Pseudonyms are essential online

The Artist Formerly Known as Bug Girl
The Artist Formerly Known as Bug Girl

[Trigger warning for discussions of online and IRL abuse and violence]

I recognize the irony in my first post after my big “This is my real name” announcement being about anonymity. I think it’s important, though, to make a strong statement about the importance of anonymity in light of some comments by a colleague. It was the “pseudonyms are used to bully” argument, with a little “I can’t take pseudonyms seriously” thrown in.

Some people are assholes online, and like to target others and make their lives hell. They will do this using their real names and even workplace computers; they do this with fake identities. Research about online behavior hasn’t found evidence to support that anonymity leads to trolling. If a website is full of assholes, it’s their fault for not holding people-–whatever name they go by–-accountable for their behavior.

Online discussions don’t have to be everyone agreeing with each other.  Conversations just need to not be racist, hateful, or destructive.  The way to make that happen is to create consequences for bad behavior, regardless of real name status.

Pseudonyms are critical to having a fully representative online community.  A great list of reasons why pseudonyms are important can be found at the Geek Feminism Wiki:

The cost to people [of denying pseudonym use] can be vast, including:

  • harassment, both online and offline
  • discrimination in employment, provision of services, etc.
  • actual physical danger of bullying, hate crime, etc.
  • arrest, imprisonment, or execution in some jurisdictions
  • economic harm such as job loss, loss of professional reputation, etc.
  • social costs of not being able to interact with friends and colleagues

That page goes on to list, in detail, the various ways that these groups can be harmed.   We know that women experience 25 TIMES the amount of harassment online that men do.  We know that 50% of LGBT teens are bullied online, and many of them consider–or commit–suicide.  We know that women are stalked and killed by ex-lovers. We know that LGBT folk are the victims of hate crimes.

you don't have to triple think everything you write as a pseudThere is a real and critical need for pseudonyms to be honored online, even if it’s a convention that you rely on the good will of others to maintain. And yet, a lot of people, especially scientists, are very dismissive of pseuds as not having meaningful things to say.  I have to admit that my first reaction to the tweet I have copied at the right was RAGE.
[Edited to add: Terry says he meant to say “Once you consider the concern about physical safety and stalking, and look at other issues, then there is safety in knowing that you don’t have to triple-think everything you write.” Since you are limited to 140 characters by Twitter, I’ve added the clarification, but IMHO it doesn’t change anything.]

People in marginalized groups triple-think and agonize over every damn word we think, say and write.
Every. Single. Day.

  • Will I get hurt again?
  • Will I get sued if I add my story about sexual harassment to the ones already public?
  • If I talk about the time my department head introduced me as “This is Bug, she was raped”, will it get back to him?
  • Will my family read this?
  • I’m sure it was illegal that I was was required to post on my office door that I had epilepsy, but how do I ask without the department finding out?
  • How do I get help when my boss is a bigot?
  • Is talking about my LGBT relationship going to come back and bite me in my job search?

It’s not just things we write online; if you are part of an outgroup and trying to fit in, you have a lot of secrets. You make decisions every day about what you will share, who you will share it with, and how far you are willing to go to combat stereotypes.

Terry, the author of the post and the tweet that set off this rant, is a good person, and I know he cares about his students and his work deeply. He is also a white tenured dude.  I’m not mentioning him as an example to shame him, but to show how easy it is even for the good guys to forget that their experiences are not representative.

If we limit the ability of people to use pseudonyms, or dismiss their words specifically because they are pseudonyms, we silence a huge part of the population.   And that is why I’m still getting in people’s faces about this issue, even though now you can pin all of my words on a specific person.  (Who is still looking for a full time job, BTW.)

I am not at all comfortable writing this now that everyone knows who I am, but I have a tiny bully pulpit, and by golly I’m gonna use it. I would never have been brave enough to write about my sexual assault or epilepsy without my pseudonym.  It was not only healing for me to write about it, but I heard from many, many others that it helped them. That?

me with a black eye

Totally worth it.

Worth the freak out I still have every time I see my real name online. Worth the fear that I’ll become unemployable. Worth posting this photo of me again, that I took down in the past.

Please don’t dismiss pseuds, nor limit our access to important online discussion spaces. Pseudonyms include voices of people living in fear who are reaching out to others. We have very good reasons to not want a full record of our lives online under our real name.  I include here people that are not at risk of physical harm, but economic and professional harm; graduate students that don’t want to be viewed as trouble makers, and postdocs that don’t want to hurt their grant chances, for example.

Can pseuds be credible? Yes! But what makes us credible and worthwhile is our words and ACTIONS.
Do hold people who behave badly–whether it’s using their real name or a pseudonym–fully accountable for their actions. But don’t blame bad behavior on anonymity alone, and don’t dismiss or limit those using pseudonyms.

Great reads on this topic:

Insect Carl Sagan and science communication

The latest buzz going round the online science community is an article that suggests that scientists might not be doing enough to communicate with the public.  Scicurious wrote an excellent reply. I struggled to find an excerpt that I could quote here, because the whole thing had me jumping up and down and shouting “AMEN, SISTER.”  Here’s one bit:

“…all this emphasis on these BIG names bothers me more than that. Big names are fine. Everyone wants someone to look up to. But small name researchers make great communicators too. I know I’m not winning any big prizes soon, but I’d like to think I write a witty, educational blog post now and again. Why is fame the most important thing here? Why do we need a big scientific name? Why can’t we make our names, say, through the outreach we do (and some solid, but perhaps lesser known science)?

If no one knows who these big name scientists are anyway (as the article implies), then why is it necessary that they be the ones to do the outreach? After all, many of the science communication success stories the author cites GOT THEIR NAMES through their outreach. Who were the Mythbusters…before Mythbusters? No one outside his field knew who Neil deGrasse Tyson was before he started doing outreach. These people made their names THROUGH their outreach. The emphasis on Big Names that are ALREADY big seems really elitist.”

I’ve said this before, but it’s especially relevant to me now, as I’m in what seems to be the twilight of my career:

ehrmahgerd bertles!I will write this shit even if no one but me reads it.

I love insects, I love to write, and I love to find ways to get people to share my OMGBUGZ moments.  I’m busting my ass here and on social media every day, not because I am getting famous, and certainly not because it makes me any money. I do it for love.

We know, from decades of research, that what makes a good teacher is passion.  Why were Sagan, or DeGrasse Tyson, Nye, or Attenborough successful? Because they love what they do, they love their science, and it shows. (Also, they started in a completely different media environment. And are dudes. But let’s not go there right now.)

There are people out here online with me, passionately writing, podcasting, or videocasting their hearts out. A few lucky ones make a living at it. But just because I don’t have name recognition, that doesn’t mean that I’m not successful. I measure success one comment and one retweet at a time.  I don’t have a klout score as high as John Cusack anymore, but that’s not the point.

One person says they changed their mind about hating spiders.
I said something kind to a graduate student and encouraged her.
A local newspaper corrects a mangled insect factoid.

That is what online science communication success looks like now.

With the advent of the internet, ideas or passions bring people together, rather than physical locations or media channels. Scientists that do outreach online–even when it’s looked down upon by fellow scientists? We are modeling positive deviance.  It’s not so much what we write that is important, but THAT WE WRITE AT ALL.

We are creating a model for a new kind of science communication.  And we are having a bitchin’ time doing it, which invites new people over to have fun with us. We are modeling different ways to share science online to our friends, our friends’ friends, and to the random strange people who keep searching my blog for “sex with insects.” (You know who you are.)

It’s personal relationships that really change the world. I was inspired by Sagan and Attenborough…but it was my not-famous teachers and mentors that helped me get through school and believe that I could be a scientist too.  Small individual creative acts (tweets, blog posts, or just chatting on Facebook) can become a thing of lasting value.  Shared and random effort can produce useful and meaningful results.

The beauty of the web is that we don’t all have to have the same motivations or professional level of skill. We don’t all have to be working toward the same goal.  We can still make change happen simply by putting our ideas out there. The beauty of the web is that scientists can get online and screw around together, playing with ideas.

Who cares if we’re “doing it right.” We’re doing it.

Which is exactly how Insect Carl Sagan Happened. Enjoy.

And then things started to get really awesome:

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