Pseudonyms and anonymity

MGK recently was musing about the case of an anonymous blogger publicly “outed” by another;

“Pseudonymity is great. Blevins explains most of the cogent reasons why he blogged anonymously (not wanting to frighten students, not wanting to have to deal with family issues, not wanting to danger his tenure) and they’re all entirely reasonable…
The problem with pseudonymity is this: it exists only by common compact. This means that, like any other protection provided by commonality, it’s only as good as everybody is willing to let it be. With an essentially infinite audience you will, sooner or later, find somebody who is both willing to fuck your anonymity over and is able to do so.”

This is something I ponder quite a bit, since I will be effectively outing myself at the SkepchickCon in a few weeks.  While quite a few entomologists have solved the mystery of “Who is Bug_girl?”, only one of them has published that conclusion online. Also, quite a few people guess incorrectly, which adds to the whole plausible deniability of the thing :)

At this point, I’ve been online as Bug Girl for 5 years, and it’s too late to try to hide.  My motivations for being anonymous are similar to Blevins’–it’s just easier to try to separate your personal persona from your professional one.

Students and employers do Google your name, and check your Facebook account, and your family does find things out that you might rather they would not (i.e, the big Red A on my side bar, for example.) Even blogging anonymously isn’t good enough when state government is involved. I can’t possibly pretend that I don’t have really strong opinions about….um….well, a lot of things, really.

The problem–which many of my students discover to their dismay–is that in a digital universe with camcorders and cameras in everyone’s pockets, the line between personal and professional is non-existent.

People keep saying that as less of our lives are private, the rules on what is acceptable behavior will be relaxed.

That ain’t happening.

This also combines well with something PZ wrote this week about science communication:

“none of those properties — politics, passion, and personality — are necessarily regarded as virtues in the scientific community. We’re supposed to be dispassionate, aloof, objective, non-partisan, and there’s a prejudice that you’re a lesser man (yeah, it’s also a male bias) if you step away from the illusion of impartiality.”

Scientists are supposed to be objective.  We are supposed to deal with data and nothing else. And that is exactly why science journals are deadly dull, and blogs about science are much more interesting. Blogs are written by people, with opinions.  Journal papers manage to have most of the personality edited right out.

While I don’t think that being able to put things like “This data was the coolest EVAR!11!!” in a journal paper would improve it, I do think that something has been lost when I look at papers from the early 1900s. The excitement of the writers clearly comes through.

Read this letter from Charles Darwin about a visit to an insect collection–he’s clearly delighted and excited. If Chuck’s letter showed up in a blog, would his life have been different?

I totally identify with Darwin in this letter:

“I am dying by inches, from not having any body to talk to about insects:—my only reason for writing, is to remove a heavy weight from my mind, so now you must understand, what you will perceive before you come to the end of this; that I am writing merely for my own pleasure & not your’s”

So I will be in Minneapolis, and I hope to see some of you there.

Let it Blurt!

24 thoughts on “Pseudonyms and anonymity

  1. We all know your biggest secret anyway: That your pseudonym Bug GIRL is a red herring, and that you are actually a dude.

    I’m expecting a huge reveal at SkepChickCon, Just like in “Tootsie.”

  2. I’ve been struggling on and off for years about my anonymity, and coming out from behind my pseudonym. Especially while trying to forge something of a writing career, and wondering, when I become a famous internationally renowned author, if it’s a good idea to have my online name widely known. To have people going back over years of blog and forum postings, finding everything “Peregrine” has ever said, trying to figure out which “Peregrine” is really me, (it’s a fairly popular pseudonym) and then holding something I wrote on a blog years ago against me. Especially when I can’t really go back and edit some things.

    It’s a little embarrassing to think about. For one thing, I’ve been wrong about some shit. It happens. I’m only human. Like anyone else, I reserve the right to be wrong. And it’s the Internet, so we’re free to ramble on at length about some idea, or opinion, or whatever. And then our embarrassingly wrong idea is enshrined in the annals of history for future generations to gawk at, and see how wrong we were.

    But more embarrassing than that, is that I’m supposed to be a writer. And I’ve not always been as eloquent as I could have been. So while I may have been wrong about something, at least I made some attempt to explain it well. But there have been times when I’ve failed. Epically. And I fully expect to find myself in an interview one day, and have the interviewer call me on some weird thing that I’ve long since forgot, whether it’s dead-ass wrong, or just poorly explained.

    To me, it’s interesting how our thoughts, opinions, ideas, and such are always changing. How our attitudes toward life are in constant flux. So I suppose, to some extent, it might be interesting to see some opinion I had back in 2005, and compare it to how I feel about something now. Hopefully I’ve moved in the right direction. Maybe it’s not so bad to show how we’ve grown as human beings.

    But in the short term, one of my main concerns has been getting fired. Posting a comment on a blog, for example, and having the timestamp show that I should have been working. Like now. (I’ll be getting back to it in a bit) Or posting something that’s in conflict with my employer’s interests. In an industrial city like this, where the majority of employment opportunities, including those in the press, are either part of, or affiliated with a single and highly controversial corporate empire, that could be bad. Peregrine says something about that company online, and meatspace me gets fired for freely expressing my opinion.

    And then there’s the whole big red A thing. even though I don’t have a big red A on my Web site, I frequent a few pages that do. My friends know, and don’t care. Online, it tends not to matter in many circles. But my family, for the most part, still don’t know, and there haven’t been many opportunities for it to come up. Legally, my employer is not even allowed to ask, but that might not stop some individuals from holding it against me if they ever found out. Not that they would, necessarily. Just that the possibility has occurred to me.

    It’s a double-edged sword. Once the mask is lifted, it’s more than just the face that’s revealed.

  3. “I am writing merely for my own pleasure & not your’s” Charles Darwin

    That is certainly true about the HomeBugGarden – I’ve never thought of it as anything but a rumination and the sparsity of comments does not falsify that hypothesis. I mostly argue with myself there about native vs alien, lawns vs flowers, invertebrates vs birdibrates, and does it make sense to try and conserve some biodiversity in my backyard. Also, it is a good place to post my wife’s pictures of insects and other organisms. However, I do have another blog that I use for educational purposes, and that I try to write for the pleasure of others. I keep politics and religion out of the educational blog, as they should always be kept out of the scientific classroom.

    Based on the comments here, though, the Darwin quote above does not seem relevant to Bug Girl’s Blog: a lot of people seem to derive pleasure from your writing, including me (and I doubt that we share any poltical or religious beliefs whatsoever). Writing for one’s own pleasure does not have to exclude others from enjoying it.

  4. Animalistic personas aside, I never claimed that I wasn’t. Except for one place, and that was just for fun. :D

    I wouldn’t say I’m worried about it. But I’m very aware.

    Maybe it’s just my inner critic speaking. I’ve been on the silly side of a number of silly discussions in my time. I shudder to think.

    But mostly it’s about my human ass being unemployed.

  5. This post cuts through to the importance of not just opinion in science, but passion. It’s a fantastic and radical notion, and i hope it spreads!

  6. Wonderful piece, I really enjoy and appreciate your perspective. Blogging under my own name has been very much a conscious choice. For me, it’s all of a piece with being and out and proud gay man. I spent too many of the years of my youth hiding my identity. I don’t have any intention of doing that again. Ever. I do wonder how much blogging under my own name changes the content of what I write- but that’s another question for another time.

    Blogging out, blogging anonymously, and blogging under a pseudonym are very personal decisions. There are good and valid reasons for taking any of those paths. These are mine- thanks for sharing yours.

  7. I actually spoke on this topic and Mental Health Camp a couple of months ago. Sadly, I can’t post the video, because some people who’d specifically requested not to be filmed are in some of the shots and my editing skills aren’t good enough to take them out. Very annoying.

  8. (1) Everybody check out George Levine’s _Darwin Loves You_ for an interesting perspective on Darwin’s use of the first person. Or, SHAMELESS SELF PROMOTION if you don’t want to read the whole book, which is pretty tough going, read my review of it at EE&O (http://www.springerlink.com/content/n1763x030j113613/?p=1fb6ddbd04324d6a81c3fd24be6c10d3&pi=18).

    (2) The idea of a “personal” and “online” persona is interesting—I always thought that there is the real me, which exists offline as well as on, and out of the classroom as well as in, etc., etc.; and then there is the “persona” that I present in those various contexts, and that has to be in some ways tailored to fit, made predictable or built around certain themes, habits, forms of expression. More like acting?

    (3) Even if it’s possible more and more to document one’s life and present it online and other ways, people like Deans have concerns such as, will the college president and board of trustees accept this loudmouth? In a different way with parents and so on. They are not going to think, wow, faculty member X’s rant about how crazy religion is is on a blog, so no problem. At one point I accepted all the students as friends on facebook, but there are definitely things about them I don’t think I want to know, am not close enough to them to know about, live in a different world from them and so don’t totally understand. Also I wanted to give them advice (dump that loser, don’t go to the city this weekend, stay home and study, untag yourself in that one photo, and the like) that I think they would not necessarily be open to.

    It seems to me that all of these wonderful new ways of expressing ourselves online bring new and different concerns about what to reveal to whom, and how to present one’s self, rather than simply bringing about relaxation of the existing rules.

    I don’t know why I made a numbered list here.

    Another thought-provoking and crisply written post by Bug Girl!

  9. I think the real difference, Adam, is that now all our different personas, academic and otherwise, are photographed, blogged, and otherwise offered up for public consumption in a way they never were when I was an undergrad. We’ve gone from consuming culture to authoring it. (or what passes for a culture, anyway)

    Believe me, I am PROFOUNDLY grateful that there were no cell phone cameras during my undergraduate years. :D

  10. I wonder at all the indignation at the outing of anonymous bloggers that are using their anonymity to trash other bloggers? Of course it is polite to respect others wishes, but at least when it comes to politics, polite doesn’t seem to be a common behaviour in the blogosphere. Name-calling and temper tantrums seem more the norm. Everyone must feel somewhat anonymous and protected while typing at their keyboard and I suspect that is why juvenile behaviour is rampant. Bloggers that are not anonymous seem to be much more reasonable and readable – Ted MacRae and Alex Wild come immediately to mind.

    A good, informative rant (like the green potato rant that first got me hooked on this blog), however, can be excellent blogging, anonymous or not. A little bit of gratuitous name-calling and bias is tolerable: that’s what people are like. But I don’t understand the apparent need to be Manichean. If only life were littered with good and bad choices.

    I’ve kept my names more or less off my blogs, mostly in the hopes that it will reduce the number of crank comments, but it would take somewhere between no and little effort to find out who I am (I noticed from one of Bug Girl’s older posts that someone outed her to her employers a while ago). I thought a blog would be a good way to advertise some of the work my current employer is doing, but my suggestions fell on deaf ears – quite possibly because blogs have a very bad reputation. So, I started my own blogs and let my employers know about them immediately. They were not happy, but didn’t have a fit – just warned me not to put any of their work on it.

  11. I’m not entirely sure, but I think one of my meatspace friends inadvertently outed me on Twitter. But hopefully it’s for a good cause. Let’s see where this goes! :D

  12. Being anonymous myself on a blog or two is something I enjoy because it allows for a certain objectivity. And in a few rare cases allows you to change your mind. It affords you the ability to comment and not be plagued by some of the folks who apparently have no life or are totally obsessed with like 954 posts in a four month period. It also allows you to be skeptical sometimes and bite the hand that feds you without getting swatted.

  13. Pingback: Anonymity, revisited « Bug Girl’s Blog

  14. “it’s just easier to try to separate your personal persona from your professional one.”

    I’m stepping in late here, so maybe nobody but me will see this comment – I’m interested in the statement quoted above, because my perception is that things are completely the opposite. It seems to take a great amount of effort to conceal an identity online and manage for any possible breach – at least if that is the goal. A lot of people seem to use pseudonyms out of convenience, but without the express goal of deliberately concealing their identity.

    I guess I just don’t understand the need to conceal to begin with – I certainly write for my own pleasure first and foremost, but I can’t think of anything that I want to write that I wouldn’t want somebody else to see. I don’t think it’s just an academia thing – working in industry I must certainly be mindful of potential consequences from people in management who might take exception with something I write or my (occasiona) use of company property to do so. Probably it’s because I just like to write about bugs and nature and stuff and generally avoid getting involved in political/social debates that I don’t feel the paranoia – if I cared to be more opinionated on “hot” issues maybe it would be different.

    I’m not sure I really added anything to the discussion other than I guess why some people don’t feel the need for anonymity – for what it’s worth.

    And homebuggardener – thank you so much for your kind words!

  15. In my case, the state actually has some very restrictive laws about what state employees may and may not say in public. It also is helpful if the first thing that pops up when you put my name in Google is NOT….a post about genitalia.
    There is also a major issue with students, and trying to appear politically and religiously neutral so I don’t scare them or turn them off–again, keeping my politics separated from my professional life is useful. I guess not being opinionated isn’t an option for me :D

    Lastly, sometimes I get mad and like to say F*CK. Can’t do that at work.

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