Wednesday, October 7, 2009

wired magazine: vanish contest

How difficult is it to disappear in a digital age? In Wired Magazine’s recent contest, Vanished, writer Evan Ratcliff took on the challenge of living under the radar for a month. The chase became a game of Where’s Waldo? meets The Bourne Ultimatum as people hunted Evan down, sharing clues and working together through social media to discover his whereabouts.

Ratcliff provided hunters with some basics about himself such as a few photos, his hometown and the fact that he has a gluten allergy. Ratcliff even provided his IP addresses (which show the general location from which a computer has accessed the Web), bank account transactions and emails to be published by his editor. According the rules, the first person to take a picture of Ratcliff and say the code word “Fluke” won the $5,000 prize.

Evan created a new Twitter account under alias name, James Gatsby (one of his favorite fictional characters) and made allegedly made anonymous comments to confuse hunters. He complicated his digital trail through his knowledge of how to manipulate and hide digital data in order to stay hidden.

In the last week of the contest, Wired enticed Evan into public spaces by offering prize money for the completion of challenges discoverable only by completing that morning’s New York Times crossword puzzle. After 25 days on the run, his IP address informed the only gluten-free pizza place in New Orleans, Naked Pizza, that Evan had been accessing their Web site. Knowing that Evan’s challenge that day was to attend a book reading, the team caught Evan walking in to a local bookstore and won the prize.

When asked by ABC News what he learned from doing this experiment, Ratcliff replied that in our digital age “fantasies about disappearing are just that, they are fantasies.”

Read all about it in Wired's December issue.

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