Very scary stuff, kids–don’t let it happen to you! Seriously, go read Timothy L. Wood’s dark tale about someone assigning him the authorship of a fairly stupid-sounding essay about Barack Obama that goes straight from zero to Godwin’s Law. There was our innocent young Assistant Professor and expert in puritan studies last winter, thinking about anything but net-famousness as he plodded his way through marking final exams:
One deleted e-mail marked the beginning of my ordeal. It was finals week, just before Christmas break, when I received a strange message asking me to comment on some kind of online political essay that I had supposedly written. Since I’m not a blogger and make it a point to avoid the many rancorous political forums on the Internet, I immediately dismissed it as spam and hit delete.
But the notes kept coming, increasing in their fervor and frequency, until I could no longer deny it: I was receiving “fan mail.” Some writers called me courageous. Others hailed me as a visionary. A few suggested that I was predestined to play a pivotal role in the apocalyptic events foretold in the Book of Revelation. (Seriously.) Now, over the past 12 years I have published a scholarly book and eight journal articles on various historical topics, but I have to admit that through it all I never even attracted one groupie. So with my curiosity very much piqued, I began an online quest in search of the mysterious article.
I suppose it was inevitable that I was not going to like what I found. There, prominently displayed on a rather extreme Web site, was an essay (information about it can be found here) that likened President Obama to … Adolf Hitler. Underneath the title was the inscription “by Tim Wood.”
Awesome! Imagine that our Professor Wood is both the duplicitous, Satanic husband and the innocent bride in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “Young Goodman Brown.” His own secret identity was so devious and so secret that even he didn’t even know about it! Only, there are about a million guys named Tim Wood on the internets–but only one with an education and pedigree worth exploiting:
I ignored the article — at least until one of the versions of the essay being forwarded via e-mail mutated into a form which included the rather unambiguous phrase “Professor of History, Southwest Baptist University.” The writer of this message also helpfully appended my office phone number and e-mail address.
Stunned, I struggled to regain my bearings and tried to grasp the full implications of this professional identity theft. Beyond the fact that the comparison is utterly ridiculous (anyone who believes that truly has no understanding of the depths of evil plumbed by the Nazi regime), it was now personal. Who had the right to speak for me like that? How dare they hide behind my name! What if my colleagues — or my friends and family — read this and believed it?
But the most pressing question seemed to be what kind of damage control would be necessary in order to prevent this from irreparably damaging my career. And that, in turn, led me to begin reflecting on how scholars will need to safeguard their professional reputations in the 21st century.
Go read the essay–he’s got some good ideas about how to respond to situations like this. Wood says that he learned not to ignore weird things when they pop up, and tried to take away some “teaching moments” from his experience. He was supported early on by his university, which established a web site that debunks the claims of authorship in the dodgy e-mail. Finally, he writes:
Moreover, this incident has led me to reconsider my somewhat adversarial relationship with technology. (I’m the guy who still refuses to buy a cell phone.) But one of the greatest difficulties I encountered in all of this was finding a platform from which to launch a rebuttal. Although I did write personal replies to many of the people who wrote me inquiring about the article, it seemed clear that such a strategy alone was like battling a plague of locusts with a flyswatter. Instead, Internet rumors are best refuted by channeling people toward some definitive, universally available, online point-of-reference (a Web address, for instance) that exposes the lie. In my case, the university was kind enough to grant me access to a page on its Web site, and I quickly began disseminating the link to my posting. However, that solution may not be available to everyone who falls victim to this kind of a hoax, and I am beginning to believe this issue is far too important for faculty to leave to others anyway. A year ago, I would have considered the creation of an “official Tim Wood Web site” to be pretentious in the extreme. Today, I’m not so sure. Like it or not, faculty are public figures, and if we do not take the initiative to define ourselves in ways that are accessible and relevant to those outside the academy, we risk being defined by others in ways that suit their agenda, not ours.
It’s like we say out here on the open range: you’re either doing the branding or you’re getting the brand on your backside. The web has made us more knowable and more reachable–in many ways this is for the good, but on the other hand, it also makes us vulnerable to incidents like the one Wood experienced. I’ve got a blog, and I’m not afraid to use it–but who’s to say that people with blogs and their own websites won’t be spoofed too? It gives us a greater platform from which to respond to attempts at professional identity theft, and many of us have audiences that would be able to distinguish the counterfeit from our authentic voices as writers. The beauty of the world-wide non peer-reviewed internets is also teh suck, isn’t it: it’s so easy to self-publish, I just might want to publish “you,” too! Try to stop me!
Here’s a little refresher, for those of you who might have forgotten those weirdly didactic and depressing but compulsively watchable “ABC After School Specials” of the 1970s and 1980s. Enjoy!
My favorite from this countdown? “The Boy Who Drank Too Much,” starring Scott Baio (natch!) as though there was an acceptable amount of alcohol for a boy to drink. Hey–it was the 1970s. It coulda happened that way.