Pseudonymity, Blogging, and Journalism Versus Marketing

ScienceBlogling Matt Nisbet throws down the gauntlet about anonymity:

Much of the incivility online can be attributed to anonymity. And with a rare few exceptions, if you can't participate in a dialogue about issues without using your full name and true identity, then what you have to say is probably not that valuable.

It's a silly argument for many reasons (some people should be treated with incivility; they've earned it), but there are a couple points I haven't seen mentioned (Drugmonkey has a very good response). But ultimately, the decision to be anonymous boils down to why one blogs. I blog because it is marginally more productive than firing Nerf projectiles at my teevee machine when it makes me angry.

On a more serious note, for me, blogging is the equivalent of a journal, albeit a public journal, not a private one. When I was a kid, I used to routinely write ideas, observations, and other sundry thoughts in a spiral notebook. Now I can inflict these ideas on unsuspecting denizens of the Internet, and they can return fire in the comments.

Erm, lost the seriousness there....

Like I said, this blog is journalism (as opposed to modern news reporting) in the old-school sense of the word: slivers of the world according to the Mad Biologist. What this blog is not is an appendage to my career. I am not using this as an 'alternative media platform' or as a form of professionally publishing ideas. Nor am I using it as a way to 'flood the space' with ideas I'm trying to promote in my professional career under my real name: it's not part of a larger marketing-public relations scheme involving public speaking, book tours, op-eds, webcasts, and TV interviews. Most importantly, I am not using the blog to promote my real name 'brand' or my own media mini-empire. There's nothing wrong if that's how someone else wants to use this technology, but that's not what it's about for me. (That sort of 'branding doesn't strike me as "dialogue" as much as propaganda, but I digress).

Does this mean I don't draw on my professional life as subject matter? Of course not. Regular readers (and even irregular ones) obviously realize I do. But one reason, among many, that I don't blog under my real name (although it's laughably easy to figure out who I am) is that I want to protect the blog from my career, and not just vice versa.

I actually think that Nisbet weakens his arguments by tying them so closely to his career. There's nothing wrong with arguing in favor of opinions you hold professionally--I do that with antibiotic resistance (I used to work for a non-profit that dealt with the problem of antibiotic resistance). But you weaken those arguments when you use them as part of a media campaign to promote your webcast, upcoming seminar, book, soon-to-be published paper, not to mention your own 'brand'. If the argument is sound and honest, then make the argument--it will stand on its own, whether or not your meat world name brand is linked to it. Otherwise, from my perspective wherein blogging is old-school journalism, you seem like a cheap salesman.

Hell, if someone wants me to write a professional science-only blog where I talk solely about science in my capacity as a known scientist, then they'll have to pay me like a professional (just like those whiny Nature bloggers get paid)--and I already have a full-time job, thank you. Like I said, that's not what we do here. Nor will we: it cheapens the blogging.

An aside: Something that people seem to forget is that one of the strengths of ScienceBlogs, in my opinion, is that many bloggers here are professional research and educators, not full-time professional writers.

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I just don't think he's any good at framing! Where's his resume of success at framing? What's he ever accomplished? Framing is a young discipline - and a lot of the best are in the business world, not even concerned with accuracy, just impact.

Alternately, has Nisbet never been harrassed? Or threatened? Or stalked? The last people to make this argument and put teeth in it were the Scientologists. They forced anon.penet.fi to turn over customer lists. The anonymous and pseudonymous posters included those on a rape survival board.

Rush Limbaugh has railed against anonymity on the internet since there was an internet.

Nisbet, while not pseudonymous, was deeply uncivil to PZ, for instance, and did not model good communication with him. Since PZ doesn't claim framing expertise, the onus was on Nisbet to show his superior skills, and he never did.

I also recall Steve "not anonymous" Fuller's good riddance obituary for Norman Levitt. Again, not worth reading, very uncivil - and not anonymous.

Conversely, I doubt you have to even make the case, at this late date, to anyone not doing what Nisbet is doing - special pleading - for great pseudonymous blogging, op-eds, and comments. If Nisbet were to say that a larger part of a random sample of anonymous comments would be below average in quality compared to a random sample of signed comments, that's probably right. It doesn't mean there aren't a lot of great anonymous comments. Some venues you shouldn't bother. Others are tied in with the powerful - it's sometimes a case of anonymous or chilling effect.

But again, anonymous commenters are chided for their hyperbole - and here's Nisbet indulging in non-anonymous hyperbole.

By Marion Delgado (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

A good number of established bloggers have started out without revealing their identity, including me. In my case, I needed to distance my political commentary from a short-term contract in a workplace which required political neutrality.To me the key point about acceptable anonymous/pseudonymous blogging is that it be done with a consistent identity, so that debate is transparent.