That was my family’s phone number when I was a kid. That is, it was until we started getting an increasing number of anonymous, often late-night, calls, presumably from a misguided boy who was interested in my sister. It reached a point where the phone company tapped the line, in an attempt to determine who the culprit was. I don’t know if anyone was ever charged with any kind of crime, but we did get a new phone number.
And this time, it was unlisted.
When I was old enough to have my own phone number, I didn’t bother with an unlisted line. Heck, I was young and sociable and hanging out with my friends (and their friends) all the time. I wanted people to be able to find me. That continued for years, until a low-paying job couldn’t quite keep up with a combination of rent/car payment/utilities/student loan payments/credit debt. At that time, being “found” by bill collectors was considerably less pleasant. Still, there was no reason for an unlisted number. For one thing, it costs money. For another, the bill collectors already had my number.
Fast forward a few years: My debt is long payed off, and my credit is once again good. I no longer feel like a criminal. The only unwanted phone calls I get are mis-dials or from folks looking for the previous owners of my phone number. But now, email is prevalent. And I’m starting to get messages from a cranky old friend who fell off the face of the earth some time earlier, and apparently took a trip through Crazy Harassmentland before coming back to electronically visit me. While I’m able to build a spam filter so I don’t have to read the email, I’m still a bit creeped out. This guy knows my name, where I live, and a number of ways to get in touch with me. And this is someone that I was friends with. I can’t even imagine how scary it would be if this were a complete stranger.
In the years since I last participated in a voluntary conversation with this guy, I’ve acquired a new phone number, new email addresses, even a new car. Also, I developed a healthy respect for privacy. I don’t use my real name anywhere online. Not on my blog, not on Twitter, not on flickr, not on MySpace. (I do use my real name on business sites that I do not cross-reference to my blog.) My phone number isn’t published, and I use an alternate number when filling out profiles that require it. I have a fistful of email addresses; people I trust have my “real” address but strangers get alternate versions that safely forward to me. A blogger I know (who shall remain unidentified in this tale for obvious reasons) was recently “stalked” by a fan who meant no harm, but whose enthusiasm came across as more than a bit frightening to this mom who received photos of her family in the mail.
It seems to be a cultural shift. My peers understand my desire for privacy, and find nothing at all unusual about it. However, many of my younger friends, the “kids” who grew up with computers and the Internet from an earlier age, think that my attempt at anonymity is unrealistic. I compared someone else using my (unusual) real name in an online forum recently as akin to writing my name and number on a bathroom wall. After all, you’ve just given my name to countless people who have a way to contact me. When I described it that way, I was scoffed at. But another friend, also young and even tech-ier than the rest, pointed out that my analogy was underreaching: it’s doubtful that a million people will wander through a particular bathroom stall.