Thursday, June 14, 2007

Letter To An Anonymous Blogger

I just posted this as a comment on Tim Lacy's History and Education: Past and Present, and realized that, although it is part of an ongoing discussion Tim has been trying to spark about anonymous blogging, the post I attached it to was old enough that it might get a little lost. This is my own reflection on anonymity, and on having come out as a blogger. I have edited it a bit more because I am a compulsive re-writer; I have also not included a link to the blog under discussion so that no one is confused that it is a critique of that blogger. It isn't: this is a smart blog by a graduate student, with great posts, and you can find it over at Tim's place.

Dear Tim,

Thanks for sending AnonymousBlogger to my post about relinquishing my anonymity -- I do think anonymity raises ethical and practical issues that everyone at all ranks of the profession ought to think about on an ongoing basis, and not just those unprotected by tenure. As I reflect once more on my blogging life prior to my decision to give up anonymity, several things come to mind.

When we publish things anonymously that are incautious, and we are more likely to do that when we believe ourselves to be anonymous, there are immediate and sometimes long-term consequences for ourselves and for others. There's the equivalent of the flaming email phenomenon -- putting up a post in a fit of rage, or self-righteousness, or manic humor -- in other words, making a set of thoughts public in a way that doesn't engage one's own super-ego as it should. I know because I've done it, and I had to go back and edit or delete a bunch of stuff once I came out that seemed funny at the time (was, in fact) but was potentially hurtful since the humor depended on sarcasm or on exaggerating the characteristics of composite characters that real people were too likely to see as themselves. I remember at the time how differently I saw some of these posts once I had to imagine the reality of them being attached to my name, and to real people at Zenith. That change in perspective is a learning experience I have not forgotten.

But even when the posts are serious and accurate, I do think you need to ask yourself, before publishing something that is critical of others, would I stand up for this in public? After all, simply because something is the "truth" doesn't mean you should publish it. If you can't imagine saying such a thing to someone's face, or don't want to engage your own critics publicly, you probably shouldn't put something up on the web.

I want to emphasize that I personally don't feel critical of anonymous bloggers, and complications in my blogging life will not necessarily be problems on your blog. I am, after all, well known in my real life for taking all kinds of risks either to get a laugh, to make a teaching moment work in a memorable way or to get something done that I think is important. But assuming that your identity as a blogger is privileged information still means that you risk having to be personally accountable for what you write anyway. There is a high risk that some people will discover who you are eventually:it's clear to me that a number of anonymous bloggers' identities are well known to a circle of friends, for example. If you have been hiding your identity to avoid consequences or retaliation, that will be over in a flash when someone -- anyone -- who gets really angry at you wants it to be. And things could get really ugly -- people might know for months before you have any kind of tipoff and have re-thought your blogging ethic.

There are also intangible questions about how the people around you may perceive collegiality and professionalism. Whether what you have been posting is truthful or not, some people will think you have been dishonest in spirit if perhaps not in fact by recording and publishing things without their permission or without attribution. That really is damaging to a reputation, and you can't control the damage, because the people who will think that don't necessarily know you or want to know you. The ones who do know you may feel betrayed -- and this is drawn from my experience of discovery: a variety of people who knew me and thought I was a decent person felt puzzled and hurt when they thought I was blogging about them (when in fact I was not.) And that required a lot of straightening out -- from friends, to students to casual acquaintances -- and I am quite sure I will never really have an honest exchange with everyone who was upset or misperceived a post. Now that I am out, if someone is offended or thinks they have been written about, they can just drop me an email and we can straighten it out. If they don't, it's not because they can't, and it's a decision that I am not responsible for. More important, someone can look at me in a meeting or during a conversation and say, "I hope you aren't going to blog about this." And I can reassure them that I won't -- even if I want to!

Now I want to say that your blog, AnonymousBlogger, is a wonderful, thoughtful contribution as many anonymous blogs are, and I really love hearing things that graduate students and untenured people might be hesitant (afraid?) to tell me in my potential role as gatekeeper to success. These are things I need to know. But I have also been in the position of having been abused by anonymity and it has changed my view of it a bit. This may seem unfair or irrational, but I must warn you that there are many people -- if you are using your blog as a place to address charged topics -- who will simply think anonymity is cowardly. I certainly thought all the racist and anti-semitic stuff I got from the "anonymous" commenters in relation to the Duke lacrosse affair, in addition to being offensive, was deeply cowardly. And I continue to think that the historian who turned these people loose on me by posting my email address on his blog, behaved in a highly uncollegial, unprofessional and frankly, unethical, way by exposing me to what was not critique or criticism -- it was just crazy abuse, where anonymity became a weapon that he deployed through other people to punish and intimidate someone as an object lesson to others. So did HNN, in fact, where this person is listed as a regular contributer: they chided him in a column, and as far as I know he never responded to them. I know he never explained his actions to me.

The most serious problem from my point of view is that this person and I had a genuine difference about the content and meaning of my original post, and his took a great stretch of the imagination to either articulate as genuinely harmful or justify such a public, personal and vicious verbal assault. What the blogger and his cronies said I did, I did not do: I did not spread or make false charges about the students under indictment. Actually, I reported on coverage of the case, not the case itself, in the service of making an argument about race and culture that compared how those students were depicted in the press to another case. Frankly, even if I had made false charges against these students, it would have been without material consequence to them because I have no standing in their lives, their community or in the legal case. I was in no way responsible for the situation that brought on the press coverage in the first place, or Duke's decisions about how to deal with it. But the anonymous people attached to this blogger wrote emails and letters to my colleagues, officers of the university, trustees and to me: as I came to understand, they have also been sending abusive, obscene and racist email to members of the Duke faculty. Only when I began to investigate their real identities by filing complaints with their servers did they stop. I still don't know, because of the multiple anonymous comments and the accounts opened under pseudonyms, whether these were many real people, a couple real people, or whether it was just the blogger himself in a fit of paranoid rage and grandiosity. And not inconsequentially, although the blogger claims to be engaged in a campaign for justice that has held up factually in recent decisions in the Duke case, that he deliberately misinterpreted my post and fails to exercise any retraint over the "anonymous" comments to his own site, many of which seem to be from right-wing conspiracy theorists, frankly calls him into question as a scholar as well as a colleague in my view. As far as I can tell, he has one identity as a historian and another as the convener of a bizarre, right wing conspiracy group. And the two identities cannot help but overlap because they belong to the same person.

This is all a way of saying that the question of one's reputation, and one's responsibility for the reputation of others, is a very serious one indeed. It has many dimensions that anonymity makes very, very ethically complex. I don't want to be hard on you or any other anonymous blogger, because I'm not against anonymity in principle, but in no way should you feel that you are protected from the consequences of other people's perceptions of you because your name isn't on the blog, nor should you think you are immune from people making judgements about you that may be really unfair. It simply isn't so, and even if you wish to remain anonymous, you need to write as if you were not anonymous. And you need to police other people on your site who are anonymous, because no one knows that a comment written under another pseudonym, or by an anonymous commenter, isn't also *you.* That said -- as people advised me when I was pondering the question of coming out -- remaining anonymous is useful because it makes it harder for people to google you and have your blog come up before any of the articles and books you have written!

Good luck, and happy blogging, AnonymousBlogger: I will continue to read your blog which is, if I have not made this point sufficiently, very fine;



squadratomagico said...

I've been wondering about these issues ever since I began blogging in March. So far, I haven't been tempted to write anything snarky, mainly because I've been on leave the whole year. Starting in September, this will become more difficult, as I will be interacting with certain colleagues with whom I have, let's say, "differences of outlook." Once I begin teaching again I think I will often allow posts to rest for a day or two before posting, in order to gain some distance.

I'd like to remain anonymous for a few reasons. First, I'd rather not have lots of students reading my blog. Some may find it, but I don't need to make it easy for them. Second, as you note, I'd rather have my publication profile be at the top of my google results. Third, and related to the googling issue, I want to feel free to discuss things, like the circus, for instance, that I suspect many mainstream academics would regard as "frivolous" and an unworthy use of my time. I don't conceal my involvement -- my real name even is on our circus website. But that doesn't mean I need to advertise the connection, either.

GayProf said...

I like this post. This is something that I think about a great deal. Given I am technically anonymous (but my identity is easily deduced by those "in the know" (except by TR,who really needs to work on her Angela Lansbury skills)), I often consider how to balance discussing the elements/people in my life without being unprofessional.

I never, ever blog about individual students (either positively or negatively). Teaching posts are confined to general themes in a class (or the anonymous reviews that I receive).

As for colleagues, it's hard to discuss the problems in the academic world without some specificity. Most times I think that I only say things that I wouldn't mind being on record having said. Sometimes, though, it's tempting to push it a bit further (especially for a laugh).

Tim Lacy said...


Thanks for mentioning my post. For those interested in the particular blog object in question, I can say that its url is available in a post not far down the page at H&E. I'll leave it at that.

On the big topic, anonymity, I want to be clear that I'm ~not~ against anonymous blogging. In fact I take a certain (evil?) pleasure in hearing other's - ahem - unvarnished opinions of the academy and the world at large. The blogworld, ironically, would be a less real phenomenon if everyone else operated openly like me.

My lack of anonymity just happens to be right for me at this particular time. I have things I want to say, occasionally, about history and education that don't fit comfortably in the print publishing world (at least that world as I know it). So I use H&E as a kind of article farm, throwing out seeds to see which will grow. The "article laboratory" metaphor also works for me. H&E works for me both as a kind of bridge to the print world, and as an outlet for pieces less friendly to print culture's constraints.

- TL

Anonymous said...

As an undergrad on the cusp of applying to grad school, I revel in reading anonymous (and not-so-anonymous) grad student and professorial blogs. In many ways, the entire grad school process is so mystified to us on this side of the equation that it's really difficult to get any sort of accurate understanding of what actually goes on in the academy (especially those of us at Wes who have no Social Studies grad students running around teaching our classes).

I really appreciate TR's entire blog because it allowed me a more holistic understanding of what many of my own professors who I've grown very attached to have to deal with outside the classroom. Publishing, tenure decisions, students not so fabulous, colleagues even less so. It's one of those rare glimpses into what most professors try to keep hidden.

So I appreciate anonymous blogs for they allow a lot of access into a world that many are trying to obfuscate.

cd said...

Its weird how the internet has changed the ways we can shape our “public” image. The comment about how Google can affect a non-academic career is interesting to a non-academic. My blogging policy is this: all posts must be stuff I wouldn’t mind seeing on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, with my name on it. Still I blog anonymously, and as TR alluded to it all comes down to Google. Increasingly employers google applicants, and I don’t want my blog to be the top hit. Not because it would be the top hit at the expense of more impressive things, just out of a desire (maybe not a rational one) to control what prospective employers know. I don’t always let my goofy side, or my political side, come out in interviews/cover letters etc, why make it easy for employers to discover it through other channels? I’d worry less about stuff written for non-blog publications getting me in trouble, maybe because that is all theoretical to me, but mostly because there is a certain cache associated with getting published, which might be a bonus in the eyes of employers content aside, but really anyone can blog.

Edward Carson said...

I love knowing the identity of a blogger. My example: While here at Colorado State doing some work, I mentioned you to Oliver Holmes (your colleague), who too is here doing the same work. His response:"You must read her blog -- it is pretty good."

Blogs make the world smaller. I had to share that story.

The Combat Philosopher said...

I came across the oddest reason for anonymous blogging the other day. There is one blogger who I used to read quite regularly. I got to know their style, their obsessions and their interests. After a while, I quit reading the blog, because it was clear that certain substantive claims on the blog were false. The blogger clearly lacked the training and the experience that they claimed to have.

Just recently, I was looking at the comments on another blog. There I saw a comment from a blogger that I did not know. Out of curiosity, I clicked on the link. A little time reading a couple of posts made it clear that this was the blogger that I used to read, albeit under another name.

Then things got really strange. I noticed that the blogger, under their original blog identity, was posting comments to the new blog! It was just bizarre and insane!

However, being able to hold a dialogue with oneself is another reason for anonymous blogging. However, this reason probably only plays with the 'I forgot my lithium' crowd. ;)

The Combat Philosopher

ppb said...

I've been thinking a lot about this lately. I used to blog very anonymously. Now I'm more or less semi-anonymous. I think everyone knows if not who I am, at least where I am. But I am not yet ready to have a potential employer plug my name into a search engine and come up with my 8 random facts about me post.

I do find myself backing off of controverial posts, though, in ways that are related to the reasons you describe. If I'm going to take a stand, I want it to be with my own name and my own situation. Doing so even through semi-anonymity allows others to imagine realities that don't exist.

I'm an administrator, too, not a faculty member, so I have much less of a net. I have to pick my battles carefully. Having to give up that truly anonymous pulpit has been hard, but once I "blew it" with references to where I work that are just too easy to figure out, I had to delete those posts. I miss my voice.

ime said...

I have a blog/website under my own name and a close friend who blogs anonymously (often recreating some of our phone conversations). We both labor under different constraints as a result but both are constrained. (I should mention, she is considering putting her name on it post-tenure, so that may be another issue to consider.)

Clio Bluestocking said...

Tenured Radical wrote, "...remaining anonymous is useful because it makes it harder for people to google you and have your blog come up before any of the articles and books you have written." This, more and more, is becoming the reason that I use a pseudonym.

My blog is a mishmash of different things, some professional and some personal, some a mix of both. Since my realnym is the one under which I work and search for jobs, I've been trying to keep its internet presence tied to those sorts of sites. I don't need some search committee or employer saying, "well, we can't hire her because her brother had that stoner interpretation of the DaVinci code."

It's not that I'm ashamed of what I am or write. Nor would I deny that I wrote something. It's just that some things you don't need to have front and center in certain situations.

So, as my realnym is more and more associated with historical writing and with teaching, the pseudonym becomes a sort of "place" where I can write about other things in other genres or in other ways. I think in particular of Carolyn Heilbrun, who also wrote as Amanda Cross as a way of liberating herself from her professional persona.

Joe Bingham said...

I stand by my criticisms of your assumptions about the Duke lax case... but I put my name to those criticisms, and share your disdain for people who exploit their anonymity as an opportunity to speak without compunction. I try to avoid that by not posting anonymously.

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