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July 18, 2005

Blogging and anonymity

Our current blog flavor of the week has been brought to you by the New York Times. (Link to Lindsay rather than the NYT. She sums it up well for people who don't wish to go further. Plus I like her more than I like the NYT.)

Short version: young woman hired as nanny for Yuppie NYC couple. Employers read blog. Woman fired. Employers take revenge by writing grossly inaccurate bitch-slap article in New York Times. Blog world uproar ensues.

Personally, I don't care, aside from the interesting devolution of the once staid New York Times into a competitor for shelf space in the Weekly World News rack. What's interesting to me are some of the comments from passersby deriding the young woman for not blogging anonymously.

I have to say that with a very
ceptions, the blogs I find myself reading are not written pseudonymously. Whether it's Lindsay Beyerstein's Majikthise (and do yourself a favor and visit when you have some time to spend... she's brilliant, funny, and has a huge range of interests: sort of a smarter, younger, female, much more attractive version of me) or PZ or Michael Bérubé or Roxanne or Timothy Burke or whoever, I prefer reading writing with a non-anonymous person standing behind it.

I hasten to add that I completely understand some of the reasons why people write pseudonymously. Not everyone is lucky enough to have tenure, or to work in an organization that values blunt, plain speaking. People just starting a career are extremely vulnerable to the whims and idiocies of their current or prospective employers. There are people in difficult non-work situations who benefit from a bit of privacy in expression as well. People who're worried about, say, stalkers, have every right to blog, and I'm not going to begrudge them that.

I also understand that a handle can become a second, more or less valid identity, and that the owner of said handle can be every bit as concerned about maintaining "Flipper's" credibility as they are about "Charles W. Johnson's." Or Atrios's vs. Duncan Black's, if you want a non-fictitious example. And I understand that some handles are deliberate affectations, that people use handles even if they're not particularly trying to hide their legal identities. Whatever literary device works for you.

It just seems that the presumption is beginning to swing the other way, toward pseudonymity as the norm, with being "out" considered an aberration. In a recent thread at Lindsay's place, a (very bright) commenter encouraged someone to say what they really intended by reminding them that "we're all anonymous here."

Well, um, no. Sure, a casual reader can't immediately tell that I'm not actually Lyndon LaRouche. But it only takes a little effort to obtain my home phone number, and a small expenditure to find out which window you need to look into to see me sleeping at night.

Of course, I'm trying to build a reputation as a writer, and you can't do that pseudonymously unless your career will also be pseudonymous. Some of it is a holdover, I think, from the days when I was a public non-registrant with the Selective Service System. Actually I guess I still am. Back then there were a lot of people quietly refusing to register, and I felt like someone ought to stand up and say so publicly. Some of it is a holdover from my days on Usenet, hanging out in places like alt.folklore.urban where handles were regarded with some suspicion, most of it probably due to the nefarious influence of AOL. And some of it is my vague journalistic background: you will look in vain for Reuters bylines along the lines of "Anaximander."

It also helps that I don't care very much about people's reactions to my writing. Don't get me wrong: I enjoy making people think, and a thoughtful response to something I write will often make my day. And I hate hurting people's feelings by accident or clumsiness. But I've inherited a certain atomistic self-containment from Dear Old Dad, and I've walked away from whole sets of friends in the past for less compelling reasons than saying what's on my mind.

And the older I get, the less willing I am to second-guess myself.

My nonpseudonymous blogging pal Dave Bonta, in an incisive and wholly accurate criticism of a careless post a few notches down on this very blog, made a passing reference to that post's having "ruined the effect" of the other, uniformly brilliantly written pieces to be found here. And I know he intended to warn me against carelessness, against taking out my passing irritations on my readers. (And sage advice it was, but on whom am I supposed to take them out?)

It was incidental to his point, but Dave's choice of phrasing got me to thinking.

All writing has an effect, and a writer is disingenuous if he denies that the reader isn't always in mind. But the moment I find that I'm wondering whether a blog post has the right "effect," as opposed to whether I have something to say about the subject, is the moment I click that little "delete blog" link in the admin window. I already have enough places to write where I keep "the effect" uppermost in my mind. That's not what this place is for.

And for me to use a pseudonym would be for me to surrender wholly to fear of "the effect."

I don't wish to tell anyone else how to run their blog. I wish others would extend those of us who write under our real names the same courtesy. When someone runs into unfair flak as a result of something they've written, I'd hope other bloggers' first impulse would be to extend a bit of sympathy and support, and not to ask "well, what do you expect for putting your name out there?"

[Edited slightly to clarify my intent.]

Posted by Chris Clarke at July 18, 2005 08:30 AM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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People are out of control with the victim-blaming. Don't mention work--that's a good rule. But to live in fear of being yourself?

Posted by: Amanda at July 18, 2005 09:12 AM
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thanks for your kind words. To be fair, however, I work in an industry that allows for me to blog what I wish to blog, with minor constraints. Those constraints are no big deal as I would self-impose them anyway.

Posted by: Roxanne at July 18, 2005 09:21 AM
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Oh, you bet, Roxanne. Me too. And I'd much rather people write pseudonymously than not at all.

It's just strange to be part of a minority because I'm not pseudonymous.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at July 18, 2005 09:24 AM
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I use a pseudonym when blogging and commenting, but not to protect myself. As a painter, I have little to risk, but because I prefer to have "Google" searches and the like present the world with my paintings and illustrations, I leave my real name, Christopher Reiger, for that job and allow "Hungry Hyaena" to cover my blog bases. It creates less confusion.

Posted by: Hungry Hyaena at July 18, 2005 11:11 AM
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That's another great reason to use a handle, Christopher.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at July 18, 2005 11:25 AM
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On second thought, you're absolutely right to let it all hang out. Blogs that are consistently well-written and unfailingly insightful can get a little too much after a while: "Doesn't this author ever *relax*?"

For those of us who are trying to advance some sort of writing career, not having an editor to impose word limits, style guidelines and the like is both a blessing and a curse, like any freedom. I enjoy the discipline as well as the license of blogging tremendously.

You cite me as an example of an non-pseudonymous blogger (much appreciated!), but you may remember that for a long time I was just "Dave," and people had to follow the link to my Geocities homepage to get my full name. The reason for that simple: I wanted the reader's focus to remain on the writing, not the writer. I felt like a bit of a sell-out when I made the decision to put my full name at the bottom of each post. I wonder how widespread that kind of sentiment may be? The whole culture of blogging strikes me as intensely focused on personality, from the profile pages featured prominently in the links column of almost all templates to the unabated popularity of so-called memes. Could it be partly in reaction to this that the cool kids want to be pseudonymous?

Posted by: Dave at July 18, 2005 12:53 PM
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Excellent post, Chris, and some fine comments. But let me just offer a few words from a different perspective. I know people who write for a living in far different venues, and who use blogs to vent, to let off steam, to say things that, if they came to the attention of certain magazines or certain publishers, would cause problems out the yazoo.

So for those individuals who have regular readerships that measure in the tens or hundreds of thousands, and who wish to slip out the back door, as it were, and not have to worry about attracting unwanted attention, goofy little names probably aren't such a bad thing.

And then there are those of us who look in the mirror and see someone slightly more dashing than, um, Tom Stoddard, master electrician.

I probably shouldn't mention this, but I'm thinking of changing my handle to Conan the Barbarian.

Posted by: tost at July 18, 2005 01:56 PM
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But you may remember that for a long time I was just "Dave," and people had to follow the link to my Geocities homepage to get my full name.

Yes, but that was only after the blogging stretch from 1985-2003, during which - if I recall correctly - you blogged as "Naturalist Marcia Bonta's son 'Dave,'" and of course there was your LiveJournal under the name Valerie Plame during Reagan's first term.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at July 18, 2005 02:42 PM
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Starting a career (or perhaps NOT being able to start a career, or even get a paying job!) is a great reason to blog anonymously. Some of us aren't anonymous enough and now really really regret that, even though we started our online careers long before our future employers knew how to use a computer on their own. Google never sleeps and never forgets. Sigh!

Posted by: GrrlScientist at July 18, 2005 03:15 PM
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Hmmmm... I initially started to blog anonymously for two reasons: (1) I am entirely traceable by my not-unique-but-reasonably-rare name; (2) for a number of reasons, my home address and telephone number are a matter of public record; and (3) I make a living providing services to corporations, some of whom would probably not be particularly thrilled with some of my political positions or the ... ah ... strength with which I state them.

I waffle on whether I'm beyond giving a damn about what my clients might think, but the freedom is still valuable, and the pseudonym has a bit of brand recognition.

Posted by: paperwight at July 18, 2005 05:37 PM
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I am an anonymous blogger (it would be strange to call me a pseudononymous blogger, since I use my real first name), and I don't think it makes my content any less interesting. In fact, I think it makes my writing about my own discipline a bit more interesting, because I can be more direct, less technical, and express my opinions. I'm on the job market, and if I were to blog under my full name, I would feel it necessary to make my cog sci writing more like academic journal writing, which, aside from making for uninteresting blogging (for most people), would make blogging about my own discipline pointless for me.

Of course, as PZ Myers once kindly noted in a comment on my blog, my being anonymous doesn't make me any less responsible, any more careless, or any less accountable, because, as paperwight put it, Chris of Mixing Memory is essentially a trademark, and it's quite easy to contact me, or refer to me by a recognized name, when anyone finds something wrong or inappropriate in my blog writing.

Perhaps one day, when I have tenure, I'll blog under my full name, but as I've not even been hired yet, I'm going to remain anonymous, and I don't think that's in any way a bad thing.

Posted by: Chris at July 18, 2005 07:41 PM
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Chris and Paperwight, I hope you don't feel like I was saying there's anything at all wrong with blogging the way you guys do. I think there are plenty of good reasons to blog anonymously or pseudonymously, depending on your situation.

I did say that I tend to read non-pseudonymous blogs, but I in no way meant that as a putdown. It's just a personal preference, and not one I came by deliberately: I just realized the preference looking at my blogroll and seeing lots of full names represented there. It may well be a prejudice I ought to challenge. I only found out I had it this morning.

But what I mainly wanted to talk about was the seeming small trend - especially in the wake of this nanny story - toward criticizing people for not blogging anonymously. It surprised me, and I still haven't sorted out all my thoughts about it.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at July 18, 2005 08:00 PM
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I have mixed feelings. I switched from coturnix - a handle I still use for commenting - to my real name about 7 months ago in order to give my science blog (Circadiana) respectability. Perhaps I should have continued Sci&Pol under pseudonym, I don't know, time will tell.

I don't think I have to be ashamed of anything I write. I am not an aspiring writer or a journalist, so unevenness of quality of my posts does not bother me one bit. I blog when I want to, about topics that interest me that day. It's my blog and I'll cry if I want to, cry if I want to....

Several times I felt I needed to write a post because someone "expected" me to write it. I never did write them. I write only when I am in the mood and only if it is really me writing for whatever personal reason is in charge of my emotions at that moment - never out of sense of duty.

Posted by: coturnix at July 18, 2005 08:17 PM
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My own pseudonymity is an accident. I spent years on USENET and later at Salon's Table Talk under my own name, and switched to my moniker more or less as a whim. But once I started blogging I realized it did protect my wife, and allow me to use insider info I'd have to worry about otherwise.

But if I read Lindsay correctly it is an anonymous blog to which the young woman gave the URL to her employer. Which may or may not be a mistake, depending on whether she's better off not working for someone who turned out to be so petty. Either way, let's save the opprobrium for the Times for publishing such tripe, and for a woman who employs a nanny yet says "My ability to attend literary readings and art gallery openings was hampered by two children, and my party life was relegated to the toddler birthday circuit." Plus she imagines the "snoozefest" her own life would make as a blog, which I take as a personal insult.

Posted by: doghouse riley at July 18, 2005 11:41 PM
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Hmm, guess you forgot me. Or maybe because you know my last name you don't think of Cassandra as being anonymous, and for many people, it isn't. I chose a pseudonym mainly because I just wanted to relax. I was tired of political writing and polarization and being identified a certain way. But it's gotten to be a problem, and if and when the book I'm writing comes out, I'll probably include my last name. But Chris, you can't be as concerned as you seem to be about women feeling safe, and disregard the fact that women do get harrassed and even stalked. I was living in a very small rural town and frankly, I didn't want to make it that easy for people to look me up, although of course if someone wants to find you it's not too hard. That concern is a real thing, and it will continue throughout my life as a writer, identified by name or not.

Posted by: beth at July 19, 2005 06:45 AM
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ps I know you're not "disregarding" it, not at all - as you mention above. But I think this is a major reason for a lot of women wanting to be relatively anonymous on the web.

Posted by: beth at July 19, 2005 06:47 AM
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Actually, Beth, I wasn't forgetting you. I was thinking of people who blog under their real first names as not exactly pseudonymous. I don't know Lauren's last name at Feministe, and I don't think of her as pseudonymous. She (and you) have posted photos of yourselves, for instance. Same for Burningbird's Shelley, and a lot of others. (Chris above.)

But of course the effect of using first name only may be the same as calling yourself "Calliope." I guess there are a lot of gradations to be had here.

And of course you're right about the women's safety issue, and I'd venture a guess that that might be the biggest single reason for firstonymous/pseudonymous/anonymous blogging.

As Doghouse Riley mentions (and I'm surprised to learn that's not your real name, Doghouse!) Tessy's outed blog is pseudonymous. And yet she's still being criticized for not being anonymous enough.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at July 19, 2005 07:02 AM
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CC - I didn't feel insulted or criticized. I give the pseudonymity issue thought from time to time, and just haven't come down with a reason to switch to my real name yet.

Posted by: paperwight at July 19, 2005 07:57 AM
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good post and good discussion. the first blog i read and commented on was atrios, and a "handle" seemed the accepted style. now i do feel at times kinda stuck with it as i have made friends at several places as DPR. or enemies at some maybe. i have no reason to be anonymous. no job. don't especially want one. if i wanted to work at my favored trade of carpentry i can't imagine someone caring about my little blog.

Posted by: dread pirate roberts at July 19, 2005 09:11 AM
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How readily you'd use your own name probably also varies a lot according to how common your real name is, and what other pages it might bring up. I believe there are exactly two living people in the world with my name; if I put it on my blog, my blog is precisely what google would return, first time every time, for a search on it. A clever persistent person could certainly find my blog now, starting with my name, but it would take some doing. I don't mind someone being able to connect the two with some effort -- but I don't want my name to be a big neon sign pointing to my blog :-)

Posted by: dale at July 19, 2005 02:05 PM
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That's true, and I hadn't considered that.

But do you really think there's another Dale Koshtra-Mxyzptlk out there?

Posted by: Chris Clarke at July 19, 2005 02:44 PM
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:-) Yep, and he lives in Diamond Lake, California, where he used to be a schoolteacher. (& there's another consideration: if my rather confessional and melodramatic blog would be an embarassment to me, what might it be to poor Mr Mxyzptlk in Diamond Lake?)

Posted by: dale at July 19, 2005 03:23 PM
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I understand not using your name. I use my name but I'm no longer afraid. I have a friend who writes great stories but would die if anyone knew it was her.

Posted by: Randall Bott at July 28, 2005 11:24 PM
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