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June 17, 2006

Pseudonimity, outing, and blogging

Anonymity is a big issue in blogging and it's only going to get bigger. Last week, I had an interesting discussion with a group of young journalists at YearlyKos. The entire convention was abuzz with the news that Armando, a front page poster on Daily Kos, had quit blogging after the National Review Online published his real name and revealed that he had worked for Wal-Mart as a corporate lawyer.

I was surprised by how much these journalists seemed to resent bloggers who guarded their identities. They felt that fake-namers enjoyed more freedom of expression (or less accountability) than they did. Money also came into it. Some people remarked that it wasn't fair that they, the full-time journalists, had to take heat for a pittance while other people were using pseuds to command a large audience while holding lucrative corporate jobs.

The journalists also insisted on their absolute right to out anyone they wanted.

At YearlyKos, you could see new social norms being hammered out. Some prominent pseud-users were doing panels, press conferences, and even TV interviews. Several journalists scoffed openly at bloggers who went on television using pseuds.

Obviously, this level of semi-pseudonimity was only possible because reporters and bloggers understood certain implicit ground rules: Refer to people by their preferred moniker, if someone tells you their real name and their pseud ask whether it's okay to use their real name. And, most importantly, never out anyone unless you have an ironclad journalistic reason. (There was disagreement on the last item, but in practice, the reporters at YK seemed to understand the seriousness of the "no outing" rule.)

As a real-namer with journalistic tendencies, I have a slightly unusual perspective on the anonymity issue. I'm aware that writing under my own name is luxury that most people can't afford.

It was generally agreed amongst the journalists that at-will employment was the real problem, not nosy reporters.

"Who wants to work for someone who can't accept your politics?" someone asked.

"People who need their jobs," I said.

Personally, I like blogging under my real name. It's easier that way. Writing under one name is a good way to make sure that I get the full measure of credit and blame for what I write.

I tend to think more carefully before I sign my name to stuff. Writing under my real name is also an impetus to stand up and be counted on certain issues where I might not have otherwise have done so.

There's a certain cachet that comes with writing under your real name (or an entirely believable pen name). Real-namers don't necessarily deserve more credit than their pseud-using counterparts, but I'm happy let other people's biases work in my favor.

Being out also spares me the hassle of keeping track of who knows my identity and who doesn't. Over the years, I've gotten to know a lot of people who blog and comment under pseudonyms. I'm always impressed when they share their real identities with me. Non-bloggers and real-namers often assume that pseudononymity is the easy way out. That's not necessarily true. If you're not out, you're taking a leap of faith every time you reveal yourself.

Even if you never out yourself, you're still at the mercy of others. Some bloggers, like Thersites of Meta-Comments, have been outed for purely frivolous malicious reasons. Piss off the wrong person and put your career in jeopardy.

In rare cases, the identity of a pseudonymous blogger is a legitimately newsworthy topic in its own right. For example, I think it was perfectly legitimate for bloggers to point out that the Washington Post's erstwhile conservative blogger Ben Domenench had written some incredibly offensive stuff under the handle "Augustine." I'm sorry that Armando of Kos got outed, but there was a real story there: Wal-Mart lawyer front pager at major liberal blog.

A handle can give writers more freedom of expression. I know people who are pseudonymous because their writing could get them fired, or because they're afraid that their political opinions might bring down the wrath of the current administration, or because they want to discuss very personal subjects without implicating themselves or their loved ones. If it weren't for pseudonyms, these people wouldn't be part of the discussion, and the blogosphere would be much poorer for it. Frivolous outing is a particularly insidious way of silencing people you disagree with.

Unfortunately, the more a pseudonym frees you to express ideas that are incongruent with your other identities, the bigger the potential cost of being discovered. At least when you're out, people have less to hold over you.

One of the best things about blogging is that there's no one right way to do it. As bloggers, we're not bound by institutional policies or professional bloggers' codes of ethics. Everyone is free to weigh the costs and benefits of transparency vs. privacy. I read a wide range of blogs whose authors run the gamut from total secrecy to complete transparency. Writers earn my trust by making sense and supporting their assertions with independently checkable facts. I regard some pseud-users as unimpeachable authorities and some real-namers as very dubious, and vice versa. Readers can make up their own minds about whom to trust.

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» Being ethical -- and being prudent -- with pseudonymous blogging. from Adventures in Ethics and Science
I'm following up on my earlier post in the wake of the outing of dKos blogger Armando. At Majikthise, Lindsay Beyerstein had posted an interesting discussion of the issues around pseudonymous blogging, and whether it might sometimes be ethical to... [Read More]

Comments

It was generally agreed amongst the journalists that at-will employment was the real problem, not nosy reporters.

"Who wants to work for someone who can't accept your politics?" someone asked.

It's not just a matter of whether your employer (or a prospective one) approves of your politics.

It's whether they approve of a hobby that can absorb large quantities of time and mental energy, and which can be easily pursued during working hours. (Indeed, timestamps provide readily available evidence that you are pursuing it during these hours.)

That point aside, an excellent post on the subject.

As a pseudonym user I feel more able to be myself. My day job is paid for by the Federal Govt, and in the current environment it's plausible that my political opinions could lead to a loss of funding. Once I've put aside enough money to be able to handle six months out of work I'll reconsider my pseudonym, and perhaps start blogging.

I post semi-pseudonymously. John is my real first name, but then there are millions of Johns in the English speaking world, so it might as well be a pseud. My full name is John Lucid, and as I have mentioned here before I currently live in Casper, Wyoming. Obviously I'm not afraid of using my full name. In fact I have used it one other time in a post at Howl @ The Moon, where I occasionally (infrequently) guest post some opinions for the blogmaster Coyote. So why don't I use my full name if I am unafraid to do so? Spammers and spyware are one small reason, but the main reason is this: I like the idea that my thoughts and opinions are just as "every man" as my first name. I want my words to convey the sense that even though only one person is giving his opinion it could easily be anyone's. I put as much thought and effort into what I write even when I sign it "John" because I want whatever I write to be worthwhile, even if I am joking around, and Lindsay knows that I joke quite often. Though I am unashamed of what I write, I have no desire to seek attention beyond simply expressing my point of view. I don't seek leadership in any way, for I am neither a good leader or a good follower. Therefore, at least for now, I will give the best that I can to the liberal cause. That is my voice, which will simply be identified as "John".

It should be noted that Domenech was "outed" by a conservative pal of his on a mainstream Washington publication's (hotline) blog. It may have been done inadvertently, but it wasn't done maliciously or even as a "scoop" but matter-of-factly.

But, yes, at some level of popularity/publicity anonymity isn't really something one can expect to maintain. I got away with it longer than I could've expected to.

Still, while there are certainly times when the identity of an anonymous person is legitimately a story, it's also something which should be respected most other times.

In these days, I think it's worth remembering that if you piss off the right people, you're as good as outed anyway (see under "Valerie Plame"). Writing pseudonymously is like any other shield: it can be pierced.

I keep my blog semi-anonymous. I don't have my name on it anywhere, and I try to avoid identifying details, but it would take someone who cared about ten minutes to figure out who I am. (In fact, if anyone e-mailed me and asked I'd probably tell them.)

I keep it fairly anonymous because I live in a small town with a raging gossip mill. A friend of mine once posted a couple of erotic stories in her LiveJournal, and when someone found them and sent the news through the gossip megaphone, it wasn't long before people were asking her about her porn site.

I don't mind if people know I'm a screaming liberal and a music nerd, the two most obvious things they'd find out about me if they read my blog. The one place where I worry is religion. I am sometimes very hostile toward the excesses of modern Christianity, and when you're a doctor in a small town full of conservative Christians, a lot of people would take that personally, especially once my comments get to the fourth or fifth iteration in the gossip cycle.

That slight layer of anonymity gives me a lot more freedom to not pull punches. I doubt my professional life would be affected one whit if my real name were plastered all over the site, but I've heard too many horror stories.

Of course, I've mostly managed to avoid this issue via the fact that no one reads the damn thing.

J Train, it all sounds so much like an episode of Everwood.

Pseudonymity is the norm in the hacker world, and I've done dozens of print, radio and TV interviews, but I was asked to give my real name only once, for an NPR show, a request I acquisced to out of some misguided respect for public broadcasting. At this point, my handle IS my online identity, and going by my real name would be confusing and pointless, like making an Indiana Jones movie where everybody calls him "Harrison". I enjoy the differentiation between my online and offline personas - more than anonymity, what I gain is the freedom of an actor.

I do think its interesting that there's so much difference in the attitude towards handles in the hacker and blog worlds. This might be partly because the stakes are higher in the hacker world: if somebody knows your identity they might very well be planning to mess with your credit or your phone or whatever. Or maybe it's just because the real identities of hackers, unlike political bloggers, are unlikely to include any blockbuster revelations (ace hacker Zero Wave turns out to be.... A NINETEEN YEAR OLD LIVING AT HOME!). I think this is likely the real reason: the "safe space" created in the blogosphere (per Lizza in TNR) for older liberals has meant that a lot of people with more accumulated treasure and prestige to lose are getting into the free-wheeling world of online political speech.

That being said, there always has been a strange (minor) hacker pathology around recording the real identities (dox) of as many others as possible. It just doesn't carry the same moral implications it does re: blogs.

I personally think that it would be a shame if the wonderfully plastic nature of internet identity - and the ability to try on multiple selves - was conventionally decided to be a moral harm. Like net neutrality, the best policy around identity on the internet might be an open one.

It is, incidentally, perfectly possible to preserve online anonymity for an indefinite period of time, but you have to be (a) incredibly paranoid, (b) pretty tech- and computer security-aware (c) hyper-vigilant about posting any personal information about yourself using your pseudonym. But it can be done, for quite large values of n, where n is the number of hours people are willing to spend trying to out you.

I have another perspective on this. I blog under a pseudonym that virtually everyone that knows me is aware of. It is simply who I am on the web.

R.

This is an old issue in American journalism. During the first days of our country almost no one wrote under their own name in the newspapers. Jefferson never wrote a word for the press, and Hamilton wrote under a pseudonym. Writing for newspapers was apparently considered to be somewhat undignified.

Also in those times newspapers were openly partisan and quite viscious in their attacks on their enemies. Franklin, arguably the first American printer, believed
in jornalistic 'objectivity',though he used 'Poor Richard' to author his wildly popular 'almanac' (the first blog!); but newspapers created in the late 1700s and early 1800s were real political rags. Freedom of the press was understood to be the freedom to villify public figures with scant concern for the truth.

Partisan papers were instrumental in ousting John Adams after one term and electing and reelecting Jefferson. The Republicans (Jefferson's party) were quick to capitalize on the opinion-molding power of the press, while the Federalists were slow on the uptake.

See the fascinating book by Jeffrey Pasley, "The Tyranny of Printers"

The Federalist Papers was another important early work published under a pseudonym, Publius.

A lot of us simply could not blog the way we do without the cover of psuedonyms. Banal but true.

I think just about all nurse-bloggers have to deal with this, unfortunately, as perhaps do bloggers from other areas of employment.

An example: "Geek Nurse" had to take down his blog at the behest of his employer. That's a shame, because I learned quite a bit about pediatric ICU nursing from his site.

The problem isn't even at will employment. It's a society where free speach is substantially limited, and many of us dare not say what we truly believe.

Without the cover of pseudonyms, all sorts of useful statistical techniques would not have been published (i.e. by Gosset under the pseudonym of Student -- which he had to use because his employer, Guiness, which was smart enough to realize the utility of having top notch statisticians in their employ, but which was burnt by a previous nerd-type revealing trade secrets and hence forbade these top notch statisticians from publishing).

Jus' sayin'.

Speaking of great pseudonymous journalists, did http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Twain>Samuel Clemens write his non-fiction under the name "Mark Twain" as well as his fiction?

With the usual "Wikipedia can't necessarily be trusted" caveat, yes:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Twain

See under "Pen Names."

'Mark Twain' was a pseudonym he first used as a journalist. Non-fiction books such as The Innocents Abroad were also authored under that name. See the cover here

I will be curious whether Armando keeps his job. If not, because of being outed, then, "Nice job, outers!" Poor WATBs.

WATBs?

"What Acronym Today, Boys?"

Yes, it is me.

And I have a question - why was my professional life relevant?

Remember thre was nothing do ne that was newsworthy.

Was my professional life relevant just because? Was there something I wrote that made it so? And if so what?

Or are you adopting Duncan Black's position that once you reach a level of notoriety your real activities become newsworthy? And if so, what level of notoriety? Is digby's identity newsworthy? Why or why not?

Indeed, I think the position you and Duncan adopt completley untenable.

If the identity is newsworthy, then it is newsworthy irrespective of the prominence.

You have just laid out the position that ends anonymity and pseudonymity on the Internet.

Frankly, I have you position shocking.

Armando, former daily kos blogger.

I want to add this, I don't see the distincion between myposition and thersites other than you are friends with him and not me.

I was the victim of a malicious outing too. Indeed, I don't know why you do not use his real name. O rather I think I do.

BTW, I work for a law firm.

Was my professional life relevant just because? Was there something I wrote that made it so? And if so what?

When a liberal blogger makes money supporting a corporation that's become synonymous with abuse, impoverishment, and social irresponsibility, it's relevant. If a major anonymous liberal blogger worked for the NSA and were involved in wiretapping, I'd similarly expect to know, national security concerns notwithstanding.

Alon writes:

"When a liberal blogger makes money supporting a corporation that's become synonymous with abuse, impoverishment, and social irresponsibility, it's relevant."

Can you provide a complete list of what companies qualify for that list? And is that limited to lawyers or does it also mean employees of those companies? And doesn't it basically mean we need to know everything about everybody? I mean, apparently, Lindsey has done some writing for pharmaceutical companies. Which ones? Don't we have a right to know, according to you? Why won't she disclose them?

BTW, who do you work for and who are you related to? I mean, where does it stop?

Your logic leads to the eliminaton of anonymity and the right to know everything about everybody.

Perhaps that is your position but it would be helpful if you were upfront about it.

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