You Don't Know Me

When I start to lecture, I go into Teaching Mode, which affects the whole way I present myself. I speak at a slightly higher pitch, and the whole cadence of my speech changes. I talk a little bit faster, but repeat myself more, and speak in a more formal style.

The funny thing is that I'll drop in and out of Teaching Mode during the course of a class (or a research talk, which gets a very similar treatment). When I respond to questions in the middle of a class, I usually do so in something closer to my normal tone of voice, returning to Teaching Mode when I return to my prepared lecture.

This is only half conscious-- I'm aware that I do it, and I can force myself to change it if I think about it (as I did for my talk at Boskone, because Teaching Mode + Dog Voice = Totally Incomprehensible), but it's largely a matter of reflex. I think it's a way of signalling, both to myself and to my listeners, that I've moved into the Serious Business of lecturing. I'm not sure why that particular combination of changes is what I use to present myself as Teaching-- some psychology type might be able to shed some light-- but that's how it works, and the way I present myself in the classroom is noticeably different than the way I present myself in more casual interaction.

I mention this because the whole Internet pesudonymity thing has come around again, now turning up as a poll question on Page 3.14. It seems to have its origin in a post at Bayblab, which is odd because that post references Dr. Crazy's explanation, which I had thought was definitive. Since there are still evidently people who think that the particular name associated with a blog or a comment has some impact on the trustworthiness of that blog or comment, let me be perfectly explicit about this:

You don't know me.

The fact that there is a real name associated with this blog, and that you can Google me to your heart's content does not mean that you know me any better than if I signed all my blog posts with some preposterous Internet pseudonym. My students, who are in the same room with me, get a different presentation of me than people I talk to in more casual settings.

What you get on this blog reflects my personality and beliefs, but it's a filtered presentation of those things. I don't share every last opinion that I have (hard as that may be to believe if you glance over the archives), and the way I present myself here is different than the way I present myself in class, or at home.

And that's true in real life, as well. I act and talk in a much different manner when I'm playing pick-up basketball on my lunch break than in the hours before or after (I tend to use more slang and contractions, and drawl more). My behavior is different with friends from work than with friends from college or friends from my Usenet days.

These aren't huge differences, and they're not entirely conscious-- as you can tell from the fact that I have trouble articulating what the differences are-- but I know for a fact that I present myself differently in different situations. People who know me in different contexts all know me by the same real name (with the possible exception of some people from Williams who only know my nickname), but they know different versions of me.

As "Dr. Crazy" notes, part of the point of a pseudonym is that it presents a different personality to the world. It's not the same thing as anonymity, which is an attempt to be without personality, but rather an opportunity to show a different side.

Pseudonymity is only an extreme version of what people already do automatically, though. Almost everyone presents a different face to their boss than to their spouse or their friends. The only difference between the change you undergo when you walk into the office and writing as "Dr. Crazy" is that both your boss and your spouse use the same name when they address you.

There is absolutely no reason to care about the name somebody chooses to use on the Internet. Whether they're posting as "John Smith" or "Anomander Rake," what matters is the quality of the information and opinions presented, and the history of interactions with that person.

Someone posting under their real name will most likely behave in a somewhat more restrained manner, as consequences of their behavior are more lilkely to follow them off-line. But anyone who thinks that a stupid Internet pseudonym is an effective shield from the repercussions of on-line writing is an idiot. And anyone who thinks that the actions of people writing under their real names are a better reflection of reality than things done under a pseudonym is kidding themselves-- there are plenty of bloggers who are fire-breathing assholes on the Internet who are quiet, polite, and even diffident in person. What you see on-line is a persona, not a person, no matter what name is attached to it.

"But, people who blog under their real names can command some of the authority of the real-life credentials," you say. Yeah. That and a dollar will buy you a candy bar. I've heard too many stupid things said by people with Ph.D.'s to automatically grant final authority to anyone based on name alone. I trust Sean Carroll's opinion about questions of astrophysics more than I would trust the opinions of some new-to-me blogger posting as "Errec Ransome, Breaker of Circles," but that's because I have a history with Sean-- he's been posting for years under that name, and he has consistently said smart and sensible things. I also trust "Charles Dodgson" at Through the Looking Glass on political matters more than I trust any prominent non-pseudonymous right-wing blogger you'd care to name, for the same reason. Despite the obvious pseudonym, he's established a long history of saying reasonable things, and that carries more weight than the name.

(I will give some deference to people posting under their real names about topics in their fields of research, at least as a preliminary matter. But people with credentials can easily lose that deference through deranged behavior on-line-- both Lubos Motl and Peter Woit have solid scientific credentials, but I wouldn't trust either of them on questions dealing with string theory, because they both have axes to grind.)

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more than I would trust the opinions of some new-to-me blogger posting as "Errec Ransome, Breaker of Circles,"

Well, and there's the question of whether anyone who deliberately chooses to represent himself as Errec Ransome is someone you want to listen to at all . . . =>

I've heard too many stupid things said by people with Ph.D.'s to automatically grant final authority to anyone based on name alone.

As have I. Indeed, I've probably said a few stupid things myself.

As you say, it's all about track record. This goes for anyone spouting opinions in any forum, whether a blogger, an op-ed pundit, or the guy who spends all day mumbling to himself on the street corner.

Furthermore, the amount of trust involved varies according to subject. I can trust you on matters of AMO physics, because you have established your credentials, report the facts, and have not demonstrated any ax to grind. Likewise on many other topics. However, I have observed that our tastes in music differ, so I wouldn't buy music solely on your recommendation (nor should you on mine) because I won't necessarily like something you like. There are also some posts which I don't know enough to evaluate: for example, rugby, which I have never played or watched. I'll give you some benefit of the doubt in the last category mainly because you have earned it in most other areas (at least where matters of taste are not involved).

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 22 Apr 2008 #permalink

You don't know me.

... but I just finished reading Stanislaw Lem's The Cyberiad, so now I know where your "Chateau Steelypips" allusions originated!

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 22 Apr 2008 #permalink

I must lecture today on resumes, cover letters, and interviews. One thing I tell the students is that they may consider hiding the stuff on their blogs, MySpace/FaceBook pages, etc.. It's one thing to be creative and innovative (I talk to Art and Design students) it's another to be an embarrassment or distraction.

By Onkel Bob (not verified) on 22 Apr 2008 #permalink

And then there are those of us who use a username but don't even begin to think we're hiding who we are, and who aren't trying to "to show a different side" - who are just trying to put up a good faith attempt to distance ourselves on line from our employers. I have no doubt whatsoever that anyone who wanted to could find out my real name in, if not nothing flat, then certainly not much time at all.