On Pseudonymity

There’s been a little kerfuffle in the “left-right” blogosphere this weekend over the “outing” of a pseudonymous blogger.

While I sympathize (or is the right word these days “empathize“?) with Ed Whelan’s frustration at being publicly attacked by someone who wants to lead a dual on-line/off-line life (and ignoring the incivil nature of many of the comments over at Obsidian Wings), I think that (former pseudonymous) blogger Jonathan Adler has the better part of the argument.

I would also say that I agree that there is an important distinction between pseudonymous and anonymous blogging. The former establishes an identity and a reputation that must be both established, and upheld. After a while, people will respect, or not, posts or comments from such a person, regardless of whether or not they know the real name/profession/location, etc. An anonymous commenter/blogger, on the other hand, has the potential to be a drive-by arsonist, and many are. In the space Internet world, Tommy Lee Elifritz is perhaps the best example of this, who changes his nom de plume more often than he probably changes his underwear, at places like Space Politics, NASA Watch and Rockets’n’Such. Of course, in his case, the vile style is quite distinctive.

Anyway, from a personal perspective, I’ve always blogged under my real name, for better or worse. In some cases, it’s been for the worse. I won’t name names, but I know for a fact that I have lost consulting work and been blackballed by parts of the industry because of my writing on the net under my own name (the proximate cause was the LA Times debate that I had with Homer Hickam), prominently noted to industry insiders, who might otherwise not have noticed it, by NASA Watch. Thanks, Keith…

Note that this wasn’t over my “right wing” (a phrase that never fails to amuse) politics, but specifically about my space policy blogging. This undoubtedly cost me many thousands of dollars in income since then, and ultimately resulted in a blogging plea for work last summer (one that ultimately resulted in consulting employment that undid at least some of the personal economic damage, so blogging has some value). This isn’t a complaint, but simply a statement of how the world works.

Perhaps, had I been blogging pseudonymously, this wouldn’t have happened. But as others in the most recent discussion have pointed out, one can only maintain pseudonymity for so long, until one is “outed,” because the more one reveals on the blog (and if one is a serious blogger, much is eventually revealed), diligent people can figure it out, and if they think it in their interest, reveal it to others. And of course, had I been a pseudonymous blogger, I wouldn’t have gotten the LA Times gig to begin with. Who wants to read Homer Hickam debating someone who won’t use their own name?

Anyway, when I started this endeavor, my motto was “to thine own self be true.” I’ve always tried to do that on this blog, consequences (apparently) be damned, and I’d like to assure what few readers I have that I’ll continue to do so.

[Monday morning update]

Heh. “I’ve looked at a bunch of the sites that have posted on the Blevins affair, and their anonymous commenters are running heavily against Ed for some reason.”

21 thoughts on “On Pseudonymity

  1. Pingback: GruntDoc » Blog Archive » On Pseudonymity - Transterrestrial Musings

  2. Linda Lovelle

    I seem to be way out of the mainstream on this, but I think if you are going to get personal with your commentary you should do so under your own name. However, for general comments and positions that do not attack anyone else or call anyone else names or make a mockery of anyone else – then fine – do so under any name you choose.
    Once you step over the line from expressing your own point of view and get into attacks on others, then I think you go from being able to fake it with any name you choose and get into the “man up” area of identify yourself and take the consequences.

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  4. Wanpeirui

    Thanks for your take, and for pointing out the distinction between the two things. It would be nice if “free speech” were always free, but so often it isn’t.

  5. Del Simmons

    Hear, Hear, Linda! I’m so sick of people hiding behind their curtains while lashing out at others and misrepresenting the facts. Expose the punks, I say, and let the chips fall where they may. Since when has free speech included the freedom from any consequences for the opinions you present? I say that it never has and it never should.

    If you’re saying something you’d be embarrassed for your friends, family and co-workers to know you said, then you should likely rethink whatever it is you’re saying..

  6. scarshapedstar

    Missing from the discussion here seems to be the fact that Whelan was proven wrong on the merits and, unable to respond intellectually, outed Publius out of a fit of revenge/pique. That’s not being the big man. That’s being the little b*tch. All the high-minded harumphing about freedom and principle doesn’t cover up the fact that he’s acting like a high school drama queen.

  7. Thomass

    I agree with Linda. In my mind, its about how civil you were. If you want to put out arguments and someone outs you, its revenge for your arguments. If your calling names and someone outs you, its also revenge but its also outing you for being a jerk trying and trying to hide it…. not just for your arguments.

  8. Francis W. Porretto

    I’m with Linda and Thomas.

    Assaults on you personally for your arguments actually increase your stature and your authority, at least if your arguments aren’t utterly foolish and you’re not a vicious moron. Alongside that, standing front-and-center for your convictions has an “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” effect that impersonally expressed opinions can’t match.

    “Men respect titles, but they follow courage.” — Mel Gibson’s William Wallace character, in Braveheart

  9. Spinoneone

    Way too many of the anonymous and not so anonymous authors have a “take no prisoners” attitude in their posts. The old “flame” job seems to be their preferred meme. “Outing” is merely a very small person taking revenge on someone who, most likely, got the upper hand or made an argument the small type could not refute. Using the simple first person singular case is, frequently, a great antidote to idiocy. At least it keeps the arrow pointed towards the responsible idiot. I think…. It doesn’t follow from that statement that I am correct, but at least it shows who has what position.

  10. Jay Manifold

    Thirding Linda. Pseudonymity is a slippery slope to trolldom, and “scarshapedstar,” above, provides a fine example of, shall we say, a transitional form.

  11. McGehee

    As a practical matter, privacy on the internet is a gentlemen’s agreement, nothing more — and lasts only so long as everyone involved is behaving like gentlemen (I’m using that word here in the same sense that “man” used to be used to refer to all humanity). All it takes to have the mask ripped away is for someone to feel sufficiently motivated to make a grab for it.

    I have no doubt Publius’ “brand” will survive this incident no more (or less) damaged than it already was by his own actions (which I can’t judge because I don’t read OW). Whereas my reading of Whelan’s justification for outing Publius seems thin even though I was prepared to sympathize with him. If there’s more to it than that — an antagonistic history, perhaps — he didn’t go into it deeply enough to make his case.

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  13. Leland

    I think Linda is in the mainstream. I also agree completely with this statement from Del Simmons:

    If you’re saying something you’d be embarrassed for your friends, family and co-workers to know you said, then you should likely rethink whatever it is you’re saying..

    I do think that some of the vile comments I have seen from anonymous posters or pseudonymous posters is because they are unwilling to associate their words with their name.

  14. Maureen

    Shrug. I’ve gone through various levels of pseudonymity during my life on the Net. The usual reason for using a handle back in the olden days was to have a fun and unique screen identifier, and/or to prevent all the annoying “chat” requests and emails from random men during periods when guys didn’t see many females on the Net. (And since there were so many chat requests, they didn’t see many females on the Net. Heh.)

    I blog under a handle, but I don’t hide my real identity either. If anybody wants to investigate to the smallest extent, it’s unlikely that he’s a spammer or lazy troll. I’ve been very lucky about not picking up stalkers, for the most part; and probably part of the reason is that I neither advertise my name nor cultivate an air of pseudonymous mystery.

    It seems silly to complain about trolls posting anonymously, though. I mean, trolls will do everything they do in the most annoying way possible, and ditto spammers. I’m sure when they were kids, they tried to breathe in an annoying way, and yet most of us are okay with breathing.

    Anonymity and pseudonymity was part of the Internet from the beginning. (Mostly because ham radio and CB radio were part of computer culture, and because sf fans were always given to nicknames.) It’s silly to start complaining about it now, much less surrender such a fun custom to the sole use of annoying people.

  15. scarshapedstar

    Sorry, guys, but I’m not sure I’m the villain here. First off, I’ve been using this pseudonym for roughly 12 years now across almost the entire internet. Anyone with a Facebook account can uncover my secret identity, or they can IM me, or just freakin’ use “the google” and my personal info will pop up somewhere, I guarantee it.

    Secondly, I’m trying to follow Ed Whelan’s thought process here. He was thoroughly demolished by Eugene Volokh and by Anonymous Liberal and, if we’re gonna be honest here, deserved it. (Unless you’re going to call Eugene Volokh an uncivil moonbat, too?)

    Publius quoted them both and, summarizing, called him a no-nothing demagogue. Ed Whelan personally emailed Publius to call him a coward and an idiot, and then dedicated an entire post to outing him.

    He didn’t dedicate an entire post to responding to Volokh or AL or even, for that matter, Publius. (This is, sadly, all-too-common form for commentless right-wing blogs; ignore your critics, assume your readers will do the same, and you are perpetually victorius! Just like Kim Jong Il.) He went for the low-hanging fruit. He wasn’t sure he could win the argument, but he got a tip on how to hurt Publius, and so he did.

    All the high-minded justifications and chest-beating about how you put your life on the line by posting your real name on the internets (mine’s Jim McNary) don’t change the fact that he lost and so he kicked over the chessboard. But I guess I was terribly unfair to describe him as a high school b*tch. Fair enough. He’s more like a sixth-grader who sucks at chess.

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  17. Jay Manifold

    “All the high-minded justifications and chest-beating about how you put your life on the line by posting your real name on the internets …” — as opposed to the high-minded justifications about spending 12 years creating a persona? It’s the anons and pseudos who think their lives are on the line. I know better.

  18. McGehee

    Scar, I think where you’re going wrong is, none of us here is interested in why Publius wrote whatever the hell it was that ticked Whelan off. We’re talking about what Whelan did once he got ticked off.

    They are distinct issues and you are, in effect, trying to divert the thread onto an unrelated topic. Hence the diagnosis of “troll.”

    You want to talk about what the rest of us are talking about, please do. Demonstrate your credibility with substance, since as a pseudonymous commenter that’s the only currency you have.

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