Pseudonymity Is the Wrong Solution

I don’t think my point quite got across the other day, so let me try phrasing this another way. I think a lot of what’s being written about pseudonymity on blogs is missing the real point.

The really important question here is not so much whether blog networks should allow pseudonymous blogs as whether employers should allow their employees to blog about what they do in their day jobs. Things like the much-cited Epi-Ren case are not really evidence of the risk of blogging under your own name, they’re evidence of the risk of blogging when your employer doesn’t want you to.

Pseudonymity is a cheap dodge around the real issue, which is that many employers are far too skittish about blogging. Blogging under a pseudonym is an easy way to duck this issue, for a while, but no pseudonym will ever be perfect, and if your employer doesn’t actually approve of your pseudonymous blog, you’re going to be in trouble when your pseudonym gets cracked. The only way to be truly safe in blogging, whether under your own name or under a pseudonym, is to be in a situation where your employer approves of the blog, or at least won’t threaten to fire you because of it. That’s how I get away with blogging under my own name (even before I got tenure), and that’s why Orac is fine even though his pseudonym has been outed multiple times.

The argument about pseudonymity on blogs and social networks is, in many ways, the wrong argument to be having. We shouldn’t be arguing with media companies that it’s okay for people to blog under made-up names, we should be arguing with employers that it’s okay for people to blog under their own names. Because, really, the vast majority of pseudonymous bloggers aren’t posting anything that creates a real legal risk for their employers. There are occasional cases of pseudonymous bloggers serving as whistle-blowers and exposing real corruption in some organization, but most of the pseudonymous bloggers at risk from the ScienceBlogs policy are not, in fact, saying anything that would be all that damaging to their employers. Their employers might prefer a little more decorum from time to time, but I see very little posted on pseudonymous blogs about science that is really a threat to any major corporation or university. In fact, most of what gets said by pseudonymous bloggers is also said by other people who blog under their own name, albeit a little more tactfully.

Does this mean that I think pseudonymous blogs should be banned? No, because there are many other reasons to blog pseudonymously. Someone like Dean Dad is able to speak a little more openly because he doesn’t have to worry about his employees instantly recognizing themselves in his descriptions, and that makes his blog more valuable than it would be if he had to be even more circumspect than he already is (though, you’ll notice, he also takes exceptional care to keep his descriptions very general, and I doubt he’s said anything that would be legally problematic if he were “outed”). And people who work in controversial areas might reasonably want to make it a little more difficult for crazy people to find their home and work addresses. Pseudonymous blogs should absolutely be allowed for those reasons, and several others.

But in the specific case of people fearing that they will suffer repercussions at work for what they write on their blogs, pseudonymous blogging is the wrong solution. The right solution is to make an argument to employers that blogging provides value to the larger community, and should be allowed and defended. That when crazy people write you to complain about something one of your employees said on their blog, the proper response is not to shut the blog down, but to tell the crazy person to pound sand, just as you would if a crazy person wrote in to complain about something your employee did properly in the performance of their duties. The real tragedy of something like the Epi-Ren case is that nothing he said should be considered genuinely problematic, but they told him to shut it down anyway, caving in to unreasonable objections from someone who should have been told to go to hell when they first complained.

That’s a harder argument to make, though, which is why most people prefer to rail against media companies than universities, corporations, and government agencies. But unless you change the attitude universities, corporations, and government agencies have toward blogging, you’re not addressing the real issue. If your employer is ok with your blog, it doesn’t matter whether you use your real name or a made-up one, but if your employer doesn’t approve of your blog, you will always be at risk, even if you try to hide your identity.

Comments

  1. #1 Larry Lennhoff
    August 24, 2011

    There’s a ton of other reasons for being pseudonymous – it isn’t just employers but neighbors, spiritual advisors, hostile politicians, etc. For example, a very prominent non-pseudonymous Orthodox Jewish religious blogger recently commented that he has toned down his criticism because he was tired of getting phone calls from prominent rabbis urging him to change his views. This prompted another prominent O Jewish blogger to comment that this is why he was not willing to ever give up his pseudonym.

  2. #2 Chad Orzel
    August 24, 2011

    There’s a ton of other reasons for being pseudonymous – it isn’t just employers but neighbors, spiritual advisors, hostile politicians, etc.

    Sure. I’m not claiming or even trying to provide a complete discussion of all the reasons. I’m just talking about the specific “you could lose your job” examples that keep getting brought up.

    In all of these cases, of course, you need to recognize that protecting your privacy using a pseudonym is a little like using a captcha to protect against comment spam. It doesn’t make it impossible for someone to find you and harass you, it just makes it a little more difficult, enough so most people won’t bother.

  3. #3 Orac
    August 24, 2011

    In all of these cases, of course, you need to recognize that protecting your privacy using a pseudonym is a little like using a captcha to protect against comment spam. It doesn’t make it impossible for someone to find you and harass you, it just makes it a little more difficult, enough so most people won’t bother.

    Which is, of course, exactly the point. It also makes it considerably less likely that your blog will be linked with your real name in Google searches, as well.

  4. #4 Chad Orzel
    August 24, 2011

    Which is, of course, exactly the point. It also makes it considerably less likely that your blog will be linked with your real name in Google searches, as well.

    Sure.
    But nobody should delude themselves into thinking that this solves the underlying problem of employers not being happy about their employees blogging. Blogging under a pseudonym avoids that problem, but only as long as nobody cares enough to go to the work of cracking it.

  5. #5 Lurker #753
    August 24, 2011

    But the exact same argument applies in the exact same way if you change the word ‘employers’ to ‘family’, ‘religious leaders’, ‘police’, ‘abusive [ex-]spouse’ etc.

    Which begs the question…. in what kind of mind-stomping totalitarian dystopia do we confer such censorship powers on every mal-intentioned cretin who ever found their way into our social circle? (and they’re big circles, these days)

    Pseudonyms prevent bullying.

    In a domain whose rules strongly favouring the powerful bully, why not have them? Don’t need one yourself? That’s cool, but remember that there are other people who do.

    Pseudonymously yours,

  6. #6 Alex Besogonov
    August 24, 2011

    I think, Google tries to actually change society by the real-name policy in Google+.

    Who knows, it might even work.

  7. #7 Lyle
    August 24, 2011

    e #5 that was the way it was in general before the web. If you published something you had to hand it out or write a letter to the editor which in general had a requirement of a real name. (Unless it was a hot story where a reporter was willing to stand in between). Actually in many cases there was just plain no chance to get to a larger audience, and of course censorship by ones family etc has existed since humans learned to talk.
    So it is only the new technology that allows pseudonymous posting, there did not used to be such.
    So the dystopia was the way the world was 30 years ago. You had the chance of Samizdat in west as well as in the Soviet Block, as a mimeograph was at least fairly expensive and print shops were rare.
    I come back to what was said 20 years ago about the net making a global village. Welcome to the unintended consequence of a global village, everyone who cares can now know what you say and react to it. (As was true in the a village where everyone knew every ones business)

  8. #8 Mike Olson
    August 24, 2011

    I’m reminded of the billionaire character in the novel, “Snow Crash.” He believes that the fact his IT people have knowledge gained on the job is the equivalent of stealing from him. Ultimately he turns them into mindless religious drones to prevent the theft from getting worse and so that he can get the most use out of them as possible. On this issue, your employer fears your opinion of your workplace and sees it as a threat….so of course they want to control it as much as possible. And will as much as possible as long as they are allowed to do so. An employer wants you to view the relationship as a friendship, while they view it as a business. That attitude benefits them in a number of ways.

  9. #9 Kate Nepveu
    August 24, 2011

    Lurker #753 @ #5:

    Pseudonyms prevent bullying.

    Seriously?

    Okay. Look, I am totally in favor of people using pseudonyms and not having to justify themselves.

    But the worst instance of online bullying that I have personally witnessed involved someone (using their professional and, as far as I know, legal, name) going on an unrelenting, literally years-long campaign to out someone’s pseudonym and connect it as firmly as possible with their offline name.

    Yes, pseudonyms _can_ prevent _some_ bullying. They also _can_ be a weapon in the hands of other bullies. Anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong.

  10. #10 vagueofgodalming
    August 25, 2011

    to be in a situation where your employer approves of the blog, or at least won’t threaten to fire you because of it

    I can see that in a university that’s a reasonable aspiration. But companies get taken over, have succession of personnel at the top, and employees go for interview from time to time. I just don’t see – apart from the basic safeguards of employment law – how you can be sure such a situation will remain stable. The average lifetime of a google hit against your real name is not short compared to the time until you might find yourself beholden to someone who could idly google you.

  11. #11 Lurker #753
    August 25, 2011

    @Lyle,
    I’m afraid I really disagree. The official press is not the right place to look for free expression – precisely because the powerful tend to exert back-channel control, usually by threat of retribution. Look at how many reporters and editors in recent years who were courageous and were killed for it.
    You could have made (and people did) the same argument 30 years after the invention of the printing press. If each era regards the previous as a dystopia, it’s at least possible we’re making progress? ;-)

    @Kate,
    Okay, poor wording on my part. I was going for brevity and slightly missed. At the very least, pseudonyms increase the work that bullies have to do. Bullies themselves may use pseudonyms, but doesn’t it generally enable them to achieve anything (other than a prefix of ‘coward-and-‘) that they couldn’t otherwise?

  12. #12 Lyle
    August 25, 2011

    Of course we know freedom of the press is freedom for he or she who owns the press nothing more and nothing less. (Back in 1790, of course to get in the newspaper business was a low barrier to entry). I recall reading stories of how you could fit the entire kit for a newspaper in the 1850s into a wagon.
    Of course now days the barriers to entry are lower than 50 years ago, but still significant. As to the invention of the printing press yes the state at the time recognized the threat and you had to get a license from the king or prince to print anything, as well as from the local bishop. (Why the 1st amendment was invented).

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