A flash of light.
I’m used to it by now — not the god-awful halogen reflection of a car riding my bumper at night, but the tiny spark of a smartphone blinking in the dark. The sign that yet another person has taken a picture of my license plate. To save as a brief memento of our cars’ meeting, and to maybe upload to the one of the most popular sites on the internet.
“Just saw you on Reddit, lol,” was the text I woke up to on a Wednesday morning, from one of my early-bird friends.
As a Silicon Valley journalist more hardworking than popular, this was exciting. Hitting Reddit’s front page with a story, witty image link, or other social tidbit is one of the Holy Grails of Geek, particularly if you measure success in pageviews. A hit on Reddit can dump so many pageviews in your lap that you can practically swim through them in real life, Scrooge McDuck style.
“It’s your car again,” my friend added in a second text. Oh. That.
It wasn’t about my car, though. It’s my license plate.
You’ve seen this video. Maybe. A man, Eduard Khil, strolls into the frame seemingly out of thin air, his skin and suit the same pallor as the mustard brown set around him. He looks like an alien. He casually delivers in a deep baritone a song that’s somehow beyond language. All totally out of sync. It is surreal, almost in a Lynchian way.
I sing like him, according to my girlfriend. So a few years ago, I got a custom license plate for my birthday: TROLOLO. I took it as a compliment.
The Reddit post was not a compliment. The title: “This guy cut me off today in Palo Alto. At first, I was mad…then, I was totally okay with it.” It hyperlinked directly to an Imgur-hosted photo of my car, taken during my drive home from work from earlier that evening.
The image had more than 160,000 views. The thread, more than 182 comments. (Today it has over 424,000 views and over 200 comments.)
I have thick Internet skin. I live a fairly open Web life. I don’t lock down my Facebook. I don’t care who sees what I post on other social media. So it wasn’t the occasional Reddit comments about my driving skills that bothered me — apparently, “Trololo” has been more of a California driver lately than a grandmother. Or comments that I was “ probably a total db” and a “scumbag. Or even the Internet Tough Guy who thought someone should “smash [my] fucking windshield in.” Suck on a downvote.
It was the Gawker Stalker-style stalking.
One poster correctly noted that he (or she) had seen my car parked outside of a bar later that night. Others commented about areas where they’d seen my car driving around in Mountain View or Palo Alto. One commenter suggested forming a “Reddit hit squad” to track me down. Another suggested “we should collect and compile data on all of our sightings of this car (detailing time and place) to narrow down his where abouts [sic].”
Watching others try to guess where the “Trololo” car might live or work, or who it might belong to, was disconcerting at best — far beyond the usual creeps one gets from a run-of-the-mill threat to burn you alive after sodomizing your mother from an anonymous Web commenter or a pissed-off Facebook friend-of-friend. Because it was about me, in the real world.
I occasionally meet people in real-life who recognize my voice from a podcast or my face from an article headshot. And that’s great. But that doesn’t make us instant friends. Reddit reminded me that this isn’t the relationship I want to have between the internet and my car, or my house, or my workplace.
The more people speculated about my life and whereabouts, the more twisted the future car scenarios became in my mind. And I don’t need some asshole tossing a milkshake into my windshield because, “OMG that funny car I saw on Reddit is behind me.” Or keying my car and posting a picture “for more upboats.” All it takes is one jerk — out of over 424,000 — to turn a funny meme into a $1,000 trip to the local body shop, or worse.
I turned my plates into the DMV two days after the post hit Reddit. Now it’s the next Trololo’s problem to deal with.
A post-script, though: A friend of a friend tracked down the original Reddit poster. Internet pseudonyms go both ways, I suppose. As it turns out, he works in the same community I do. We’re both journalists — the very profession for which the concept of “privacy” is often sacrificed to the spotlights that must be shined, the stories that must be told, and the pageviews that must be earned. In some weird twist, I could know just as much about him as the Reddit wanted to know about me.
Though I wonder if he drives better than I do.