A dialogue on pseudonymity, personae, and interpersonal relations in the blogosphere.

Janet D. Stemwedel: Hey, can we talk about pseudonymous blogging?

Dr. Free-Ride: Haven't you already written a bunch of posts about that?

Janet D. Stemwedel: Yeah, but the blogosphere seems to be discussing it again.

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.

More like this


You both totally rock. I'm not at all worthy. Hat is most assuredly off to you. y'all, I mean.

it's a little scary frankly.

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 17 Apr 2008 #permalink

Nice post. Personally, I don't think that pseudonymous blogging is inherently a problem. There are two or three issues that I can't write easily about because I am not pseudonymous. But I do think that when bloggers create strong narrowly defined (not very dimensionally rich) personalities (which happens more often in the pseudonymous case) that are aggressive and annoying and that cast aside respectability or polite behavior, that can be annoying.

So what? Well, normally it would not matter, but such characters really have to learn to live with the fact that if you create a coarse and aggressive personality, some people are not going to like you, and that this distaste is justified.

Whoah! That was pretty fucking philosomophical!!

All I'll say is that this idea that pseudonymity presents an intrinsic barrier to forming strong and lasting social relation is a total fucking load of horseshit. It is only a barrier to social relations with those who have a fucking bug up their ass about pseudonymity.

PhysioProf has formed a metric fuckload of ongoing sincere relationships with other pseudonymous individuals, and those relationships are vibrant and valuable to both parties.

Have we "had beers"? No. Do I know who these people "really are"? No. Do I give a flying fuck? No.

Some people seem to be mistaking their own psychological inability to interact in a fulfilling way with pseudonymous individuals as some sort of intrinsic defect in pseudonymity itself. That's a load of fucking crap.

Well, normally it would not matter, but such characters really have to learn to live with the fact that if you create a coarse and aggressive personality, some people are not going to like you, and that this distaste is justified.

Is there something that makes you think that pseudonymous individuals exist who give a flying fuck whether those whose social dynamic range is too stunted to interact fulfillingly with a pseudonymous individual "like" them? If there is, I am curious to know what it is.

I too have had excellent, fulfilling relationships with anonymous bloggers. As an example, for a long time, Coturnix and I had such a relationship. We still do, but now I happen to know who he is. There are others as well. I don't really see what all the fuss is about.

I don't tend to form warm and lasting relationships assholes, anonymous or not. That seems to have hurt some feelings for which I'm a little, but not too, sorry.

Tough issue. Due to incidents of Internet weirdness elsewhere, I do not use my full name online. Should Kathy Sierra have used a pseudonym?

Let me just share a little story.

I was working out in the gym one day while watching TV. This dude I had never seen before came in, and changed the channel. So I said, "Yo dude, I'm watching that."

So then, the dude gets up in my face and starts getting all heated, so I shouted at him to get the fuck away from me. So we're screaming at each other. Finally, some randoms in the gym basically tell us to both shut the fuck up and move on.

A couple weeks later, I see the dude, and we start talking. And I say, "Whoah, that was pretty heated." And he goes, "Whoah, it sure was." And we started talking a little more, learned that we weren't defined as people by our extreme reactions that day in the gym.

Not that we're real friends or anything, but now every time we run into each other, he tells me how happy it makes him to see me.

Very nicely done. Personally, I like what both of you write.

One is led to wonder though; are there any other personas lurking out there looking for a blog to post on?

I have a blog. Most of my readers are from the country I now live in, not from the country that I hail from. The name I use is thus alien to them - no way to tell if it's a "proper" name or a pseudonym - and the background I implicitly present is also not one that these readers can directly relate to, or judge the factual or probable truth of.

So, if the name and background I present is my real one, or if it pseudonymous, doesn't matter. I could do either, and these readers would not know the difference (the subset of readers that are personal friends, family, or from my earlier life know of course). What if you use your real identity and nobody can tell the difference?

Physioprof: Dude, that's what guys do!

I think most people would be totally surprised at the warm and fuzzy relationship you and I have off the blogosphere.

Nice post, peoples.

I only appeal to authority when my authority involves outing my pseudonymity and my expertise are based on witnessing or experiencing a specific situation OR when I'm too lazy to argue with a completely off-base trollypants.

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.

(emphasis added)
You just did that just to make sure we were paying attention, didn't you. I know you philosophers; y'all're sneaky types, y'are...


I'm not sure if you and other readers of your blog are disturbed by it, but every time I read a response from Physioprof, whether it is here or on other blogs, I know that his foul mouth will spill the regular, disgusting profanity that accompanies most of his responses. Is it his pseudonymous that allow him to release his tongue and smear your blog with his dirt? Could you either as Janet D. Stemwedel or Dr. Free-Ride ask this twit to wash his mouth before posting on your blog?

By S. Rivlin (not verified) on 18 Apr 2008 #permalink

Psssssst... Janet.. don't tell him, but I don't like that Dr Free-ride. I think he is a jerk. Waving his fancy pants doctorate in my face and pretending to have children, when everyone knows that philosophy doctors are too otherworldly to do anything as physical as copulate!

But, between you and me, I used to blog pseudonomously. I had a healthy, if not scienceblog-esque readership. I would idly waffle on about stuff that had happened to me and relate that to exciting! scientific wafflings and political wafflings. However, then I became a teacher and continued to blog as I had before. Suddenly it felt VERY uncomfortable. Even though I was careful to ensure anonymity and nobody could be identified from the stories unless the reader was there, it somehow started to feel like a betrayal of the children who trust me. That is why my blog has withered and died on the vine.

By Donalbain (not verified) on 18 Apr 2008 #permalink

Dr. Freeride is a dude, Donalbain? I'd assumed all (living) philosophers were women.

By Uncle Fishy (not verified) on 18 Apr 2008 #permalink

Alright, Physioprof,

I'll explain to you why I am so disturbed by your childish use of profanity, both in your responses and on your own blog. Many of the topics that Janet, Orac and Drugmonkey cover deal with issues that are close to my heart and I tend to share many of the posts with friends and colleagues by e-mailing them the appropriate links. Many of the friends are not scientists, including my wife. Unfortunately, frequently they respond to my e-mails not only on the specific topic, but on these coarse, foul responses of one named Physioprof. They clearly are aware of the fact that you are a scientist and several of them have wondered if this is the language you also share with your students, colleagues and especially your children, if you have any. I think that you surely do not represent your community in the best of light, especially when it is really not necessary to to use profanity in every post and response you paste on the blogs.

By S. Rivlin (not verified) on 18 Apr 2008 #permalink

Fishy, of course he is a dude! For one, he has a doctorate, and that implies maleness. And I have seen him say rude words, and ladies don't do that. Philosophers arent women, they are just men who can't get proper jobs!

By Donalbain (not verified) on 18 Apr 2008 #permalink

Rivlin: So, your friends/family are unable to read the science, and instead see just the "rude" words? That is THEIR problem, not the monkey's. And as it happens, I would suggest THAT is the truly childish behaviour.

By Donalbain (not verified) on 18 Apr 2008 #permalink

I'm actually sympathetic to the issue of people who won't be able to get into the content if the language pushes their buttons, and I suspect that there are some non-rational generational issues here that probably aren't worth the effort they would take to overcome.

Which is to say, if commenters wouldn't mind forgoing profanities that are gratuitous (rather than essential), it sounds like your fellows in the commentariat would appreciate it.


Profanities are offensive and insulting. We all use them sometimes under certain circumstances to express anger or frustration. Some poeple use profanity because they think it is cool or because they try to fit into the company they associated with (military men, party of drunks or both). A foul language, when used in a discussion of serious matters is absolutely distacting from the messege. Try to introduce profane words in your responses every sentence ot two and read your messege with and without them. I am sure you would agree the the clean one is easier to follow. This is the reason you do not use profanity when you participate in discussions on blogs. For you to expect that my friends and family should ignore the profanity of Physioprof and to filter out his messege and call their inability to do so "childish" is ignoring some of the most basic rules of decorum that we, as a cultured society, respect and honor.

By S. Rivlin (not verified) on 19 Apr 2008 #permalink

Sorry, but I *do* use profanities when I am discoursing on blogs; both on my old defunct blog and when I reply on other blogs. The only time I do not is in situations like this where the blogster herself has asked us not to. You say that using profane words every sentence or two is distracting. I would say that it is no more distracting than using any other sort of word. Sometimes a "profane" word is the correct one for the context, and sometimes it is not. What I personally find VERY distracting is when people obviously mean a swear word but censor themselves with something like "flip" or "darn". That pulls me up and completely stops the flow of any thought.

By Donalbain (not verified) on 19 Apr 2008 #permalink

A sirious discourse between Donalbain and Physioprof:

Donalbain: Hey, fuckwit dude, what's up?

Physioprof: Hi asshole, Did you read my latest fucking post on "Drugmonkey"?

Donalbain: I sure did, tucheslacker. And you know you are full of shit.

Physioprof: What the fuck are you talking about? your shit is shitier than mine!

Donalbain: Listen, fuckface, I think that when you ask questions of your students at seminars and journal clubs, you must use the same language you use on your blog. You must ask the fucking bitch who presents the seminar about her fucking experiments and tell her straight forward that she fucked them up big time by not using the right fucking controls! And if she start crying, complaining about the foul language you use with her, you better tell the bitch that if she cannot take it, she has no place in science.

Physioprof: Listen, butthead, on this point I agree with you 100 fucking percent.

By S. Rivlin (not verified) on 19 Apr 2008 #permalink

Ahhh.. I think I see your problem sirious. You can't read! Go back and read my comment again, but more slowly this time. I will quote a part for you:

"Sometimes a "profane" word is the correct one for the context, and sometimes it is not."

Notice that first word. It specifically says SOMETIMES. Meaning not in every sentence. OK.. so we got that out of the way. Excellent. Well done for getting this far. Now, go back and look at the posts of me and physioprof again. Read them? Good. I will continue..

You will notice that NEITHER of us used profanity in every sentence. Indeed, I never did, and the prof only used for two reasons; once to describe a story in which profanity actually happened. The man in the gym did not invite the prof to "get the flip away" he very specifically used a profanity and so prof used profanities to accurately describe the story. The second time, he used it to mock your whine about it. A use which I found rather amusing, which I assume was part of the intention, making the use situationally appropriate.

By Donalbain (not verified) on 19 Apr 2008 #permalink

OK, PA, so you found a misspelling of mine. Look at the post of PP "speaking up in seminars and journal clubs" on Drugmonkey and count his profane words. You are so full of yourself, my guess is you just hit puberty. Enjoy yours and PP "sofisticated" language. As you mature, there is a chance you'll grow out of it.

By S. Rivlin (not verified) on 19 Apr 2008 #permalink

Kids, let's de-escalate.

First off, we've established that some words will distract some people from the content of whatever communication those words pop up in. Some will view that as a bad thing, others as a good thing. I'm happy just to recognize it as a useful fact to keep on the table as something to take account of when I want to be able to get a point across.

Second, it's worth noting that PhysioProf's profanities are not misogynistic. So they may give offense, but they are NOT feeding gender disparities, which I think is important.

Also, for the record, while I would not have expressed the points in the same language (because that's not how I roll here), I pretty much agreed with PhysioProf's point in the Journal Club discussion. And I'm willing to bet that in real life, PhysioProf's three-dimensional counterpart asks incisive questions without naughty words (at least in the context of seminars and such).

I love you all, so if you're going to brawl with each other on something other than the substance of my posts, maybe you can take it outside.

Sol, I gotta tell you, I have my limits, loose though they may be, when it comes to profanity. And your gratuitous use of the horrifying expletive "tucheslacker" really just grossly exceeded even those.

Seriously, I think you are right that we can all stand to just tone it down a little.

Regarding being assumed to be male: yep, it's the doctorate, although other titles and apparently-senior positions work as well. My sister found the number of mass-mails assuming her to be male shot up when she got her clin psych doctorate, and shot up *again* when she got a directorate in a (tiny) company.

Even some non-automated mail would come in addressed to her as if she was male, *using her first name* (and 'Katharine' is *such* a common male name, confusion is easy).

(She's even had mass-mail from the NHS, *her own employer*, assuming her to be male. This is especially ironic given that, in the UK at least, women *vastly* numerically dominate in psychology, so any system assuming that PhD = male would be wrong about 90% of the time...)

I feel I owe Prof Stemwedel an apology. I am sorry. It seems that my earlier posts have come across as being sexist. I did not mean them to. My comments about Dr Free Ride being a bloke were meant to be entirely tongue in cheek. I was riffing on one of the comments that SHE made in the dialogue. I apologise for any offense my inadvertant sexism caused. I did not mean to caus any offence to any women qua women.

Now, as for philosophers, I fully MEANT to insult them! (Put smiley here, because I won't)

By DOnalbain (not verified) on 19 Apr 2008 #permalink

Donalbain, no need to apologize on the "Free-Ride is a dude" front -- I was indeed exploring the assumption that were made in response to that 'nym.

My misogyny comments were with respect to some of the specific language used in the hypothetical Donalbain-PhysioProf dialogue. I wanted to point out that while PP's language is salty, it is not, in my experience, sexist (and nor is yours, so far as I can tell).

Y'all are still in my good graces.

As a matter of interest (or not), this nym has often been mistaken for a bird's name. Apparantly some people see it as Donna L Bain.

But now I have a question. Where did the Free Ride nym come from?

By DOnalbain (not verified) on 19 Apr 2008 #permalink

On pseudonymous blogging: If I had it to do over again, I would choose to blog behind a pseudonym. It would allow me to write more freely about political, social, and medical issues affecting my friends and family. I also wish I had done a better job of protecting my family's privacy.

On profanity: I do my best to keep my blog profanity-free, including the comments. In other words, I edit comments that include profanity -- either by disemvowelling or inserting some other symbol.

It is a personal preference, and it is my blog.

Also as a personal observation: when I read a professional person using profanity in advancing an argument, I'm underwhelmed. Profanity in every-day, verbal life is one thing; in written work is another. I feel that profanity in written work is lazy -- the writer didn't take the time to think of another, forceful way to express herself.


Where profanity is concerned, your explanation is so much better than my own, seemingly unsuccessful, effort to explain it. For that I thank you.

By S. Rivlin (not verified) on 19 Apr 2008 #permalink

Liz, comments on a blog are far more similar to verbal life than to "written work". Blog posts themselves? Somewhere in-between. Just sayin'

By BikeMonkey (not verified) on 20 Apr 2008 #permalink


Q&A at seminars and journal clubs are verbal. How do you ask your questions or give your answers? Not with profanity, I hope.

By S. Rivlin (not verified) on 20 Apr 2008 #permalink

People who don't want to use profanity don't have to use it. But do they have the right to insist that no one else use profanity, either? I don't think so. Janet has the right to ask commenters to refrain from profanity on her blog, because it's her blog. But I don't have much sympathy for the "oh, my ears are hurting, stop those nasty words!" argument. Anyone has the right to be personally offended by the use of profanity - feelings are feelings, you feel what you feel. But that personal sense of shock is not sufficient cause for blanket prohibition of profanity across the blogosphere. You don't have to like it. But if it isn't hate speech, if it isn't misogynistic or racist or homophobic etc. then it's just disconcerting speech and I don't think we have a basic right to be protected from disconcerting speech.