Anonymous Entomological Punditry on the Internet

[This is part of a series of posts about writing, entomology, and career development that are linked to my upcoming Entomological Society of America talk in November.]

I get a surprising number of emails from reporters asking for interviews, or podcast requests, or other questions related to some of the debunking posts I’ve published about different bits of media nonsense.

“Are you a bee expert?” one of the reporters asked once.
“No, I’m a bee pundit,” I replied.  “I’m like the Lorax, except I speak for bees, not trees.”

Later, I realized punditry was actually a pretty good description for where I’ve plopped myself in the blogosphere.  I am, literally, a talking (blue) head that people accept as having some sort of authority about bugs.  I don’t write about my personal research much, but I try to translate the insect research of others and life in academia into regular human speak.  And I provide color commentary, usually with more F words that the average pundit, but that’s how I roll.

Had I used my real name, I could have quite a bit to add to my professional Vita (Curriculum vita is just a fancy academic way to say resume).  In Academia, size matters.  The fatter your vita is with publications and invited talks, the more well hung you are–in a scholarly sense, of course.

But I have stayed Bug Girl for many years, even at live appearances at Cons, and at the Entomological Society of America National Conference.  Why?
I thought it might be helpful for students starting out as bloggers, or established scientists pondering blogging as a means of outreach, to talk about the tradeoffs between real name and anonymity and career implications.

I’ve actually used the nickname “Bug Girl” since the early 90s–it was my first personal email address in 1993. Back then in the land of listservs and bulletin boards, women were fairly rare, and it was helpful to not have an immediately identifiable identity.

I also had an….interesting career path, and I left my first tenured position over an academic freedom dispute. I wanted to teach evolution as a well-established fact.  My position was similar to that of this recently fired prof:

“Science is the litmus test on the validity of the educational enterprise. If a school teaches real science, it’s a pretty safe bet that all other departments are sound. If it teaches bogus science, everything else is suspect…. I want a real college, not one that rejects facts, knowledge, and understanding because they conflict with a narrow religious belief.

It was useful to have a nickname where I could solicit advice online about the Dean’s instructions to soft-pedal evolution without publicly identifying myself.  And over time, this led to path dependence–rather than making a strategic decision between My RealID and a pseudonym, I drifted into the online identity of Bug Girl because of a bunch of random decisions from 20 years ago. Those decisions were made well before blogging was a “thing.”   It turned out, though, that it was a good decision, because as I began to be successful in my post-faculty career, I discovered that blogging was not only a thing, it was a bad thing as far as most of my bosses were concerned.

There are actually laws on the books on several states banning state employees from lobbying, or using their government positions to influence politics or the media. That is a reasonable restriction–it would not be appropriate for me to use an official .gov or .edu email, for example, to lobby for a specific candidate.  If you are high enough on the food chain that you manage large sums of money, lots of people, or set policy, then linking your real identity to a sometimes ribald blog can be a big deal.  Especially if you are in a job where you are not part of a union, not tenured, and basically serve at the pleasure of the provost.

I’ve tried to keep plausible deniability with my identity.   By not linking my name and Bug Girl’s, I can at least make sure that a Google search by one of my students will not turn up a post of me yelling F-bombs at Nintendo or disclose details of my rape.  My boss will not know for sure that I am an atheist (which, based on her comments that “those people have no moral compass” is probably for the best.)  I’ve  had several stalkers over the years, and I can be reasonably sure I won’t wake up, look outside my window, and see creepy dude #6 parked in my driveway.  It also helps that there are a lot of other Bug Girls online.

There are a lot of reasons (which I have articulated in detail elsewhere) that this online identity makes me feel safer.  Now that my new job has moved me near the Provost’s office, Bug Girl is honestly a better reflection of who I really am. Diplomacy and tact are now a major part of my day to-day-work life.  Anyone who knows me realizes this is an inherently unstable situation. To paraphrase one of my favorite blues songs, “It’s in her and its got to come out!”  Most of my friends call me Bug, and certainly my writing here gets several orders of magnitude more exposure than my scientific publications ever did or will.  I AM BUG GIRL.

Here’s something important you should never forget, though.  Your secret online identity exists only because of the kindness of strangers.  As hard as you try, you CAN be identified.  It’s only politeness that keep your online friends and readers from outing you.

It isn’t hard to find examples where science bloggers that use their real names–and that have known employers–have had disgruntled readers contact their boss.  It isn’t hard to find examples where a decision has been made by the higher ups that silence is better than controversy, even if the information provided online is correct.

There is no way to blog–anonymously or not– and never have it affect your career.  Your blogging had better be something that you enjoy, and that you are willing to defend to your family and your boss. When you are outed, all the F-bombs you’ve dropped will come crashing down on you if the only thing you did with your bully pulpit was trash your coworkers.

Blogging is a great outlet for my creativity (which is not expressed by writing official memos, trust me) and for my warped sense of humor.  I write for ME as much as anything, to challenge myself to make science as entertaining and interesting to non-scientists.  I am amazed at how successful I’ve been, which I think has more to do with being in the right place at the right time than the content I produce.

The way to be a better writer is to write more.  And so I did.

I think I’ve gotten better, but I still have a long way to go.

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13 thoughts on “Anonymous Entomological Punditry on the Internet

  1. Enjoyable post, I have seen the negative impact a blog can have on a career. I certainly understand why you try to keep the two separate although as you say a lot of that is because other people have enough respect/kindness not to make the connection.We are at a crossroads in modern society where privacy is evaporating quickly and as a society we are going to have to deal with the impacts of this.

  2. Really good post. Next time an editor asks for an interview offer instead a 1000 worder on the pros of being anonymous on the web; very thoughtful stuff.

  3. Bug, are you planning on revealing yourself this year? It’s too bad I won’t be there. I’ve enjoyed your blog for years, even got into blogging myself at least in part due to your style and character online. I think it’s really cool how your pseudonym has allowed you to say things you wouldn’t otherwise say. Looking at your talk, it feels like you’ve taken this to the level of a character actor (like Borat or Steven Colbert), except the character under your pseudonym is your /real self/!

  4. Ha, Kai, that’s a good analogy! I do feel like I’m acting a part when I’m wearing a suit in meetings with deanlets and provostlings. I can do the diplomatic academic thing, but it takes a fair amount of concentration.

    In the spirit of all good politicians, I can neither confirm nor deny my identity or it’s future revelation :)

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  6. Agreed! That’s one of the problems with my more navel-gazing posts–I tend to focus on one topic, when I should also bring in the positives.

    I regret nothing about my blogging, and I have so, so many great friends because of it. I think it’s helped me become a better communicator too.

  7. Hi – just discovered the blog and look forward to following it. I’m working on a book on the history of insects in Europe, c. 1580-1760 (I don’t say “entomology” because my interests include art and theology, not just natural history).

    The idea that atheists have no moral compass is an old one with a complex history that would take too long to discuss. But here’s a good retort (thanks to the 17th-century skeptic Pierre Bayle): when someone says that, ask for an example of an immoral atheist, and then point out that there are plenty of self-professed theists who are just as bad, if not worse (N.B. Adolf Hitler was not an atheist). It’s also worth pointing out that Denmark, which is one of the most peaceful and pleasant countries in which to live, is also one of the most atheistic countries in the world; even most people who say that they are Christian are not believers. (Phil Zuckerman’s book Society without God provides a good overview.)

  8. Great post, but I’m still holding off on starting up a blog, despite suggestions that it would be a good outlet for my pent up entomological creative urges.
    One little nit to pick – Spelling of curriculum vitae (roughly translated the “course of life”, the ‘e’ at the end signifying “of”.

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