On pseudonymity and making a difference in the world (updated)

New York City

New York City

My favorite pseudonymous person out there, without a doubt, is Banksy.

If you aren’t familiar with Banksy, check out some of his work. It’s spectacular. I’m not a professional art critic so I won’t say more about why this body of work rocks. Banksy’s work can speak for itself.

Because of his primary medium – public structures – people who own these structures are making huge profits by selling his work to private individuals though he designed it to be seen in public.

I don’t think he imagined several years ago, that a public wall would be removed from a structure so that his stencil graffiti would be sold at auction as fine art. I think it’s kind of awesome – a work of art highlighting the profiteering nature of humanity – that graffiti can become so valuable so quickly. The irony is delicious, that graffiti is undesirable by a property owner, unless it can be sold.

Banksy’s work is, arguably, a victim of its success, in that it is taken from the public after it is made.

The art of Banksy features a set of criticisms that are best seen broadly by the public. It is successful as social commentary, and the whole point of it, I would guess, is that they get seen by people.

If Banksy were not pseudonymous, he could create all kinds of public art, that would be far more likely to stay intact. But that’s not the way he rolls. In my opinion, part of the beauty of the work is the the lack of clarity in its origin, and that Banksy creates wealth out of a patch of wall that otherwise would be overlooked.

Since we don’t know who Banksy is, it’s easier for me to imagine that he is speaking for many of us. On the other hand, because we don’t know who Banksy is, it’s been said that he lacks credibility. I don’t think that’s true, but to many, without an identity his work is always going to have the same credibility of all other graffiti artists who are, technically, tagging illegally. I think his credibility comes from the great art itself, but that’s not a universally held notion.

I think there is a ceiling to how much difference Banksy can make in the world, because of his pseudonymity. I don’t think the social impact of something like Picasso’s Guernica could be matched by any single work by Banksy because the origin of the message matters along with the artist itself. We all might like to say that a novel, a painting, or a scientific paper can and should be seen on its own without looking at the creator. But, really, who the creator is matters, a lot. We know Banksy by his work, that’s not quite the same. The veil matters. People will think that he doesn’t have any skin in the game. In Banksy’s case, the veil is part of the art itself.

Closer to my own realm, some of the louder voices on the internet about life in science come from a cadre of pseudonymous science bloggers.

They don’t blog about their own science, because, well, then the veil would be lifted from the pseudonym. There are many real concerns that the pseudonymous science bloggers have, about life balance, gender equity, federal funding policies, research transparency, academic misconduct, and other stuff, including shoes.

This might be obvious, it wasn’t initially to me: a pseudonym makes a blog more personal.

This week, one topic that’s come up among pseudonymous bloggers is the fact that things are a lot harder for women in science compared to men, especially for those who have kids. These pseudonymous people seem to want change in culture and policies, in the direction of equity. There are some interesting discussions, and a lot of great ideas. But, even though the pseudonymous blogs are aimed at the public, it’s all very much a private endeavor. Because the pseudonymous people are not known, at least formally, then there is a low ceiling on impact. (Of course, I bet that these pseudonymous blogs are far more widely read than this site, so I’m not arguing that I’m having more of an impact.) For example, the impact of the well-known blog Pharyngula is much greater (and mostly negative, I think) because its creator is not pseudonymous. Putting a face and name — and a public home address to boot — for the author of that blog makes both him and his words more credible.

So, what really is the point of all of discussions on pseudonymous science blogs? I honestly don’t know. I imagine it’s for the entertainment of those running the sites, to form an internal community, and to influence the lives of those who follow these sites and are interested in the experiences of these pseudonymous individuals. But I could be wrong. I suspect the veil of pseudonymity really limits what a blog can do more than the identity of the author limits the reach of a blog.

Anybody can have a site, and write whatever they want in it, and communicate with others however they want. I’m just trying to make sense of both motivations and outcomes, and I’m still confused. In the meantime, there is a clear asymmetry between what can and does happen between pseudonymous sites and those with unveiled faces.

When I started this site, I thought the distinction between the two was minor, but over time the risks and opportunities from being overtly public are more known. I’m still in the not-making-much-difference-in-the-world phase, but, well, there’s lots of time.

UPDATE: While it wasn’t intended in any way, some pseudonymous bloggers — whose work I respect — are reading this post as a dig against pseudonymous blogs. I don’t know how broad this perception is, but since I’m a regular reader — and fan — of some pseudonymous blogs I’d like to clarify that I don’t have any negative thoughts about pseudonymous blogs, and I don’t question the validity of pseudonymous blogs.

As to the specific questions I asked, there is now some good discussion about them. These questions are, apparently, old hat to pseudonymous bloggers but not yet to myself. Considering that a pseudonymous blog is what got me started in the first place, I am familiar with the genre, but not the specific motivations of the authors. What I didn’t know is — in addition to those who have quite legitimate concerns about physical safety — the relationship between a concealed identity and the ability to affect the cause that is the reason for the identity to be concealed. Folks have made some strong arguments that a pseudonymous author can affect their cause in the non-blogging world just as as well as one who uses their real identity. There are lots of great viewpoints.

When I write “I honestly don’t know” or “I’m confused,” about a topic, then that is the truth. It isn’t concern trolling, These words represent my ability to profess not understanding something. To their credit, experienced bloggers have rolled in and helped create understanding, in the comments (which are worth reading) and other posts (which can be found in the comments).

Pseudonymous bloggers have been writing for years under their assumed identities, and think about their reasons and the consequences every day, I would think. Those issues are not something I think about every day. So if I write a blog post, open to comments, about something which I’m wondering, I do appreciate it when I have constructive and informative comments, which I have received. Thanks to all of you for those.

41 thoughts on “On pseudonymity and making a difference in the world (updated)

  1. I would expect that at least some science bloggers are pseudonymous because, not yet being tenured faculty, they’re worried about the possible repercussions for saying controversial things. I realize that you have almost certainly considered that already, but I think it’s worth saying.

    I have a Twitter account that I mostly use for activism-related matters, and I comment on a couple of different political blogs under a couple of different pseudonyms. Any really determined person (or really, any moderately determined person) could figure out that these pseudonyms map to me – I’ve provided enough detail about my life and location. But what I want to avoid is having, say, my Twitter account, come up if someone like a prospective employer were doing a quick Google search on my real name. I sometimes tweet first-hand accounts of things like pipeline blockades, police beatdowns of protests, and activist training conferences, in addition to the occasional science/grad school observation or retweet of links to blog posts that I like.

    If I were to start a blog – which would likely be a mixture of politics, science/grad school life, and other things – I would use a pseudonym. Possibly this pseudonym, possibly not.

    • Yeah, you can say and do controversial things under a pseudonym. (You can also be less civil, as I’ve recently experienced.) In those circumstances, the lack of knowledge of the source removes the power of the controversial or political statement. The only pseudonymous person that I can think of at the moment in contemporary times who has had an effect on others is Subcomandante Marcos.

      The tenure thing had occurred to me, of course, though I suspect that most people blogging under pseudonyms are actually known to be doing so in their own departments (Is that true, I’m not sure?). At least some, if not many, of the science bloggers under pseudonyms have tenure, I think. I can understand, for at least one person of which I’m aware, who was in a federal job and was told to not be public.

      I’m not aware of anybody who has lifted a pseudonym because they got tenure.

      It’d be great if you’d start up a blog, and based on your comments to date I bet it’d be mighty interesting. Thanks, once again, for sharing. I think the site might be less controversial if you shared who you are, but it might make a bigger difference.

      It might feel better to vent under a pseudonym. But venting is a personal thing, while using your identity to advocate for a cause or idea is something that might generate support.

      I imagine if the pseudonymous bloggers come up on this post, they’ll share, and I imagine that most of them will be civil and I’ll learn a lot from it. That would rock.

      • First, I am flattered at your comment re: the possibility of my blogging! Thank you.

        When I’m not on the Internet – i.e. a place where my name would be attached to searchable text forever – I do generally use my real name. And most activism/social change work that I do is not on the Internet. The people in the various movements that I work with know my real name (I assume that the local police intelligence center does too). I do public education work around sexual assault prevention and awareness (consent workshops for kids, bystander trainings, trainings for emergency response personnel on how to respond sensitively to victims, that sort of thing) and I use my real name there. When I teach disadvantaged students at my university (something I’ll be doing a lot of this semester) and advocate for them with the administration, I of course use my real name.

        Thinking about a parallel to the world of political protest here – specifically left-wing protest in the US as that is what I’m familiar with – there are often people at protests who use anonymizing tactics in order to be able to more safely do things like form a protective barrier between other protesters and police, or simply to be organizers of a particular action without making themselves individual targets for harassment. There are also occasionally people who use the same anonymizing tactics as cover to do less benign/protective things, like breaking windows. The latter is a problem, but I have never felt that it negates the benefits of the former (which I personally have seen much more often). This is an ongoing debate in that world.

        When I first got on Twitter, intending mostly to follow others and not to talk, I actually did use my real name – my full name in my handle, and my first name as the “name” bit attached to the handle. I clearly remember when and why I changed it. A day or two before, I had been with a group of LGBTQ and allied folks who were a counterdemonstration to a Tea Party rally that had invited two leaders of homophobic hate groups to speak. The police became unexpectedly aggressive, physically attacking some of our group. I tweeted several times from there, and got retweeted a couple of times. Later, I started feeling ill at ease, worrying about being Google-able (especially since I was still working at a fairly conservative company at the time) and feeling frustrated with my worry, and my spouse suggested that I change my handle. I did. I was pretty upset about it, to an over-the-top degree – I was in tears, in fact. It felt like I was conceding something very important, losing something. But since then, I’ve been able to say a lot of things – largely information from the ground, not ranting – that I’m glad I was able to tweet, and probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable tweeting if I hadn’t changed it.

        The world of science, of course, is a little different. But not entirely, since science blogging does intersect often with social issues. Women writing about gender inequities, in the sciences or anywhere else, can quickly become magnets for all sorts of filth and harassment, which can extend into being harassed or stalked outside the Internet. LGBTQ people can be fired for it in more than half of the states – I would hope that very few academic institutions would do so, but I’m not willing to assume.

        • Speaking of which, I wonder if a charismatic, positive, and overtly public figure from the Occupy movement emerged, whether it wouldn’t have fizzled. MLK wasn’t the civil rights movement, nor was Ghandi the independence movement, but these individuals really mattered, and their identity mattered. Most people who aren’t part of a movement aren’t going to get jazzed about it unless there’s a personal – and positive – face on it.

        • It’s a valid point. The other side of that is that if your charismatic figure falls off the pedestal in some conspicuous way (e.g. Julian Assange) then it’s a public relations black eye, and either your own people get disillusioned or they start trying to defend the charismatic figure’s bad behavior. If your charismatic figure expresses views that are controversial among people within the movement, you run the risk of breaking the coalition (especially if the coalition is unstable in the first place, as it always has been in Occupy).

          The closest that Occupy has had to charismatic public figures have probably been the big-name livestreamers, like Spencer/@OakFoSho in Oakland, or @OccupyFreedomLA in Los Angeles, or Tim Pool/@Timcast and @DiceyTroop in NYC. During really big things they had thousands of viewers, and people watching from home saw the movement through their eyes and voices. And all of them drew lots of controversy within their own communities and the movement nationwide – each of them has had people who think they’re great, people who think they’re occu-celebrity fame hounds, and people who really just don’t agree with their take on things or their views on livestreamer ethics. I’ve seen fairly vicious arguments that went on for days about a few of them, and I still see people argue online about Tim in particular.

  2. If you have the hour to spare, here is an interesting and relevant conversation that was brought to my attention:

    A couple take-home points: around the 1:06 mark, the point is made is that pseudonymity only reduces its impact if the person acts unprofessionally. If a pseudonymous author maintains professionality, there isn’t much difference. (I’m not sure I agree. I’m not sure I disagree, either.)
    Also, at the 27:00 mark, it’s pointed out that it’s always the man in power who questions the pseud. Other people just naturally understand the need for one, they say. I’m not questioning the decision that people make, I’m just wondering why pseudonymous bloggers choose to blog. Everyone has their own reasons, of course. Is it the case that if your identity is hidden that you can’t help your cause(s) as much?

    One of my main focuses on this blog, and in my job, is about promoting underrepresented and undersupported students in the sciences, as that is my job That’s what I’m paid to do at my university. As a white dude, I have a less credibility in that aspect, both with the public and with my students, for whom I am not overt role model as much as some others. So, perhaps a pseud in this case would have made me more credible, if I could pass myself off as non-white non-dude?

    • Everyone I know that blogs pseudonymously does so for reasons of personal safety. I didn’t listen to the video, not having an hour to spare, but the fact that it’s ALWAYS the person with power that finds the need for pseudonyms suspicious is right on the money. Discussing the intersections of academia, science and feminism has the potential to attract some really nasty attention. Hell, being female and just daring to express an opinion can do that. It happens, and it’s terrifying when it does. I stopped using my real identity online for about ten years (and actually stopped going online altogether for a while), after an unpleasant person from a discussion forum proved he could get to me in real life.

      I use my real identity now, but I stick to safe-ish topics and don’t get a lot of views anyway. Which I’m okay with— people that are specifically looking for me can find me, which is all I want. I have another internet identity that I use when I say something that might attract attention.

      The fact that you can say whatever you want on the internet without fear is a kind of privilege. Which is fine (please don’t think that I’m saying having that privilege makes you a bad person or anything), as long as you recognize not everyone has that privilege.

      You keep talking about a blog “having an impact” and “making a difference”. What kind of difference are you hoping to make here?

      • I like your blog, by the way. There is no shortage of male pseudonymous bloggers out there, some of whom write plenty enough about gender inequity and other controversial topics. Are they concerned about personal safety, too? I’m really serious about this.

        So, not counting the men, most or all of the pseudonymous female bloggers out there are under a pseudonym because of creepy, evil and stalkery men? I am generally ashamed of my own gender, and for good reasons, but this isn’t a fact I realized; perhaps my bubble is particularly thick. The reason that I’m confused is that there are so plenty of women out there with blogs, who touch on these issues, who are not pseudonymous.

        I understand the motivation to choose a pseudonym for those who choose to blog. I never wondered about that. What I don’t understand is the motivation to blog, if you’re going to use a pseudonym? Why do these pseudonymous authors are seeking from having the blog? Without using your name, then what is your motivation for having the blog, on a personal, interpersonal, and societal scales? I imagine that it’s for community with people with similar issues, but I don’t want to make any assumptions.

        I clearly don’t have the privilege to write whatever I want on the internet without fear. I think that realm belongs to pseudonymous writers. Having tenure, and being a member of the traditionally privileged class clearly offers me a many luxuries, for which I am not deserving more than anybody else in other categories.

        To answer your question about “making an impact” – here are some thoughts:

        In a post that just came out:
        “The aspirational goal of the site is to promote the role of research in teaching institutions, and to enhance our profile and engagement in research communities. I don’t know exactly how a blog is supposed to do that, but I suppose being part of the conversation matters. I think things are at least going in that direction, though I don’t know the rate of travel. I have some related anecdotes that might be fun to share later on.”

        Also, my initial “rationale”:

        Probably the best summary of my attempt to make a difference is here : http://smallpondscience.com/2013/03/04/we-exist/

        I’m not fooling myself that a blog can make a big difference in the world, but I am hoping that it has the ability to influence particular individuals. By creating a conversation for researchers about research in teaching institutions, and by making it clear that substantial and important research happens in teaching institutions, this can not only help people find the right jobs for themselves, but also help smooth the road for those who are doing research in institutions like mine. This sounds silly that I think it might make a difference, but based on conversations and emails I’ve had since launching the blog, I really think it has.

        • Just to be clear, I’m sharing my personal (non-pseudonymous) experience, and that of five or six people I know personally that blog pseudonymously. I’m not making any claims about all pseudonymous bloggers, but this is something that women have to think about. The thing that makes it really nasty is, if something goes wrong, we get blamed for our own harassment. I thought long and hard before using my real name online again, and while I think I made the right decision for me, I would never judge anyone else (of any gender) for deciding to take another route.

          A person can be a part of the conversation without having their personal identity known, and I have been influenced just as much by bloggers whose identities are unknown to me, as I have by those who use their real names. My personal world would be a lot poorer if everyone felt that those who did not want to use their real names shouldn’t bother to blog at all.

          Another thought: I have no proof you are who you claim to be. I suppose I could contact your university, get direct contact information for Terry McGlynn, and call that guy up, and ask if he’s the blogger here. But why on earth would I do that? Using your real name (or something that appears to be your real name) adds zilch to your credibility for me. Which is okay, because you write quality posts. That’s where you get your credibility with me.

        • Very cool – and my attitudes on seem to match yours, as you’ve expressed them. And, thanks so much for taking the time to write thoughtfully.

          Most people in the world don’t read blogs, and those who come upon a blog post written by an anonymous blogger, that post will have less credibility. I think a good chunk of my traffic comes from search engines.

          Whether or not I get read carefully, I suspect, might be about who I am. I think that’s cheezy (that’s cheese-with-a-z cheezy) and unfair, but I also imagine that’s the way it is. When I mention to colleagues at my university about the fact that I have a blog and you can tell that some people have a built-in bias against that kind of thing – because blogs may still be seen as navel-gazing, narcissitic and self-aggrandizing. I might be all those things in fact, though I hope not, but by saying who I am a least the general public might see this more as journalism than a personal journal not intended for general consumption. Many pseudonymous blogs have enough inside jokes, discipline-and blog-specific jargon and snarkiness that just dropping the pseudonym helps me separate myself a bit from those other blogs. Also, whether I get return traffic from people who stumble on the site might be influenced by my identity. We value ideas and thoughtful writing, but outside those who read blogs, others will want to know who wrote it.

          My goal is to be read by people who don’t read blogs, and to have an influence on that much larger community. (That’s not realistic, but I’m not sure big goals should be realistic.) I think a pseudonym would make that harder. Would I have the same attitude if I were a minority woman without tenure? That’s hard to say. But if I were in that position, and I wanted to run a blog, I don’t think I’d bother if I did it pseudonymously. But, hey, to each their own. I’m not trying to control others, but just trying to understand it.

          (That said, to me, definitely, your pseudonymous blog has plenty of value. Great stuff, I’m glad I clicked through.) Man, I’ve got to get back to work today.

    • One of my main focuses on this blog, and in my job, is about promoting underrepresented and undersupported students in the sciences, as that is my job That’s what I’m paid to do at my university. As a white dude, I have a less credibility in that aspect, both with the public and with my students, for whom I am not overt role model as much as some others.

      I’m actually not sure that’s true with the public (it might be with students). IME, people in positions of relative privilege who advocate for others – allies – get a certain sort of instant credibility from a lot of people, because they are seen as not having personal reasons to care about inequities of race/gender/class/sexual orientation/whatever the relevant thing is. That can be frustrating, but it is what it is – I’ve seen some people in various spheres who are able to use this sort of privilege really well, and aspire to do the same in situations where I am an ally. Certainly, being someone who is underrepresented on a couple of axes, I am gratified when I see public ally voices (both real-name and pseudonymous).

      • That’s a good point – from the outside, as a white dude advocating for Latinos and African Americans, I might be more compelling. Likewise, I agree that when pushing for civil rights for gay people, as a straight ally my voice might be more effective with other straight folks. But, with the day-to-day work on behalf of my students, it’s harder. The fact of who I am, in my position with these students, is something that I need to overcome, and that’s only done by tangibly showing that science is not just dudes like me. So, I have to work with others, bring people in. It helps that all of my serious students end up traveling to do fieldwork with me in Latin America.

  3. I have always thought that pseudonymous science is interesting too. Bourbaki, for instance, revolutionized 20th-century mathematics. In our own field, Isador Nabi was an infamous pseudonym for some of the most prominent 20th-century biologists that failed, in my opinion, to make an impact. On a post-hoc sociological level, however, I think that Isador exposed some of the science that was driven by opinion rather than by evidence.

  4. Interesting post! As somebody who is a publicly named blogger, I agree with what you said. Honestly, it never occurred to me to be a psuedonymous blogger. I think the discipline of having to say things in an acceptable enough way to have your name attached leads to higher credibility as you say. More specifically, it leads to better thought out and expressed logic and arguments. Anonymity makes ranting very easy to slip into. It may sound hard-nosed and candid and going where other people fear to go. But people have gotten pretty good at tuning out hyperbole and extreme positions from anonymous commentors on the interment – they are everywhere! Ultimately, if something is important to me to say, I want to say it carefully enough that people can’t just tune it out.

    And yes – I’ve had an experience or two of getting flamed by pseudonymous bloggers. Pretty much destroyed their credibility forever with me – I’ll never read them nor link to them again – in a way that even if they had said the same things but had their name attached to it I could have dealt with it. Arguing with a faceless person is a waste of time. Indeed, one of your links talks about pseudonymity as a home for the disempowered, but when you think about it pseudonymity is in many ways an extreme form of power – nobody gets complete lack of accountability on how they lead their lives in the public sphere but those that come closest are the rich and powerful – and the anonymous.

    • Yeah, but remember, we’re the white dudes. Arguing with an anonymous person is a waste – but a discussion with a pseudonymous person is wholly different. You can’t really argue that a discussion with Female Science Professor would be useless, right?

  5. As others have noted, I think the reason people use pseudonyms is to have the ability to say things for which they fear reprisal.

    People blog in different ways, for different purposes. I never considered using a pseudonym myself when I started, and wouldn’t have been able to in any case since I started at Oikos Blog, where the original plan was for the journal editors to be the bloggers. But even if I had been in a position to consider a pseudonym when I first started, I’d have chosen to use my real name, as that suits the purposes for which I blog. I want the credit, and am prepared to take the responsibility, for the things I say online. And between the fact that I have tenure, and that I feel no particular desire to write about anything that would put my job or personal safety at risk even if I didn’t have tenure, there’s no strong reason for me to have a pseudonym.

    In terms of whether blogging anonymously means you necessarily sacrifice influence, I’m not sure. Maybe it depends whom you want to influence, and in what ways? I think blogging under my own name helped me build a larger audience, faster, than I otherwise would have. Some people read Dynamic Ecology and/or take what I have to say seriously at least in part because they know my scientific work. And my blogging under my own name has started to lead to other professional opportunities that may increase my influence further. For instance, I’ve been invited to review papers, and submit papers to special issues of journals, because of my blogging. But on the other hand, I think lots of people, probably especially students, do read anonymous bloggers and take them seriously.

    Even though I blog under my own name, I can see the attraction of a pseudonym sometimes. Sometimes I say something badly, or something that some readers *really* don’t like. When that happens I catch a lot of flack, some of it personal and some of it coming from people I know. I still struggle with that sometimes, despite having been blogging for a while. Just because I have tenure doesn’t mean it’s impossible for me to suffer any negative consequences from blogging. There’s now some unknown number of people out there, including some I know, respect, and admire, who because of my blogging have a very negative view of me, or in some cases a more negative than they otherwise would’ve had. In the end, I just do the only thing I can do, which is keep trying to improve my writing. Well, that, and grow a thick skin. There’s no pleasing everyone, not if your audience is of any size and you’re saying anything substantive.

    In passing, I’ll note that fears of reprisals can be tricky to gauge. Meg Duffy, for instance, blogs under her own name at Dynamic Ecology, and was just recently tenured. As a pre-tenure faculty member, she wrote about topics that some others might not have chosen to write about under their own names–women being raped while doing fieldwork, for instance. I think it was gutsy of her to do that. And while I know there are some topics she didn’t want to touch before she had tenure, I also have the impression (and I emphasize it’s merely my own impression and not based on anything concrete) that she was more worried about getting tenure than she needed to be, and more worried than she needed to be about how her blogging might affect her tenure prospects (See here for Meg’s own discussion of the pros and cons of blogging under a pseudonym: http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/06/20/a-few-early-friday-links-pseudonyms-single-mom-postdocs-and-moreinvolved/) And similarly, I know LGBT colleagues who are out, and who blog about that aspect of their lives as well as about science under their own names, despite not having tenure or even a faculty position (Jeremy Yoder is one). But of course, everyone’s situation is different, and I think everyone is the best judge of their own situation and their own level of risk-aversion. If someone feels like they need to blog under a pseudonym, that’s totally their call and I would never presume to second-guess that choice.

    As Brian notes, one downside of freedom from reprisals is that it frees people to say stuff for which they might well *deserve* reprisals if they said it under their own names. Like Brian, I’ve had multiple negative interactions with a pseudonymous blogger who seems to take his/her anonymity as a license to act like a jerk to his/her colleagues. Someone who treated his/her colleagues that way under his/her own name might well struggle to get tenure, and deservedly so. But that just comes with the territory. Anonymity, like most things, can be used for good or ill; it’s not a good or bad thing in and of itself.

    • I don’t have time for a long reply but:
      1. I don’t have tenure! My dossier is in right now. (But thanks for the vote of confidence, Jeremy!)
      2. I definitely think pseudonymous blogs can have a big impact. Reading Female Science Professor was really important to me, especially when I first started a TT position. I think it would be much harder for her to post what she does under her real name. And she has definitely had an impact on a lot of people — she was actually nominated for a mentoring award as FSP at one point.
      3. I agree that pseudonymous posts tend to be more personal. As I’ve said before, I don’t post about some things that I think are too personal, because I don’t want them so easily attached to my real name via google. This includes posting about incidents that have been important to me career-wise, but that might make someone else look bad.
      4. And, yes, as Jeremy said, it’s no fun when someone takes offense to something that you posted and you get flamed. I think it would be a little easier to take that if I blogged under a pseudonym, but I think most pseudonymous bloggers realize there’s a chance they will be outed, and are mindful of that. Fortunately, I haven’t experienced any of the really nasty personal attacks that many female bloggers receive — yet; I am definitely aware that it might happen at some point.

  6. Good points by many people.

    I thought it was so obvious that people would blog under pseudonyms in fear of reprisals, that I didn’t even mention that fact. Of course if you write about controversial topics — and sadly, gender inequities are controversial to some people in power — then it could burn a blogger whose identity is known.

    This was my question: If you blog pseudonymously, then does it actually have a real effect? Are the pseudonymous blogs an echo chamber and not really affecting people on the outside because there are no identities connected to the conversation? If the blogs are actively seeking social change, is that possible without putting some skin in the game? (Likewise, if MLK gave went everywhere with a bag over his head to conceal his identity, he have been as effective. The fact that he, as a leader, put himself on the line, is actually what made the difference.)

    If one blog pseudonymously from a position of safety, then is change possible from that position? That’s what I’m wondering. I do take some pseudonymous bloggers seriously, as they act responsibly. Others, I can just easily ignore. But, I’m wondering if even the responsible, professional ones can make a difference. Moreover, I’m wondering if their motivation is to make a difference, or if it’s just to be involved in their own internal community.

    • “But, I’m wondering if even the responsible, professional ones can make a difference.”

      An empirical question, to which I don’t know the answer. One could turn the question around and ask, how much difference is made by those blogging under their own names? And what sort of difference? As you noted yourself, there’s reason to think that your blog is helping promote the cause you want it to promote–but it’s hard to say how fast. I’d say the same with Dynamic Ecology. I think it’s influential in some sense–lots of people read it, for instance–but it’s kind of hard to point to lots of concrete examples of our influence. At least big ones. I mean, it’s not as if the field of ecology as a whole is different in any appreciable way from what it would’ve been had Dynamic Ecology not started last summer!

      Which kind of gets to the issue of “influential compared to what?” How much and what sort of influence is it reasonable to expect any blog to have? I have no idea what the answer is, or even if there is an answer. It’s much the same with any social change, I think. What determines whether any given social change happens or not, or how fast or slow it happens? And how much control over the rate of change is in the power of the people pushing for the change, and how much is out of their hands? Big questions, to which I have no answer. But it’s something lots of people have studied and thought about, in lots of areas. Just off the top of my head, here’s a recent post at Crooked Timber noting the sudden rapid shift towards acceptance of gay marriage in the US, and contrasting it with the much slower pace of change on various feminist causes. Why the contrast?


  7. I don’t really get why being pseud would hold you back. Wasn’t it Dr. Isis who broke the whole story about the pregnant student’s grade being decided by her classmates? That seemed to have serious impact. Seems to me there’s no sacrifice in influence. Credit perhaps. But not everyone wants their blogging on their CV. I don’t see how not having a legal name attached to a blog post does anything. What does it matter if the post is by “bashir” or William Horatio Pennypacker III.

    • Here’s the thing. I don’t know why, either. It’s just something that I keep comes from people won’t read this, because they don’t read blogs.

      Some people – not myself – claim that they don’t take pseudonymous work as seriously as non pseudonymous pieces. I was wondering if that mattered.

      I seems the consensus is that it doesn’t.

  8. A further, personal thought: I think if I blogged under a pseudonym, the cover it provided me would encourage my worst tendencies. Even blogging under my real name brings out a certain side of me–the confident, opinionated, snarky, critical side. That side of me is a big part of what many I and many readers like about my blogging–but it’s also the side of me that some people find most off-putting. I’d be afraid that if I blogged under a pseudonym, I wouldn’t have to worry about anyone not liking me because of what I said online (well, except to the extent I worried about being outed). Which would give that side of me license to totally take over, which would be bad. But as I said, this is a purely personal concern, I have no idea if anyone else would feel the same.

    • This makes sense, and I feel similarly. If I had a pseudonymous blog, I’d be way more sarcastic and critical about a variety of things. I don’t think my message would be different but I’d express it with a lot more of an edge. Even treading lightly on wondering about the reach of pseudonymous blogs outside the blogosphere (as it’s called), this post itself has made some highly respected colleagues of mine upset, and this is troubling to me. I took pains to word things carefully but I was still mis-read or mis-understood by some really smart people. The fault is mine, of course, and reminds me the real-life risk in not having a pseudonym.

  9. I would caution those that blog pseudonymously that there’s no foolproof such thing. Given enough effort, people can probably figure out your real identity from breadcrumbs you leave around. Most won’t bother, but it’s not a sure thing.

  10. I’m blogging pseudonymously and still doubting whether I should lift the veil or not. I’ve given enough info to enable people to find out who I am, sure enough. But google won’t directly link you to my blog, which is what I wanted to achieve… The only reason for that, is that I am really uncertain whether people judging me in the future will think blogging is a good thing. It looks like I’m on the right track to be able to find my way in academia, but that’s very fragile yet and I do not want to ruin whatever chance I may have. Some already comment on my using Twitter as “wasting time”, don’t know what they’d make of a blog…

    On the other hand, my blog is attracting more visitors than my research articles are. Maybe I could really do some serious outreach through my blog, explain what I’m doing with the public money I’m getting and why that’s important. But yeah, that would require my real name…

  11. You have obviously not done any actual research on this issue by reading some fucken pseudonymous blogges, because if you had, you would have been able to answer your whiny stupid questions yourself.

  12. I rely on government and non government contracts to make a living. In our current Canadian government I’m not allowed to tell you what I do in a public manner unless I get permission from way up the political ladder (and since I work in the environmental field, that permission won’t come). In addition, activists have been likened to terrorists and criticism of the government for reneging on global treaties, or commenting on the removing of provisions that protect lakes and rivers, or highlighting that the government is removing as many safeguards and ‘obstacles’ as possible, including funding for research stations and money to pay scientists working for the gov’t, is a pretty good way to get noticed and not in a good way.

    If I passed on inside information about tar sands pollution or our Arctic work and it was brought back to me, I wouldn’t get a govt job again….and if they were really annoyed I could be prosecuted….it may not actually go anywhere but I’d be stressed for months, if not years, and I’d go broke dealing with the preliminary stuff. NGOs also would be reluctant to hire me as well. In the small specialized world I’m in, I could easily be blacklisted.

    That is why I stay anonymous. And I only share items that are important enough to be worth the risk. And I try and keep another couple of layers of anominity between me and my name. I’m ashamed of how my govt has been acting, and I have to speak up about it–but I have to do so in such a way that i won’t be forced into a minimum wage job.

    • This is excellent and important work, and is essentially whistleblowing, and protecting your identity in these cases is critical. (I actually am writing about a particular whistleblower in the coming weeks, by the way.)

  13. You people who insist that you would be some horribly nasty not-really-you if you blogged pseudonymously crack me up. This is about you and your lack of an internal ethical compass, not about pseud blogging.

    • That’s true.

      I’d be have the same ideas and points to make, but I imagine that I would have a more sarcastic edge. The kind of edge that I appreciate on your site.

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