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.
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.