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.