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Standing Behind Your Pseudonym

Taking on the perennial topic of pseudonymous blogging, Scott Whitlock says:

To me, and I don’t pretend to speak for everyone, by not attaching a real person to those ideas, it is much like throwing a grenade in a theater and then running. In short, it is not fair to the idea, to the reader, or to the act of writing itself. But more than anything, it wreaks of fear. Although this might sound idealistic, we are in a profession of idealism. Because if we in the academe cannot stand behind our writing, our creations, and our rants, the obvious question then is this: Who can? Followed perhaps by a less obvious question: In a space where I’ve told my students a thousand times that their ideas were important and should be “stood up for,” are we hypocrites if we do not do so ourselves?

To deal with this issue, I think we need to make a distinction between anonymity and pseudonymity. Anonymity means that there is no "person" attached to the post, no connections to any life larger than that one statement. While you can post anonymously on a comment thread or a message board, you can't blog anonymously. The blog format is defined by the succession of posts gathered together, so that each enriches and vouches for the others. Even if you don't sign your posts with anything, the very act of putting them all in the same place creates an identity as "the person who blogs at [URL]." A pseudonym is a handle that allows you to invoke that online identity in other contexts.

Because pseudonymy brings with it an identity, the author is forced to stand behind what he or she says. You can perhaps run from a tarnished identity (nymous or pseudonymous) more easily if switching to a new pseudonym is an option, but when that happens you're starting over from scratch. You have to rebuild the identity that will make your posts worth listening to.

By using your "real" name, you do extend that blogging identity, giving a marker by which interested parties can link your online presence to your offline one (or to other online enterprises in which you use the same moniker). That may be significant in cases where someone wants to persecute you offline for something you did online or vice versa. Whitlock seems especially concerned about this sort of thing, as he has in mind the case of a faculty member being fired for blogging unflattering to one's institution. It's concern about this very sort of spillover that drives many people to choose pseudonymy (though there are other reasons for the choice as well). I'm not convinced that, if an idea is worth blogging, it should be worth enduring real-life persecution for -- that seems to put up too high a barrier on honest and creative expression. It forces those who face such persecution to think in a secret and monological fashion until their idea is polished enough that they're ready to face the consequences for it, depriving both writer and readers of the benefits of dialogue and expression.

In situations where online/offline spillover is not an issue, the line between pseudonymy and nymy rapidly blurs. To anyone who doesn't bother to put my name into Google -- which I imagine is most of my readers -- I'm a relatively pseudonymous blogger despite having my real name on each post. Beyond a few locational and life-stage facts, this blog is unlikely to give you much information about what I'm like beyond my blog. The past couple years of this blog would be little different if I had used a pseudonym. We constantly partition our lives. My family, my professors, my blog readers, and people who know me from the Brunching board all know different versions of me, despite the fact that my free use of the name "Stentor Danielson" in all contexts would make it possible for them to link those various identities.

In comments Whitlock also mentions that, while he can't articulate precisely why, he feels that when he can get a sense of a blogger's offline identity, such as being able to put a picture to a name, he finds their words have more "oomph" to him. (These details are precisely the ones largely missing from my technically nymous blog.) My sense is that this feeling is an artifact of the newness of the internet. For millions of years of cultural development as well as most of our own lives (past and present), face-to-face presence has been the model of social interaction. So it's understandable that we're somewhat disoriented when we interact with people online in the absence of some of the information that's most obvious in face-to-face interaction, such a the person's physical appearance. I suspect that as society gets more used to online interaction, we'll develop a secondary paradigm of online identity that makes it cease to be merely a pale reflection of offline identity. I know I felt Whitlock's "oomph" concern much more strongly when I first ventured online than I do now -- there are even online friends who I'm reluctant to meet offline because their identity to me is so tied up in the online format that it's disorienting to imagine them as physical people. It's a bit like the kid who finds it weird to see his teacher at the grocery store. An intuitive partition grows up despite the superficial use of the same name across contexts.


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