The phonecall woke me. It was early morning. Summer. A few months after graduation. I was a freelancer. I had started freelancing during college, so the transition to full-time freelancing after graduation was natural.
The phone rang again. This could be work. I scrambled for the phone. I didn’t recognize the number. Maybe a new client. It rang again. I answered.
“Hello, James speaking.”
“This is James Provost?”
“Yes it is.”
“Hello, this is John Smith. You posted a message on my blog yesterday?”
“I don’t think so…” Who the heck is John Smith??
“Do you know my blog?”
“Sorry, I don’t…”
“Could you please go to suchandsuch.com/johnsmith?”
John is an illustrator, and like many illustrators, John blogs about his work. To my horror, in the comment section of the latest post on his blog was a rather inflammatory message. The author: James Provost. The message itself was standard internet troll-ism, your typical YouTube comment. But instead of using a disposable, anonymous identity, the troll had decided to use mine.
“So… you didn’t post that?”
“No! No, that wasn’t me.”
“Do you have any enemies, or… people that don’t like you?”
“Not that I know of…”
I apologized profusely. John was skeptical, but gave me the benefit of the doubt. He deleted the comment and tried to retrieve the IP of the computer that had made the posting, so I could try to identify or locate the guilty party, but it had already been flushed from the log. John’s site gets a lot of hits. I didn’t know at the time, but John is a very well known and influential illustrator, a regular in Communication Arts annuals, The New Yorker and Time Magazine, and had art directed a major nationwide magazine for more than a decade.
I consider myself fortunate that John had taken time out of his day to follow the link to my site that the troll had posted, look up my number and personally flog me (think of how civil the internet would be if everyone could do that!). He gave me the chance to exonerate myself, or at least plead “not guilty”. If he instead made the incident very public, that might have been the end to my very short career.
This event made me realize how fragile and vulnerable online identities are. Trolls don’t have to intercept emails, install viruses or crack passwords. They just have to sign your name.
- Google Alerts Enter your name, business name or URL and Google will email you whenever they find new content on the web mentioning them. This helps you find out what people are saying about you or your business, and can help you find trolls who are (ab)using your name.
- More Google Search your name and your business’ name to see if someone more Google-famous is already using it. If so, consider changing your business name or working under a pseudonym. Also search for your sales copy or other text on your site, it may turn up people sites that are aping your design or content.
- Image Leeching/Hotlinking/Direct Linking Most webhosts provide a tool that lets you determine if another site is displaying images from your site. Not only is this unauthorized use of your work, it’s stealing your bandwidth. Contact offending sites, or rename the linked images.
- TinEye TinEye a reverse image search engine, meaning you upload an image or enter its URL and it finds similar images around the web. Great for finding unauthorized use of your images when the offender has saved your image and uploaded it to their own server. (TinEye’s index is small at the moment, but always growing).
- Incoming Links Use Google Analytics or StatCounter to see where your traffic is coming from. It may be someone raving about your work, or it may be a troll assuming you identity.
- Link Your Profiles Include links on every site you use to your other online profiles. For example, link your site, your Twitter, your Flickr, your YouTube and your Facebook to each other. This creates a consolidated online identity and differentiates you from other people with the same name.
The Digital Millenium Copyright Act, or DMCA, provides some protection against unauthorized use of your images. Your name, however, is trickier to protect. The best thing to do first is nothing. Ignore it. Maybe the troll will get bored from the lack of reaction, or maybe other people will rat them out. If you’re lucky, it’ll be an isolated incident. If not, try to contact the offender directly and resolve the conflict. Failing that, contact the site administrator, explain the situation and ask that the user account be banned or deleted. If that doesn’t work, post something on your own site addressing the issue (you could even try to spin it, make it work for you, do a promotional troll-related infographic, blog about it on your technical illustration blog ;)
Have you ever been trolled? What do you do to protect your identity and reputation online? Tell us in the comments!
*John Smith obviously isn’t the illustrator’s real name. The rest is all true.