It was last year around late January. I remember myself sitting in front of my computer doing some work when I received an email from LinkedIn. I don’t really check LinkedIn very often so I decided to let it deliver emails to me when something happens. When seeing the LinkedIn logo, I thought it must again be some random person appears from nowhere who desperately wants to connect with me no matter how. But it was not. Well, it was somebody who wants to connect with me, but it was somebody I knew. Besides, it was somebody I knew for a very long time – a primary school peer, who also attended the same middle and high schools as me. He sent a direct message, reintroducing himself (since we haven’t contacted for so long) and asking me if I would also intern in California. He said he happened to find my personal website, which is also my blog, and from there knew that I would intern at Facebook. “Are you interning at the Facebook headquarter in California?” he asked, “if so, then we might meet again in the summer! Because I will be interning at LinkedIn, very close to Facebook.”
I was very surprised, not because he searched my information and tracked all the way down to find me (anyway, my website is public, as you can tell), but because he reached out after searching. My impression of his is still the 8-year-old skinny, pale boy who was very shy but kind, and who often brought chocolates to us girls because his mother was working at a chocolate factory. Recalling those delicious chocolates, I replied him right away (“Yes, the Facebook HQ!”) and asked for his WeChat account so that we could reach out to each other more easily. I was sure he must be on WeChat; every Chinese uses WeChat. I’m on WeChat 24/7.
I have to confess that at that moment I truly thought that’s it, that if anything would happen we sure have to wait until summer arrives. But things didn’t turn out as I expected. Within three or four days, he, a computer science major (oh yes I looked him up online too), successfully found me on all the major social networks and started commenting on my most recent posts. I don’t really hide my identity on Facebook, so that was okay, but I worried my secret little site would also be discovered: I have been on a very low-key Chinese social networking website for more than a decade with millions of personal posts. I did try to hide myself so nobody from my real life would know me on that site. As if reading my mind, he followed me on that site exactly the next day and even commented on a fairly old post of mine. I panicked. “How did you find me on that particular site?” I texted him on WeChat. He replied with a very long message, apologizing and promising he would never do such a thing again. But how did you find me? I insisted, because I thought I’m tech-savvy and conscious enough to have done an outstanding job of deleting all identifiable information. He answered: “I googled your email address.” But I don’t think I had turned on the privacy setting of “find me via email.” “Certainly you didn’t,” he affirmed me, “but you did reply a few other people’s posts with your email address on the same site. Google it yourself.” So I did, and he was right. Those posts are too old for me to remember, must be from five or so years ago. I surrendered and deleted my age-old replies. I do not want to contest my computer expertise with a computer science major.
What makes this experience my best experience online is its ending. After the first few imperfect exchanges, we started chatting more and more often, on WeChat, on my secret site, and elsewhere. We weren’t in the same city so we stayed online to keep in touch. We both found the other quite lovely and familiar, and by now we have been seeing each other for a year. Whenever somebody asks me how we got to know each other, I will tell this story and then reflect on the role played by the internet and all these communication technologies. I sure wasn’t as careful about my online privacy as I thought, but I also realize how an online, virtual world strikingly resembles the real world. First, everything I did on the internet leaves a trace, just like everything I did in the world. Maybe I will forget what I did, but my mom will tell that story of a young girl who rejected to go to school as vividly as yesterday – so does the internet. The only matter is whether one has the ability to find the trace or not. Some do, like my partner; some don’t. Second, same as our real world, everything is connected in an online world. What differs is that you may be six steps away from a stranger in the real world but wow, the online world can offer you much more information about this person in way less time; you can even connect to him if you want, assuming you get his social networking account. The internet makes everything faster, easier, and more efficient. At the same time, it also makes some of us more powerful and the rest more vulnerable. I wonder if it’s possible to be entirely anonymous online. Perhaps not, maybe only when one has never been online. But then this means one does not exist online, which is different from being anonymous. The other way to put this is if one is online, then one is never anonymous. Such a conclusion scares me, because I believe privacy is also part of human right. This time the guy who stalked me online was an old friend so everything was fine, but who knows what might happen next time? If the online world is indeed similar to the offline one, then we must fight for our safety and privacy, just as we do in our everyday real life.