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Have you had any bizarre IM messages from a person with “coho” in his screen name?

I was moving some Visual Studio projects around when an odd AIM window popped up.  It was from someone named “limbercoho” and the message was “Hail, Fellow”.  I usually close unsolicited AIM messages without even looking at them.  There are other ways to get in tougc with me, I view anything unsolicited from AIM or MSN with more than a little suspicion.

At that momemt, my PC was busy moving files around, so I had a some spare bandwidth and decided to see what was going on.  I responded back with “Hail” and it got a little wierd:

limbercoho: Hail, fellow!
me: Hail
limbercoho: hail?
me: Yes?
limbercoho: hell yes?

It didn’t take long to realize that something was just not right.  Going on the assumption that limberoho was some sort of whack job, I decided to do a Google check on that name.  The second hit was on Nixie Pixel’s blog, List of AIM Fish Bots – Salmon, Coho, and Trout.  There is an organization called “Project Upstream” that created the robotic fishbots.

The fishbot takes two random IM users and sends a greeting to each one and then connects each user to each other user.  They don’t see the other person’s screen name, they see a fishbot generated name like LimberCoho or BakedCoho.  Basically a random word plus “coho”.  Previous incarnations used “Salmon” and “Trout”.

Once I figured out what was going on, I IM’d the link from Nixie’s blog.  Understandably, he responded back with “I’m not going to click that link”.  That made sense, I wouldn’t have clicked a link that a stranger had send me.  So I explained what was going on and he asked how to block it.  That would be the annoying part, you can’t block randomly generated names.  There is an opt-out mechanism, but you wouldn’t know about it unless you knew what was going on.  The Project Upstream site does not mention, but someone claiming to be part of Project Upstream posted the instructions The Missing Hat’s LiveJournal site:

Opt-out support introduced
Greetings, hat missers. We are Project Upstream.

We have chosen to provide you with a new ability. You may now send a message such as “$optout” to any of our robotic fish. This will permanently prevent all Project Upstream communications from reaching your account.

Some additional information can be found on the Wikipedia entry for TheGreatHatsby.  That seems easy, but unless you know how to look for that sort of thing, you’ll never figure it out on your own.  It’s an interesting idea, connecting two complete strangers using social networks.  The flaw is that most people are not going to know anything about Project Upstream and and they are going to think that other person is up to no good.  There should be some information about the project in that opening message.  You could make a new friend, but it’s more likely to freak the other person out.

I chatted with the other person for a few minutes and we exchanged Twitter accounts.  It turns out that we really have nothing in common and we doubt that we will keep in touch.  It’s an interesting experiment and I think I’ll stay in it for a while.

The other thing to remember is that you are not directly connected to the other person.  Your message goes to the fishbot and the fishbot relays that message to the other user.  The same would be true for other user.  That’s great because if you don’t want to have an IM conversation with the other person, that person has no way of making contact with you again. 

That does raise an interesting privacy concern in that the fishbot is monitoring both sides of the conversation.  It needs to do that to relay the conversation and to be able to handle the “$optout” request.  But, what are they doing with that information?  The web site for Project Upstream only tells you how to opt in, there is nothing about privacy issues or how to opt out.  Just remember the security issues if you decide to play with a robotic fish.