The Earthling

Shadow Boxing

The downside of Internet egalitarianism.

The good news for Sky Dayton, 24-year-old chairman of one of the fastest-growing companies in the world, is that the Internet is a place where a smart young man can become a tycoon overnight. The bad news for Sky Dayton is that the Internet is a place where anyone with a home computer, a modem, and some animus can make your life miserable, and perhaps do real damage to your business. The bad news for the rest of us is the larger moral of Dayton’s story: The famously “egalitarian” properties of the Net have a creepy and oppressive flip side.

In 1994, Dayton founded an Internet access provider called EarthLink (not to be confused with “The Earthling,” the name of this column). In less than two years, EarthLink’s staff has grown from two to 400, its annual revenue to more than $30 million, and its customer base to 140,000. If you research Internet access providers, you’ll discover why: No company that matches EarthLink’s network of nationwide access points beats its price. But if you do your research on the World Wide Web, you’ll probably discover something else, too: a Web page ominously titled “ and Scientology: The Links.” Subtitle: “Sky Dayton’s Scientology Training.”

With EarthLink preparing for its first public stock offering, this is not good publicity. On the Net, the Church of Scientology is the antichrist. It slaps lawsuits on church critics who post quotes from copyrighted church documents, sometimes getting federal marshals to search homes and seize computer disks. There’s no evidence that the church currently uses extralegal weapons against online critics–pries into their e-mail, say. Still, among the desirable qualities of an Internet access provider–the company whose computers all your e-mail and cyberwanderings pass through–“Church of Scientology affiliated” does not rank high.

Is EarthLink Church of Scientology affiliated? Apparently not, but we’ll get to that later. First, note that this isn’t just another case of accusations speeding across the Net, hopping from newsgroup to newsgroup (e.g., last year’s rumor that Mrs. Fields had supplied free cookies for O.J. Simpson’s acquittal party). There’s a subtler dynamic at work here, a property not of the Net at large but of the Web in particular. This dynamic will affect more of us as the Web grows and more people’s reputations are mediated there. On the Web, anyone can construct a kind of “shadow identity” for anyone else–not just an unkind characterization, but an unkind characterization that sticks to your cyber-identity like glue.

Suppose, for example, that some business heavyweight is pondering a business deal with Sky Dayton–or is just curious about him, having met him at a cocktail party. She revs up a Web search engine–say, Alta Vista–and types in “Sky Dayton” and “EarthLink.” And there it is, on the first page of listings: “ and Scientology: The Links.” As long as this shadow page contains key words that are in Dayton’s home page and EarthLink’s home page, it will be seen by almost everyone who finds either of those pages through a search engine. This is the cyberspace equivalent of hanging a sign around someone’s neck saying “Scientologist”–or “child molester,” “bedwetter,” whatever. Except that in the physical world, the victim can remove the sign. Shadow pages, in contrast, are indelible.

S ky Dayton is victim of an oft-applauded trend. As copying and transmitting data get cheaper, the distribution of power grows more equal. After publishing technology evolved from its scribbling-monks phase to its Gutenberg phase, a form of power once dominated by popes and other big shots was diffused, and the Reformation happened. Now the power over reputations is passing from magazines, radio stations, and so on to–well, to everybody.

It can be fun watching the Davids take on the Goliaths–the “Kmart sucks” web page, for example, authored by the guy who ran Kmart’s own web page until Kmart fired him. (Mistake.) But remember: Kmart could be you. (You may doubt that someday you’ll have a Web page, but you may also have doubted two years ago that someday you’d need e-mail.) Your cyber-tormentor could be a nutcase former client, an envious former colleague, an aggrieved ex-spouse or ex-lover. Their technological empowerment may take some of the thrill out of your own empowerment. On the Web, every man can be president–and every woman Gennifer Flowers. (Note to gender police: You know what I mean.)

Of course you can always shadow your shadow identity with a rebuttal, so that people who see the charges against you also see your reply. When I mentioned this to a legal-scholar friend, he joyously declared cyberspace a “perfectly efficient information market.” His apparent assumption–that bringing all relevant information to bear on an issue fixes Truth in the minds of observers–reflects a touchingly pre-postmodern view of human objectivity. Alas, the news from evolutionary psychology is less touching. Natural selection did not, in fact, design our brains to apprehend Truth. Our moral evaluations of people are often subordinate, by design, to our social agendas, and as a result, our whole machinery for appraising other people is gunked up with unconscious bias.

Anyway, Sky Dayton faces something more elusive than lies. It’s true that he’s a Scientologist (like John Travolta, Chick Corea, etc.). “I practice my personal right to choose my own beliefs,” he says. Some of the shadow page’s other specific claims also are true. But there’s no evidence that, as the shadow page intimates, EarthLink is an arm of the church. The company’s CEO is Southern Baptist, and its chief financial officer is Roman Catholic. Scientology “is a large religion,” says Dayton. “If I were to ask you if, because you were a Jew, your company was owned by the state of Israel, everybody would laugh at me.”

In a way, truthful shadow pages are the scariest of all. As many have noted, these days, much of your “private” life is vulnerable to intrusion. E-mail is less secure than snail mail or a phone call. Most financial transactions don’t involve cash, and are, thus, recorded. Your wanderings on the Web leave more footprints than you may realize.

Much of this vulnerability may eventually be neutralized by encryption and other tricks. But until then, technology will in some ways be pushing us backward in time. The Net, though celebrated as a libertarian institution, can also be the opposite. It can be a bit like a claustrophobic small town, where your private life is part of the public dialogue. Winesburg, Ohio, like cyberspace, was a “perfectly efficient information market.”