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.