Janet D. Stemwedel: Hey, can we talk about pseudonymous blogging?
Dr. Free-Ride: You know I only work on Fridays, right?
Janet D. Stemwedel: Get your pseudonymous butt in gear and help me have a proper dialogue!
Dr. Free-Ride: Dude, how are we supposed to have a dialogue about this? I’m you. You have yourself a monologue.
Janet D. Stemwedel: Hey, you were a pseudonymous blogger for a whole year! That’s experience you can draw on.
Dr. Free-Ride: But there were plenty of clues there for anyone who wanted to do some digging to figure out who I really was.
Janet D. Stemwedel: Only if the clues you gave about your educational trajectory, employment, and geographical location were reliable.
Dr. Free-Ride: Do you not remember linking to that “pseudonymous” blog from your course webpage? Clearly your students had ample evidence that I was who you said I was.
Janet D. Stemwedel: That assumes, of course, that students actually avail themselves of the webpages I spend so much time building for them. Anyway, there certainly came a point where most of your traffic was not from my students, and I only ever got email from a handful of people saying, “This Dr. Free-Ride is you, right?” So for a while there in the blogosphere, you were really more or less pseudonymous.
Dr. Free-Ride: I suppose.
Janet D. Stemwedel: Was it better? Or is it better that I’m the one authoring the blog now?
Dr. Free-Ride: Better for what?
Janet D. Stemwedel: Umm … better for blogging what’s really on our mind? Better for feeling like we have to try to get the details right? Better for making a case as clearly and persuasively as we can?
Dr. Free-Ride: That first person plural pronoun thing is creeping me out. Either you think there really are two of us, or you’re talking like the Queen. Cut it out!
Janet D. Stemwedel: Sorry.
Dr. Free-Ride: Look, I’m pretty sure I was already trying to make clear arguments, backed with good evidence, properly referenced, and all that. I couldn’t exactly let my posts skate by on your credentials or academic reputation, so I had to get the job done by clearly communicating my reasoning.
Janet D. Stemwedel: Hey, it’s not like I’m skating on my credentials here, either. San Jose State is not exactly a Leiterrific site of philosophical knowledge production, and most people outside of California have very little information about it. It’s not a name that sets people’s heads a-nodding like Hahvahd. And seriously, it’s not like one’s credentials as a philosopher of science do much at ScienceBlogs to prompt unthinking assent; there are plenty of folks who’ll insist that you defend the whole enterprise.
Dr. Free-Ride: Still, there seems to be this view that what you write can be taken more seriously right out of the gate, since its authorship can be traced to an actual person with a real name.
Janet D. Stemwedel: I’m pretty sure I don’t agree with that view myself. The stuff you wrote was worth taking seriously. And given that your various posts were all connected to the same author, whomever she was, I would have thought that it would have added up to something like a track record of credibility for her.
Dr. Free-Ride: Or him. Don’t forget, I was often assumed to be a man.
Janet D. Stemwedel: Do you suppose it was the title in your pseudonym, or the fact that you used colorful language like “ass”?
Dr. Free-Ride: Heh! Too bad your mom gives you a hard time about that. It’s possible that I got to be a bit more snarky in my posts, but I wonder if that has as much to do with having a smaller, cozier audience as with writing under a ‘nym.
Janet D. Stemwedel: I hadn’t considered that. I do think it feels like I’m more exposed blogging as me. I don’t just mean that more people are reading me, but that there’s more chance that what I say on the blog will be encountered by someone I know in real life, and it may change how they view me in real life. You know, there are plenty of things I don’t discuss with the neighbors that I talk about on the blog. I’m creating the conditions for worlds to collide.
Dr. Free-Ride: Come on, now, I’m not the only persona in this conversation. You don’t plug a USB connection into your head and blog every little thing that’s in there, and neither did I. You make all kinds of choices about which of the things running through your head ought to be pulled out and put into the blogospheric exchange.
Janet D. Stemwedel: You make it sound like I’m fabricating an online personality, when really what I’m trying to do is maintain a sensible division between the public and the private.
Dr. Free-Ride: You do it in the classroom, too.
Janet D. Stemwedel: You’re right. There are lots of aspects of my personal life that just don’t belong there. I try to show enough glimpses that they know I’m actually a real human being, though. I’m conscious of how I present myself, but not totally artificial about it.
Dr. Free-Ride: Dude, it’s not just you. The very fact that we’re human beings — that we can’t be in each other’s heads, and that we probably wouldn’t want to be — means that we’re always making choices about what to communicate to each other and what to hold back. What we see of each other is basically a persona, which likely doesn’t match perfectly with how a person sees herself.
Janet D. Stemwedel: Well, what we see of a person also departs from the persona she’s trying to project.
Dr. Free-Ride: True. Do you think using your real name gives you less control over how people will see you? Do you think the pseudonymous blogger has more control over the transmission of personality because there are fewer additional clues for people to lean on?
Janet D. Stemwedel: It’s hard to know. I guess some people will automatically assume that your online personality is less authentic than mine — maybe because someone could do the spadework to track down my real-life contacts and see what I’m really like.
Dr. Free-Ride: There’s an irony in that, since I’m the one who gets to have the conversations with the kids now. It doesn’t get much more real-life than that.
Janet D. Stemwedel: Well, their identities (if they actually exist) are worth protecting.
Dr. Free-Ride: Indeed. I assume that’s how you’ll defend yourself should they pursue legal action against you down the road.
Janet D. Stemwedel: Hey, no one can prove those conversations really happened! No one can prove those children are at all entertaining!
Dr. Free-Ride: In their online existence, they are at least somewhat entertaining, although they pale in comparison to the dry wit of their parents.
Janet D. Stemwedel: See, I think you take a pseudonym as permission to be more full of yourself than I would feel comfortable being.
Dr. Free-Ride: Oh please! Do you think the voice-of-reason schtick comes across as authentic? I was making online friends before your name was ever part of the conversation.
Janet D. Stemwedel: But now some of those online friends are my friends.
Dr. Free-Ride: Only because I made them for you. My interactions with them predate yours, and they were every bit as real.
Janet D. Stemwedel: But there are those who claim you can’t really have a personal relationship with a pseudonymous blogger.
Dr. Free-Ride: Maybe they can’t. And anyway, how is it any different from getting to know someone whose real name you happen to know online? You’re still doing it entirely on the basis of written words you’re passing back and forth through the ether. Given that the things you’re communicating with those words outstrip the content of a lot of your in-real-life spoken-word communications, you’re not going to say that these virtual friends are somehow disqualified, are you?
Janet D. Stemwedel: No. But real life has different contexts, and there’s the non-verbal communication.
Dr. Free-Ride: It’s not obvious to me that non-verbal communication is always as effective as people seem to think it is. People misread non-verbal cues all the time. And what’s your issue with “contexts”?
Janet D. Stemwedel: Umm … the things I pay attention to online — at least, that I blog about — are a subset of all the work, family, local, political, and personal stuff that’s important in my real life. Some pieces of me almost never get an online airing. I like it that way, but it means the online me has less baggage.
Dr. Free-Ride: I think that stuff pops up in your online persona more than you think it does. There are things you don’t blog about that you will talk about in comments on someone else’s blog, for example.
Janet D. Stemwedel: Mysteriously, those comments are all signed “Dr. Free-Ride”.
Dr. Free-Ride: Also, in emails and other private virtual communications with your online friends, you aren’t shy about the real-life stuff.
Janet D. Stemwedel: That’s true.
Dr. Free-Ride: Meanwhile, there’s all kinds of work and philosophy-related stuff that you never discuss with the neighbors.
Janet D. Stemwedel: Hey, I don’t want to scare them by identifying myself as a philosopher. They’d worry about me corrupting the youth.
Dr. Free-Ride: Whatever.
Janet D. Stemwedel: So, is your conclusion that we’re essentially the same?
Dr. Free-Ride: No. But neither are we all that different just on the basis of your having a real name and my having a pseudonym. Each of us wants to be appreciated for what we say and how we say it, rather than for who people think we are. And each of us is making conscious choices about how to present ourselves.
Janet D. Stemwedel: Maybe those are really choices about who to be.
Dr. Free-Ride: You’re the one with the philosophical credentials, babe. I’m the one with the Friday deadline.