know if anyone at my university encounters my blog, so that's a big reason for me to have a stat counter.

  • At 1:10 PM, Blogger La Lecturess said…

    Whoa, I totally did not know about Statcounter. Is it more powerful than Sitemeter?

    (And since I don't know about it--and I don't have a webpage anyway--feel free to Google me! There's not much there that's exciting, though, I regret.)

  • At 1:58 PM, Blogger phd me said…

    Very interesting post, since I just added SiteMeter to my blog. I was reading about it somewhere and I thought, "Hey, it would be kinda cool to know stuff like that" and, as B* pointed out, it wouldn't hurt to know if people at the U are reading.

    I'm torn. Like you, I'm not a snoopy person but I am an interested person; I may not go through the medicine cabinet but I'm not opposed to finding out tidbits that make someone more personable. While I don't want to make people uncomfortable, I do like to know stuff, so sometimes I google. I like putting a face, so to speak, on the people I "know" on-line. Does this freak people out? I hope not. Truly, I'm not going to show up under your window one evening wearing a trench coat and an eerie grin.

    Would I freak out if I knew others were looking for my info on-line? I don't think so; I figure other people are as inquisitive as I am so sometimes they waste some time playing with Google. I don't do it, when I do, out of spite or ill intention, so I would hope others think the same. Like LL said, though, good luck finding out something exciting!

  • At 3:29 PM, Blogger ArticulateDad said…

    Hi Prof. Me. I suppose I'm guilty as charged of corrupting a colleague. As you describe it, it's the principle of Mutually Assured Invasion (of Privacy), to replace the Cold War's MAD. I should hope it's not so destructive, though I suppose it could be.

    Yes, I too am a curious person. I've been fascinated to learn what search words guide people, for instance, to my new research website. It helps me to understand where my research fits into the spectrum of ideas and questions floating around. That in turn helps me understand who my audience is, always an important aspect to writing and teaching.

    But, I also admit to once having seen my advisor's paystub on his desk (he had given me and most of his advisees a set of keys), and I didn't look away. I calculated. I was curious to know what professors make in real life. Does that make me a snoop? It's a grey-area I suppose.

    I think in this age of information, information may be a tool or a weapon. It is not the information that matters, it is what people do with it. That is always our choice.

    Like B* I'm jealous of my privacy to the extent that I don't want someone to find my blog by searching for my [RealName]. But, I don't mind so much traffic in the other direction. Friends I know from the blogosphere are mostly welcome to knowing my realities.

    My revelation to you was based in my curiosity. Though, surely, my "knowing" it was you was mostly conjecture and supposition, based on traffic patterns. Only once did I know precisely who had looked at a webpage of mine, because their university computer domain was the RL last name of the prof! (Don't worry, it was none of you, but you might want to check your university's naming policy.)

  • At 4:52 PM, Blogger ABDmom said…

    Prof Me, you have new mail.

  • At 5:10 PM, Blogger Leah said…

    Interesting. Mostly, I don't visit your actual blog, but read through Bloglines. Does this mean I evade the power of StatCounter?
    (please note; google me anytime you like :) )

  • At 6:22 PM, Blogger Prof. Me said…

    I feel like I've weirded people out with this post -- I didn't mean to! I don't think I expressed myself well here at all, and I apologize.

    I mostly just meant to talk about how StatCounter made ME feel as an internet user -- that it makes me feel, as the holder of "privileged" information, kind of "sneaky." And I don't like feeling that way, feeling so "powerful" with information. Sure, I like knowing information about my readers and, of course, knowing if anyone I know in real life is reading this blog... but I don't like that StatCounter (and tools like it) makes me feel like I can't be as free to satisfy my curiosity because someone ELSE might be checking up on ME via StatCounter. Does that make sense? I guess I would say that StatCounter makes me censor my online behavior in a way I'm not sure I like.

    So sorry if I confused anyone. ABD, dear friend, you have mail, too. And Puggle... I think StatCounter captures Bloglines readers, too. Am I right, AD?

  • At 7:25 PM, Blogger ArticulateDad said…

    Actually, I think Pugglelogic is right. I don't think it registers. As far as I understand it, what Statcounter registers is when an IP address (a computer) requests a transfer of data, essentially the content from any given page that is tallied. That's why so many of the visitors show up as 0 seconds... because it takes only a split second to transfer the content of one page. It's only if they click on another tallied page that the time between clicks registers.

    So... Bloglines would register (I think it's a webbot from Sunnyvale, CA?), but people reading that content would only register as hits on Bloglines rather than as hits on your blog. So, you'd have no trace of their reading the content unless they physically clicked on your site. Hope that helps.

  • At 8:09 PM, Blogger Prof. Me said…

    See, but I know who Puggle is, and I know where she is from... and I've seen her city represented on StatCounter. But you're right in that it registers as a 0 second visit.


  • At 9:48 PM, Blogger Dr. Mon said…

    Well, I don't mind. Of course, I've been using Sitemeter for various websites for over 4 or 5 years now, so I'm pretty comfortable and non-obsessive about it. I really think it's just fun and informative. I don't do much to figure out where people are, but after a while you do get a sense of when your "regulars" drop by the blog.

    I think it does, however, make me a little sensitive to how I spend time online. I always assume my visit is tracked and I don't leave comments unless I don't mind the person knowing I stopped by. I also only visit certain people (like you) from my blogroll just so they "know" I've been by.

    But really, I guess to me, Sitemeter reminds me of a friend who used to work at College Town. She worked down the hall from me and whenever she came in the building, if my light was on, she would tap her fingernails on the glass--just to let me know she was around. Sometimes she'd stop and open the door--other times she'd keep going on her business--but it was her way of checking in. So consider my Southern City my little tap on your door--just to say "Hi" and "I'm down the hall if you need me."

  • At 9:26 AM, Blogger Prof. Me said…

    Mon, I love that analogy. I will think of it that way from now on!

  • At 12:09 AM, Blogger Lilian said…

    Fascinating discussion! You had me feeling uneasy for a while, but once I continued on down the comments I relaxed more. My only worry is the same as B* and AD - I don't want my blog google-able to my full name, but I don't worry too much about those issues (just a little bit :-)

    (I do use my first name in the blog and post pictures, so if someone who knows me IRL stumbled upon the blog they'd recogznize me, but it hasn't happened yet, and I'm hoping it won't happen to anyone in the university or future search committees [unless someone in the committee already reads the blog :-)])

    I can definitely identify with your feelings regarding statcounter, though. I freaked out when I first realized how much one can know about one's blog readers...

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