Sunday, October 19, 2008

Blogging anonymously

Abel Pharmboy and PalMD are going to hold a session on blogging and anonymity at the ScienceOnline09 conference, and as part of that have kick started the debate a little bit at their blogs (I've linked directly to those posts in the links in their names). Mostly they focus on the issue of trust between the blogger and the reader.

Since I am have a opinion about most things, I thought I'd speak up on this subject.

As people might be aware, I blog under my own name, which is pretty unique. At least, I've never come across anyone with the same name (incl. spelling) anywhere, be it online or otherwise. Because of my uniqueness of my name, I had given some thoughts to the possibility of blogging under a pseudonym, before creating this blog.

The reason I didn't do this is fairly straightforward: I have been commenting on blogs since before they started getting called that, and in all that time, I used my real name. If I started blogging under a pseudonym, I would not be able to use all the connections, and the shared history, I had built up during those years of commenting.

Would that really matter? Well, I think it would. When I first started this blog, people like Orac, Afarensis, and PZ sent a lot of initial traffic my way. And not only that, my very first (non-fluff) post (Kent Hovind's far-right connections) came about with some help from David Neiwert.

Still, blogging under my own name still means that there are some restrictions. In general, I don't comment on neither my private life nor my work. The reason I don't comment on my private life is that my friends and family didn't choose to blog, I did, so I feel I should respect their privacy, and not involve them in my blogging. Regarding the lack of commenting on work, it's a matter of professionalism. I am a consultant, and my customers and co-workers should be able to expect confidentiality. Since it can be hard to say anything about work without giving anything away, I choose to not comment on it at all. This doesn't mean that I won't comment on IT at all, and people might have noticed an up-tick in IT related posts lately, which I think is a trend that will continue.

Well, back to blogging anonymously, or rather under a pseudonym, which is what many bloggers do, and the matter of trust.

It seems to me that there are several aspects to this subject, which makes it a bit hard to give any clear-cut answers.

Most bloggers blog about things they are interested in, and often know something about, but there are a few bloggers out there who blogs about things about which they are considered experts. The first group will often base their blogposts on other peoples' work and expertise, while the later group will base their blogposts on their own work and expertise.

When a blogger like Orac writes about medicine, a subject he is without a doubt qualified to write about, or PZ writes about biology, they makes sure to include links to research and evidence that supports their claims. When people like David Neiwert writes about the militia movement, or Juan Cole writes about the Middle East, they bring their own expertise to the table.

This means that we don't need to "trust" the first group. We can read what they write, and follow their links, and judge for ourselves. The second group, however, writes about their subjects from a position of authority, which requires us to trust that they know what they're talking about. That is hard to achieve if you blog under a pseudonym. I won't say it's impossible, and I am sure people can bring up examples, but it's hard.

So, if you belong to the first group of bloggers, and want to blog under a pseudonym, I say: go ahead. I will trust you or not, entirely based on your writing. However, if you belong to the second group of bloggers, think hard about whether it's possible to bring your expertise to the table, without telling us who you are.

Having said all that, I think it's also important to think about the reasons why it might be a good idea to not blog under your real name.

When Duncan Black blogged under the pseudonym Atrios, he was an economics professor, and blogging under his real name, while at the same time creating enemies among the republicans, might have had a negative effect on his teaching ability (the students might think he was trying to indoctrinate them). And yet, while blogging pseudonymous, he was instrumental in getting Trent Lott to step down from his leadership position.

There is also the personal aspect. Female bloggers especially, seem to be targeted by males online. Jill of Feministe has been targeted as have tech-blogger Kathy Sierra (I write more about the subject of threats against female bloggers here)

All in all, blogging under a pseudonym might be a good idea for a number of reasons, and unless you're planning on blogging on a subject that requires people to trust your authority, I see no real compelling reason to blog under your own name.

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Anonymous Comrade PhysioProf said...

The second group, however, writes about their subjects from a position of authority, which requires us to trust that they know what they're talking about. That is hard to achieve if you blog under a pseudonym. I won't say it's impossible, and I am sure people can bring up examples, but it's hard.

One example is the blogging that DoucheMonkey and I do at our blog:

We are pseudonymous, but the vast majority of the content of our blog is about how to succeed at NIH-funded biomedical research. Our blogging on this issue is wholly dependent on our expertise and experiences as NIH-funded researchers. We receive numerous comments and e-mails from readers who provide example of their having followed our expert advice, and thank us for sharing our expertise.

These people have no fucking clue who we are. They trust us because we have established a history of being consistently right.

October 19, 2008 6:39 PM  
Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

That's a different form of authority than I'm talking about, or so I think at least.

When David Neiwert talks about the far right militias in the US, he bases a lot of stuff on his old research and background knowledge, which the rest of us don't have access to. Now, David Neiwert has written a book on the subject, so I tend to trust that he actually knows something about what he talks about. However, had he been blogging under a pseudonym, I wouldn't have been able to know this, and thus would have had to be more skeptical of his claims.

In his case, "being right" is impossible to assert.

October 19, 2008 9:12 PM  
Blogger Drugmonkey said...

one critical distinction can be the ability to admit when one is wrong or is speaking from a narrow perspective. When the argument is from credentials, how can one admit such a thing... Credentials cannot be partially authoritative, now, can they?

October 20, 2008 5:53 AM  

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