Monday, April 07, 2008

Pseudonyms and Blogging

A few days ago, the following comment was left on a post I wrote about StemEnhance (yes, people are still commenting on that one):
It's easy to be a holy man on a mountain top, and it's even easier to be critical hiding behind the anonymity of the internet. I'll have more faith in your opinion when you stop hiding behind Bayman, The Doc and Kamel. At least Anonymous Coward had the integrity to advertise himself honestly.
Arguments about pseudonymity/anonymity are as old as the internet and often boil down to accusations of cowardice or questioning credibility. Ironically, they often come from likewise pseudonymed writers or people who think revealing an untraceable first and last name (or in the case of the above commenter, first initial) amounts to any difference from a fake name.

First of all, using a pseudonym is not the same as being anonymous. Dr. Crazy at Reassigned Time has a nice discussion of this. A pseudonym is an alternate, online identity. How 'alternate' is entirely up to the user. For me, Kamel the Bayblabber isn't really that different from Kamel in RealLife(tm). I suspect someone like PhysioProf holds the same opinions on and off the blogosphere (including, unsurprisingly, an opinion on anonymous blogging), but the language used to express them differs (I don't know PhysioProf though, so I could be completely wrong). Others are probably even more radically different online than off. Anonymous is different. Anonymous is no identity.

I don't have any problem with either approach. I've always considered that the nice thing about anonymous argument is that the argument can stand on its own merit and not get bogged down in who's saying it. It doesn't matter if I'm a corporate shill, a doctor, a professor, or just a grad student with a computer and an opinion as long as the arguments make sense. In fact, as someone who blogs with a pseudonym, I may even have to work harder to establish credibility rather than relying on credentials.

There are any number of reasons why one would choose not to reveal their identities on their blog or in comments, many of which are legitimate. Some bloggers, like FemaleScienceProfessor, do it for safety. There are hateful people who will threaten or attack you for your argument or even for who you are. She writes:
Every week I reject (delete) a number of obscene and/or threatening comments that are sent to me via this blog. [...] Do I only get these comments because I am anonymous? I don't believe that. And why would I want these sick people to know exactly who I am, where I live, where my daughter goes to school?
It may not be misogynists you're trying to avoid, but racists, people who don't like your political views, who don't like it if you do animal research, etc.

Some people use a pseudonym for privacy reasons. Some people are very protective of their personal information and don't want it readily available for anyone who wants it, or don't want their email flooded or phone calls about things they write. Others do it for security. Perhaps a science grad student doesn't want political views to hurt future job prospects, or a tenure track prof has similar worries. Maybe, if you blog about personal experiences, you want to protect the identities of other players involved. The reasons to take on a pseudonym are personal, and I don't think need to be justified to anybody else.

There is a downside. Some people will just focus on the anonymity of a blogger rather than engage the actual arguments being made. Like the comment I mentioned at the outset, it can be a distraction. Or it could cost you some respect, or you might not get taken seriously at all.

A recent article in the Chronicle's Careers section doesn't address blogging directly, but tries to take take on anonymity in writing but with no real point. Using 3 recent examples of pseudonymous writers from the same publication, the author - rather than focusing on the problems of blogging with a pseudonym (the article, after all, is titled 'The Dangers of Anonymity') - chooses to attack possible justifications for taking on a fake name instead. In this medium, no justification is required. Nevertheless, the 3 writers he called out responded with their reasons anyway.

What do people think? Do you pay more attention if you know the name of the writer? Do bloggers need to justify their pseudonymity?


Hsien Lei said...

My discomfort with anonymous/pseudonymous writers is that I have no way of verifying biases and conflicts of interest. And on a more personal note, I have a hard time connecting with these types of writers which makes it less likely I'll become a fan of their work.

Anonymous Coward said...

I'd be careful if I were you. You never know when something that you've said might cause some crackpot to try to hunt you down. It's happened to me, and I've been very conscious of my personal footprint on the internet ever since. I poke fun of it with my pseudonym, but it's a serious consideration.

Anonymous said...

Here's an interesting case for you. A print journalist angered because an article about her sister got deleted at Wikipedia went on a rampage and tried to "out" the Wikipedia she believed had wronged her sister. The author of this article, Mary Spicuzza, used the resources of her newspaper, the SF Weekly, to try to track down the Wikipeida editor on behalf of her sister, Jeanne Marie Spicuzza. You can read the SF Weekly article here:

To read the background of this article and find out why author Mary Spicuzza was so ticked, you can read here:'_noticeboard/IncidentArchive372#Attempted_Outing_of_Wikipedia_Editor_User:Griot_by_Tawdry_Tabloid_Journalist

Bayman said...

My discomfort with anonymous/pseudonymous writers is that I have no way of verifying biases and conflicts of interest.

Perfect! So you are free to judge their arguments based on rationale and evidence alone. It's may take more work, but it's liberating!

Bayman said...

All human activity is fraught with all sorts of biases and conflicts of interest. Knowing someone's identity might expose some of these but certainly not all. The answer is not to know everything about everyone you talk to, but to keep in mind that subjectivity always creeps in to human thinking and never take any one statement without skepticism. This is equally valid of what you read on the internet, scientific papers, on the news, word of mouth and anywhere else.

kamel said...

Hsien Lei,

Re: biases and conflicts of interest, I'll echo what Bayman says.

I never really thought about the personal angle. Do you think that is true for people who blog consistantly with a pseudonym as well as anonymous commenters? For example, I blog (and comment here and elsewhere) with the name Kamel. If you read the blog regularly you'll figure out my gender, occupation, and where I live pretty easily. You might also be able to figure out my marital status and whether I have children with more difficulty (though other pseudonymous bloggers may reveal more about these subjects than I do). If you dig through the archives enough, you can probably even find out what I look like. Does putting a real name up front and/or explicitly stating all these details in a profile box somewhere make it easier to connect with my posts, or does it make me more likely to capture your interest from the start?

Maybe I'm not a great example since I don't guard my details as fiercely as some (and, like AC, I've also been personally contacted 'off blog', but in a friendly way), but NewProf who blogs about life at GenericU in Anytown, USA still has a relatable personality without the nitty gritty.

It's an interesting point, and maybe since I use a pseudonym I have an easier time relating to others that do, but I'm curious what it is that makes a blogger more easy to relate to beyond the interests and personality that come through in the posts.

rob said...

I am not against anonymous blogging. However I can see one major problem and that is when an anonymous blogger tries to assume the identity of an expert when they are not.
Would you take medical advice from an anonymous blogger who says they have a medical degree?
But as long as the arguments are strong and supportable without relying on assuming the identity of an expert then I'm OK with the anonymity.

Do Not Click My Name said...

I understand why people are anonymous (oh, I reject as pedantic and irrelevant the anonymous/pseudonymous argument) and there are good reasons to do it. But the good reasons do not obviate the negatives that can arise.

There are two, I think.

First, is credibility. The argument that has been made here that an argument must stand on its own in naive and tells me that among the graduate students running this blog most are first or second year, or at least, that none of you do field work. In other words, I see evidence of immaturity.

In the real world it matters a lot who makes the argument. Someone above asks about medical advice from an anonymous blogger who claims to be a doctor but who cannot be certified due to their anonymous status. That problem exists across the board.

The cost to the anonymous blogger is that they should expect to be taken less seriously than they may like under certain circumstances. Said hypothetical blogger could argue "no, no, it is the strength of the argument itself that counts" but that will not suffice in all instances, even if it is true sometimes.

The second problem is in the nature of social interaction. This blog (Bayblab) has developed a reputation for sometimes being aggressive or nasty to other blogs. I'm not sure if that is justified or not, it is simply something that I heard (and saw one example of which is of no great consequence). Well, there may be two sharp edges to this particular sword: On one hand, anonymous bloggers may be more likely to step over normal social and cultural conventions. Physioprof, I believe, is anonymous exactly so that she or he can do this. But this means that the anonymous blogger who does step over the line should not whine about being blown off. (as many have done, not mentioning any names ... because I don't know their names! Which is kinda the point, yes??) the other part of this is that if you do go ahead and accidentally annoy someone, the normal typical human conventions that could kick in to mitigate bad feelings are not going to work as well for the anonymous bloger.

Anonymous bloggers who have pissed me off got on my shit list sooner, and remain on my personal shit list quite a bit longer than people with names and actual, real identities. Maybe that is somehow unfair, but guess what ... it is how humans work.

I know many anonymous commenters and bloggers who don't get on people's shit lists because they simply don't behave that way. Their anonymity is virtually unremarkable. You kind of forget that they are anonymous.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it...

Greg Laden said...

Oh, by the way, that was me.

Anonymous Coward said...

Interesting points Greg. Although I don't see the connection with the lack of maturity of graduate students and field work. How does field work enhance maturity?

Anyways you draw a valid connection between credentials and medical advice. However on the internet there is a real risk that someone advertising themselves as doctors really aren't. The bottom line is that advice should be taken with a grain of salt and verified with evidence and/or your own doctor. Which goes back to Kamel's point, that an argument should stand on its own.

greg laden said...


Aha! You obviously have not done field work or you would know!

But the more important point is that I was conducing a sort of social experiment when I said that. I assert that you'all are a bunch of first year graduate students lacking direction and not working hard enough on your studies. There is evidence that this is true. I have had many PhD students, and been involved in a couple of major graduate programs, have been on the graduate committees, etc. ... in other words, I have credibility when I say this, experience to back up my assertion.

But you don't. Because we don't know who you are.

Yes, arguments can stand on their own and in an ideal world that sometimes happens. But no, not in real life. We are cultural beings and interactive beings. Also, the value of authority and experience are only lost on those without either. Really.

Anonymous said...

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
This user has been blocked indefinitely because CheckUser confirms that this user has used one or more accounts abusively.
The abuse of multiple accounts is prohibited; using new accounts to evade blocks or bans results in the block or ban being extended.
See block log • confirmed accounts • suspected socks • Checkuser request
Categories: Wikipedia sockpuppeteers

Anonymous Coward said...

Good one. But aren't using an appeal to authority which is a form of logical fallacy. By your own admission we have to take your argument (field-work = maturity) at face value without you giving any evidence for it because you are Greg Laden. And if we don't agree with you we have no authority or experience?
Please share all that experience with us.

greg laden said...

There is this idea, of course, that an "argument from authority" is invalid against verifiable arguments to the contrary. But because of the widespread use of phrases like "Aha, this is just an argument for authority" ... many people have more or less thoughtlessly come to believe that authority = an inappropriate argument.

But there are a lot of areas, even in science, where experience (from which real authority derives) matters. An undergraduate who has never been to the field and an experienced geologist can go up to the same geological formation and have the same tools and the same list of tests and procedures. They can both do similar things to the sediments, and they can end up with totally different conclusions as to what they are looking at.

They both have the same argument, structurally, logically, but with different conclusions. The experienced geologist, however, is much more likely to be correct.

"Argument from authority" is not a logical fallacy. Legitimate authority from experience, training, prior learning, reflection, and so on is something of great value.

The "Appeal to authority" argument is different. That involves the guy behind the curtain (Wiz. of Oz analogy), using a position of authority that may or may not be legitimate to make an argument that is demonstrably weak compared to the known alternatives.

The wizard of oz was a pseudonymous wizard, by the way. Until the dog pulled back the curtain and revealed him to be a fake. But until his identity was known, he maintained a fair amount of power.

Or at least this is how the Munchkins tell it.

Anonymous Coward said...

Authority comes more from power and status not experience. Intelligence and judgment are what makes you likely to be correct. But I suppose in real life, or at least in science, there is a significant overlap.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
kamel said...

Thanks for the comments.

I don't think any of us are naive enough to believe that arguments stand on their own all the time (i.e. that people don't use authority as a mental shortcut). In an ideal world, maybe - and I suppose that idealism might come with immaturity. (Or maybe that's cynicism with maturity!)

I agree that anonymous bloggers don't get instant credibility, but they can earn it. Take Orac who, like you, blogs at Scienceblogs. He blogs anonymously and is, to me at least, a credible woo-buster. But his credibility isn't because he says he's a surgeon/scientist but because he has a track record of intelligent posts an lucid arguments.

Staying with the subject of woo, the 'instant cred' from a PhD or MD is a double-edged sword as well. How many snake-oil men also have a PhD or MD when pushing their quackery? When you say "an 'argument from authority' is invalid against verifiable arguments to the contrary," I think that's along the lines of what I'm trying to say - and those verifiable arguments to the contrary are just as valid from an anonymous voice.

Even when he was revealed as a fake, the Wizard of Oz still gave the scarecrow a brain, the lion courage and the tin woodsman a heart. He would have got Dorothy home too, if not for that pesky dog.

Bayman said...

I have a lot of respect for people who are willing to put their real identities behind their blogs. That takes some balls.

It also has disadvantages as, you rightly pointed out, does anonymous blogging. For example non-anonymous bloggers such as yourself might be more likely to take offense to disagreement or criticism and respond emotionally, rather than rationally.

I certainly don't think non-anonymous blogging is a necessity. The internet is big place and there's room, in fact a need, for different perspectives and approaches. There is a unique role to be played by non- as well as anonymous bloggers. There's a role for people who blog with the voice of "responsibility" as well as belligerent voices of reason like Physioprof.

Your approach to blogging is uniquely yours, as is mine. That kind of diversity is great.

With respect to all this bullshit about authority and credibility, I think this is an example of one of the areas where we differ in our approach to blogging, and likely science as well.

I don't make blog posts to tell people the "truth". For me, it's not about reciting facts that I think are important for people to incorporate into their reality. It's not about winning people over to my viewpoint.

I just want people who read my posts to think. I don't want them to turn off their brains and accept what I write verbatim, but to engage in some critical thinking.

Often, our posts on this blog attack conventional wisdom, corporate propaganda, scientific dogma or quackery. For me at least, the point is to try to stimulate people who might read the posts to think critically about information that often has been intentionally communicated in a way that is designed to promote uptake without skepticism. This involves presenting alternative evidence and hypotheses, but the point is not that people end up adopting my particular point of view. If a post provokes them to think for themselves but they end up disagreeing with me, that's great.

Reputation and credibility would actually be an impediment to this goal. If I were to post non-anonymously in front of my full scientific credentials, many readers would accept a lot of what I have to say based solely on their perception of who I am, the degrees I have, and so forth, and this is not what I'm after.

Interestingly, we do not blog totally anonymously here, for example our banner declares that we are graduate students. For several bloggers, most notably Greg Laden, this small revelation seems to have inspired a default basal level of animosity and disrespect as they constantly use this information to make attacks based on this fact. So Greg, your behavior, totally inconsistent with your words of "ethical" posturing, actually make a strong case in favor of anonymous blogging.

Since you so vehemently believe that everyone should blog anonymously like you so that people can judge the value of what they have to say based on their credentials, declare yourself to to be an example of a person who is in possession of such impeccable scientific credentials and attack other science bloggers on the basis of inadequate credentials ("lowly" graduate students), one is left to wonder whether your campaign against anonymous bloggers is simply motivated by some sort of desire to be the only "right" voice that readers of science blogs listen to.

PS - Case in point - if you were paying attention to the many other voices out there in the science blogosphere, you'd realize that the vast numbers of researchers out there in fields like biochemistry or oncology (for example) don't train by doing field work. They get their experience in a laboratory. And of this I have lots, thank you very much. Nearly just as much as many of the Profs or lab heads out there. A lot more, I'm willing to bet, than Greg Laden does. Does this make me more mature than him? More credible?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the bayblabbers are immature but perhaps Greg Laden is too mature. A little too long in the tooth for this new fangled internet thing with people trying to dispose of old notions of seniority. Expressing ideas without having imposed on them a value based on irrelevant power structures might actually be a good thing sometimes. Perhaps the idea that some are able to achieve credibility under pseudonyms, without having to get old or go through the same authority structures that he did, makes him a bitter old man.
Perhaps Greg had a similar reaction to the printing press back in his day. But he obviously learned to type so there is hope.
Anonymous blogging is probably here to stay, will Greg Laden adapt?

Anonymous said...

From the SF Weekly site

I edited [Wikipedia Idiots] and I can assure you that Mary did not get fired for this story or any other. Mary decided to leave the paper to take a job with a local documentary filmmaker. She gave her notice before the Wikipedia story was published. She disclosed to me early in the reporting process her sister's fights with Griot and her sister's role is mentioned high up in our story. Bottom line: We stand by the story.

Comment by Will Harper, Managing Editor, SF Weekly — February 26, 2008 @ 01:55PM

greg laden said...


Just a few points. First, I did actually write a comment in reply to AC's response to my last comment (above) but because of strange things with google/blogger account stuff, my comment disappeared. I did not bother to rewrite it. I have, however, written a new post on my own blog (which will be up shortly) expanding on what I'm trying to say here.

Bayman, You are mistaken to think that I believe that all bloggers should identify themselves.

It is the case, however, that among he bloggers with whom I've interacted, the most obnoxious, most willing to quote mine, to mis characterize what others are saying, and so on, are anonymous. I feel that this is because being anonymous gives some individuals license to be obnoxious, and this is perhaps why they chose to hide their identity (I could be wrong about that).

In fact, I would probably be a good ally for the bloggers at bayblab, regarding some of the issues you clearly feel are important. But I also am quite weary of the experience, so common in academia, of people treating others poorly. I don't need it.

Anyway, extensive comments are on my site.

Drugmonkey said...

It is the case, however, that among he bloggers with whom I've interacted, the most obnoxious, most willing to quote mine, to mis characterize what others are saying, and so on, are anonymous.

Interestingly I find that the most obnoxious are "out" bloggers. They are most willing to feel that any discussion of their stated position on a legitimate issue is a personal attack on them. They are the quickest to go ad hominem (ad pseudynem?) and the last to be able to understand that what they write and not what they believe in the privacy of their skulls is what people know of them.

Constantly derailing a discussion of an issue by turning it into a discussion of how the "real" issue is an alleged attack of oneself is....obnoxious.

Bayman said...

I will agree with Laden that I'm sure pretty much all the jackass trolls out there are anonymous. It's faulty logic to conclude that therefore all anonymous bloggers are jackasses and try to discredit them.

I'll also chime in with what DrugMonkey has said and add that the only "serious", non-trollish bloggers who have tried to discredit me as a blogger with personal attacks were operate non-anonymously.

Anonymous Coward said...

Greg is right, being pseudonymous leads to less self-censorship, which can easily become obnoxious. But it is also a creative license to explore ideas, which in real life you wouldn't seriously consider. Most poeple have middle of the road opinions, but an online persona can polarize a viewpoint which makes for a much more interresting debate. I particularly enjoy exploring opinions which are opposite to mine, so that I can verify that I have come to a conclusion by reason and not by an underlying bias. Defending a viewpoint makes you look for the most convincing arguments. It also makes for some good satire.

Anonymous said...

I think the internet in general leads to less self-censorship (and yes, anonymity on top of that)

steppen wolf said...

Would you take medical advice from an anonymous blogger who says they have a medical degree?

No, and in fact most of these bloggers will have a disclaimer on their site or in their post dealing with medical issues.

I think people are also forgetting that anonymity, while it might be considered a personal choice in the West, becomes a necessity in places where people are literally hunted down because of what they say or write.

And what if you are an immigrant criticizing your host country? A student/prof seriously criticizing your department, or even whistleblowing? If your livelihood depends on keeping certain things secret, but you still want people out there to know - then being an anonymous blogger isn't much of choice, it is a must.

Anonymous said...

The Spicuzza case is an interesting one, if my Journalism textbook has the story right. What are the ethics of using a newspapers IT staff to "out" an anonymous online person? Does this fall under the rubrick of investigatory journalism? Or, in the Spicuzza case, were the journalist's action more of a personal matter? Makes for a lively discussion anyhow.

Anonymous said...

Incredible! A journalism textbook with information about a Feb. 2008 article. Where might I purchase this "textbook"?

Anonymous said...

I got my copy of the textbook about the Spicuzza case and how she had to resign from my college bookstore.

An intresting read...

Anonymous said...

Really??? Which college? And do provide the ISBN and title of this "textbook."

From the SF Weekly web site said...

I edited this story and I can assure you that Mary did not get fired for this story or any other. Mary decided to leave the paper to take a job with a local documentary filmmaker. She gave her notice before the Wikipedia story was published. She disclosed to me early in the reporting process her sister's fights with Griot and her sister's role is mentioned high up in our story. Bottom line: We stand by the story.

Comment by Will Harper, Managing Editor, SF Weekly — February 26, 2008 @ 01:55PM

Anonymous said...

I read that Mary Spicuzza article too, about how her sister Jeanne Marie tried to get a vanity article about herself on Wikipedia, the article was shot down, so her sister took it up on the pages of the newspaper she worked for. I kind of sympathize with the sister, but really, as my professor said, that was way out of bounds journalism profession-wise.

Anonymous said...

I read that article, too. I'm really glad that Jeanne-Marie doesn't participate on Wikipedia, Mary Spicuzza wasn't fired, and that Griot person, Marc Salomon, was kicked off of Wikipedia for good by his own hand for harassment and misuse. Great stuff!