I've been getting a lot of e-mail lately breathlessly informing me that "Someone who knows you is trying to share experiences and opinions about you via our website." ("Our website" being ShareYourExperiences.com or one of its many alternate addresses for the same company, which I don't feel generous enough to link to.) The site pitch is that it promotes a truly anonymous exchange of information about others, since the real dirt is more likely to come out if the tattletale can avoid the negative repercussions of being fingered as a source.
That's the pitch. Is it legitimate? Well, let's see. The site lists no corporate contact information; has a vague and unhelpful FAQ except for the extremely large sections informing you why it's perfectly legal; informs you that a paid subscription is necessary to access most of the site but nowhere lists prices until after you've already secured a "free" membership; and urban-legend watchdog Snopes has warned against them. At this point one should, at best, ignore them; or, if inclined to act more responsibly, complain to their ISP.
Consider them debunked as a scam at this point. The rest of this post serves mostly as a guide to the attitude one should have, and the considerations one should keep in mind, when confronted with unfamiliar sales pitches of this nature.
"Alright," you might think, "so I'm seeing enough warning signs that I can conclude the company is owned by unethical people; they shouldn't get a dime of my money. But ... there are still people talking behind my back. I should do something about that, right?"
Well, no, because chances are good they're spurious "hits" to drive traffic to the site.
The two addresses of mine that SYE registered any interest in got nothing whatsoever until June 5. Then, suddenly, surprise! Over the course of a week a flurry of a dozen distinct users all at once registered a frenzy of activity (each new poster, of course, triggering an e-mail to me). Oddly, four of the 10 posters willing to divulge information about me claimed that their relationship to me was "professional" and either current or within the last year. And yet they chose to say they have information about me at two non-work addresses that aren't even listed anywhere on my current website! The efforts of these 10 mystery people are remarkably semi-coordinated, using exactly two dormant e-mail addresses out of the many alternates I've created (and placed somewhere on the Web) to filter my inbox, while avoiding my primary addresses, work address, and Livejournal alias.
Remarkable address coincidence aside, maybe 10 separate people really do have enough time on their hands and enough coordination to volunteer information about me that way? That theory gets shot down pretty quick, though.
About three in four of them were listed as paying members, and most of their membership numbers were in the range of 100,000 to 500,000 (my test account with a Hotmail return address was #600K-something). A site with hundreds of thousands of paying users should have a pretty useful knowledge base to build on, right? But nothing -- no confidants, not even any requests -- in the person database or e-mail database about such popular figures as Bill Gates or George Bush. Nothing in the business database about Amazon or Microsoft. (Nothing about the firm's head, either, more's the pity.) In fact, not a single search I tried yielded any results, except for the two e-mail addresses that the site helpfully told me were being prodded. With that sort of track record, the notion that a site that touts its "robust tools for research" on "experiences with other people and businesses" can draw 600,000 mostly paying users seems very silly indeed.
And the notion that someone wanting to dig up dirt on you can go to the site and successfully do so? Even sillier. How can a site that can't tell me jack about Microsoft be trusted to have information on Fred Smith of Pescataway, Wash.? And why would anyone seeking dirt on Mr. Smith pay $25 or more to solicit anonymous tips when searching for him runs into such enormous stonewalls?
Why would anyone wanting to spread dirt about Fred Smith use the site, when their own introduction to the site was almost certainly an e-mail telling them someone was interested in them? If you post a "I've got dirt" notice on Fred, the only person who is guaranteed to be notified is Fred himself! And due to the anonymous nature of the site's connections, anyone asking for your Fred gossip is more than likely to secretly be Fred!
One parting thought: Yes, sure, there's going to be someone on the Internet who doesn't like you, and they're going to try to spread dirt somewhere. It's unavoidable. But the way to think about sites like ShareYourExperiences, rather than unreasoning panic that SOMEONE'S TALKING ABOUT YOU SOMEWHERE, is to gloat.
There are a hundred free Web sites devoted solely to personal smears and drama of various natures -- and comments on all of those are public, immediate, and generally easily searchable. If your enemy runs to SYE, they will have spent a not insignificant amount of money to spread damaging information to one person at a time; only to those specifically looking for it; with no guarantee that anything they say will stay behind your back; and in a forum that defies any sort of user-friendliness. If any of those dozen hits on me weren't computer-generated, then those hypothetical detractors are doing me a favor by blowing lots of cash to be screwed over.
Don't make that mistake. Leave it to your detractors.