Creative Destruction

March 30, 2006

To Be Or Not To Be (Anonymous)

Filed under: Blogosphere,Ethics,Navel Gazing — Off Colfax @ 11:21 am

Ah yes. That does seem to be the question these days, does it not?

This started percolating in my brain the very moment I read Garance Franke-Ruta's post over on TAPPED on her personal policy to no longer link to bloggers that post under a pseudonym. Which, come to think of it, includes my own humble little efforts. (Of course, all this effort is to disguise my true identity as Captain Bloggzorz Of Teh Blogosphere!)(NSFW) (Sorry, but I couldn't resist revealing my source.)

Here it is, in her own words, snipped for space reasons:

First, let me lay out the problem. Unlike reformers' worries about soft money dumps into online candidate advertising, which remain theoretical, bloggers whose work for candidates or committees is undisclosed have already proved nettlesome. Indeed, undisclosed political consultants writing blogs to influence public opinion, often negatively, about a candidate and to attack the coverage of the traditional, independent media have been with us for at least two years.

. . .

Further, the disclosure problems in the blogosphere are so broad and diverse in nature that they would seem to require addressing on their own apart from the FEC rules, which, even if broadened slightly to include disclosure by paid campaign consultants, would have no impact on the larger problem. For example, DailyKos's "Adam B," who decided to use me as a straw man last week in his quest to generate online opposition to H.R. 4900, is, I learned over the weekend, Adam Bonin, the attorney representing leading liberal bloggers from DailyKos, Atrios, and MyDD, which have conducted a lobbying campaign against that bill.

. . .

With power comes responsibility. A happy solution to the vexing problem of inadequate online disclosures was suggested to me by a blogger friend who also routinely publishes pieces in major newspapers. This is his personal policy, and I now adopt it as my own:

I will no longer link to any writer who does not disclose his identity and affiliations in an obvious place or manner, or reply to online commenters who decline to disclose their names.

In so doing, I will be extending the same standards this publication uses for publishing and replying to letters to the editor to the online comments, which have functionally replaced letters to the editor to a great extent, and the same standard this publication uses for all other sources to online ones. (This won't be site policy, just mine.) No publication considers a truly anonymous source — one whose identity is unknown to both reporter and readers — a usable one for any purpose other than further inquiry. And yet reporters, including myself, have routinely cited the writings of pseudonymous commentors, in grave violation of that standard.

To me, this sounds like painting every single one of us with the same broad brush. Franke-Ruta has had some truly pathetic experiences with some of the pseudonymous bloggers out there, and I can't fault her for being a mite peeved at them for that. In fact, I can understand it completely, as there are some truly unmitigated idiots out there. Some of those idiots might even be on the payroll of a political organization, at that. (I wish I was.)

And yet, not all of us are. Just as Atrios said, there are perfectly valid reasons for not wanting to put your actual name in connection with your thoughts and analyses. As far as my reasons, it is very simple.

We participate in a world that has almost-instantaneous access to information of all kinds. All it takes is a name, possible place of residence, and ten dollars to this website and, just like magic or high technology, you can access pretty much everything of importance to the average muckraker. Which means that, for those of us who have uncommon last names, we are fully exposed to anyone and everyone with the willpower to expend the effort and resources to find it.

And yes. I am listed in that site's database. The entire search took me one minute, and all I used was my last name and my state of residence. Not only that, but with a wider search using information that can be gleaned from that other blog I write, it spits out my entire family for three generations. That, as they say in the security world, is an extreme and unacceptable level of risk. And it is one I have already fallen victim to.

Back in the days before the now-common http://, we had local bulletin board systems which, thinking about the genealogy of the concept, are more closely related to sites like Daily Kos and RedState than anything else. All it took to access most of them was your modem and their phone number. Registration was usually instant, and almost always free. And I, in my youthful naivety, posted my comments using my real name.

There is a technical term for doing something like that: WHOOPSIE!

Within 6 months, I had enough difficulties to make me physically move, change and delist my phone number, and cancel my bank account. I received many threats upon my person, some of which were considered credible; numerous credit cards were issued in my name; and I received at least sixty indecent solicitations from complete strangers. Regretfully none of the latter were from the gender I'm attracted to, and the subsequent rejections were, more likely than not, one of the sources of the physical threats. And the end result of all this was a declared bankruptcy at the age of 19, as this was before the concept of strong identity-theft regulations came into being.

All of this was due to a single bored hacker who decided s/he didn't like what I wrote.

The old adage about the burned hand teaching best is probably one of the most accurate sayings we have in the English language. And mine was not only burned, but shoved into a thermonuclear reactor with the resulting ashes scattered upon salted earth.

Ever since that point, I have never revealed any facet of my actual identity in a public-viewable forum, and been very careful with the various private websites I have had access to over the years. Period. Ad infinitum. Ad astra. Ad nauseum. Until the ends of the world. Omayn. I have even taken the steps of creating a vast multitude of free e-mail accounts, with at least one per on-line identity I have created over the years. I go even further and not have those accounts gathered by a mailreader and instead go to each of the websites manually. (Yes, bookmarks count as manual input. At least in my view.)

Will I do so again at some point in time? Possibly. But the only reason I will break this rule is if I have a moral or contractual obligation to do so, such as a by-line in a newspaper or magazine article or taking a paid position in a political organization. And that is one of the hard-and-fast rules of the worlds of media and politics: Admit who you are. Duncan Black remained anonymous well past that point in time, being a paid fellow of Media Matters For America while still being pseudonymous, thereby being in violation of that ethical rule for that specific length of time.

Yet for us, the average-joes of the Internet, we do not have that moral obligation of full identity disclosure. Only if and/or when our action, words, and ideas cause a definitive impact on the life and livelihoods of other people should the rule of full disclosure apply, as should have been the case in the Thune blogger case as reported in this Personal Democracy Forum piece. Or the cases that Mrs. Franke-Ruta cited in the paragraphs I blockquoted from her post.

A vast majority of us are not paid attack dogs. Nor are we all libelous plotters, spewing out half-truths and total fictions upon an unsuspecting population.So until our blogging patterns fall under the moral requirements for full disclosure, let us maintain the presumption of innocence for pseudonymous bloggers.

After all, some of us actually have reasons to separate our public work from our private lives. And if a certain blogger (for that is what she is, in addition to her dead-tree-form writing) cannot understand this concept, then perhaps she should take a closer look at the medium she is participating in.



  1. My opinion on this has gradually evolved over the past few years. When I began blogging, I decided to do so under my own full name. I understood that this carried some consequences. For example, my mother would learn that I swear a lot. Still, it seemed gutless to do otherwise.

    Over time, I came to regret it. My blog became open knowledge at my place of employment at the time, even though I’d told no one about it. Over time, some of my views grew increasingly at odds with my employer. I never foresaw this, because it’s not like I work for the State Department or anything. Nevertheless, I found myself censoring my views, and withholding comments and opinions I would otherwise have shared.

    To me, this self-censorship undermined my entire reason for blogging in the first place. The problem is that once the genie’s out of the bottle, it’s hard to stuff her back in. I tried, after that, simply to be a bit more discreet. Anyone who *really* wanted to do so could figure out who I am with little problem, but I did at least want to protect my identity from the casual Google search.

    Comment by bazzer — March 30, 2006 @ 3:19 pm | Reply

  2. I’ve gotta agree with the main post and Bazzer’s comment. In addition, when exchanging viewpoints and ideas in a public forum such as this, a real name should not be needed to “authorized” the content. If an idea is worthwhile, it’s worthwhile.

    As far as political operatives and paid shills going into the blogosphere and promulgating their pet agendas go, it’s truly naive to insist upon full disclosure, which just isn’t the nature of the medium.

    Comment by Brutus — March 30, 2006 @ 7:19 pm | Reply

  3. First of all, you linked to QC, and therefore anything that you say must be objectively true.

    As for me, I’m with Brutus entirely–anonymous or no, it’s a personal preference, and ultimately irrelevant to the quality of your writing.

    I did a lot of forum-spelunking and blogging in High School, and when I started up SP, my first serious attempt at blogging (IE, going beyond navel-gazing) I decided against a pseudonym if only because every time I came up with one I thought was cool, five seconds later I’d feel like a total pretentious ass 😀

    So I stuck with my own name; not sure whether it was a wise decision, but I figure, eh, I’m cool with having it out in the open anyway. I’m an irresponsible student, and therefore have no job that presents a conflict of interest.

    Comment by Adam Gurri — March 31, 2006 @ 5:13 am | Reply

  4. “As far as political operatives and paid shills going into the blogosphere and promulgating their pet agendas go, it’s truly naive to insist upon full disclosure, which just isn’t the nature of the medium.”

    I believe that’s the point.

    Comment by offcolfax — March 31, 2006 @ 7:58 am | Reply

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