A little literature on how pseudonymity may alter reach or impact


Recently, I wondered in a post whether the vagueness of the identity of an author affects the dissemination and acceptance of the author’s ideas.

It doesn’t matter to me whether someone chooses to write under a pseudonym. Nevertheless, is true that some audiences receive messages with greater skepticism — or more credulity — if the creators don’t reveal their identity. This fact was rapidly confirmed, by responses from those with pseudonymous blogging experience. There were comments and posts, reporting that some people are fed up with people in power (tenured white men) claiming that pseudonymous blogs are lame.

Meanwhile, the specific idea that I was addressing in the post was mostly overlooked. While some people rebutted an argument I never made (about the choice to use a pseudonym), only a couple comments addressed my question with substance, and I’m still interested in the topic. What are the consequences of pseudonymity for the impact of a message, and what factors shape that relationship? I found that the answer isn’t readily available, but here is some of what I’ve found.

For starters, here are some examples that I didn’t bring up in my post, because I was mostly focused on Banksy. I was surprised that nobody in the comments pointed out that the first t-test was published by an initially pseudonymous author, “Student.” Clearly, that was a success.

In the realm of politics, I’ve always been curious how the authors of the Federalist Papers thought about how their (then) anonymity affected the influence of their writing, and apparently it’s debatable about whether they actually had an influence on how ratification happened. And, I wonder how sales of Primary Colors would have been different (higher or lower?) if Joe Klein’s identity was never concealed, instead of being revealed six months after publication.

Clearly, whether or not a message connects to a serious cause of a disenfranchised group matters. I would have thought that there would be more scholarship on this, but then again I probably have lost my touch at searching the literature outside the sciences. I found an interesting article (“How I Look”: Fanny Fern and the Strategy of Pseudonymity) about Fanny Fern, whose use of a pseudonym was tied to gender-based discrimination. (Note that the guy who wrote this article is a white dude.) It remains unclear whether her popularity would have been different if she had used her own name, and grounds for speculation.

What about what happens on online communities? They do function better when members are pseudonymous. This wasn’t a surprise to me, but might be to those who have claimed say that pseudonyms are used to bully others. Here are two articles on the topic:

Anonymously productive and socially engaged while learning at work: Quickie summary: Having a pseudonym results in more collaboration, and more chattiness.

Impact of Anonymity (Unlinkability, Pseudonymity, Unobservability) on Information Sharing Quickie summary: Having a pseudonym results in more and better sharing of information online. Does this mean that they have a bigger effect offline? Unclear, and grounds for speculation.

Let’s take a look at when speaking out on an issue really matters: whistleblowing. One commenter on my earlier post explained how protecting oneself from reprisals was important in her line of work. I wanted to find out whether whistleblowing was more likely to lead to action, based on whether or not the whistleblower was anonymous. I couldn’t find that much on this, based on a moderately cursory search, but the one thing I did find clearly indicated that when one’s identity is hidden then a whistleblowing alert is far less likely to result in any action than when the whistleblowers put themselves on the line by including their identity.

Clearly, whistleblowers have great reasons for protecting themselves by hiding their identities. However, this concealment of their identity unfortunately also limits the effectiveness of their own whistleblowing actions. This is the kind of phenomenon I had in mind while writing my original post. I don’t want to generalize from it, but I wanted to share it with readers because this is the kind of information I was interested in when I posted about it earlier.

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