Anonymity in the blogosphere

March 27, 2007

Contrary to what some have stated, I believe that anonymity and pseudonymity do not automatically negate an opinion. Granted, you might not know the background or the biases of whoever expresses such opinions, but the validity of their claims should become clearer through further discourse. If someone has compelling or interesting arguments, the discussion should focus on those, rather than on the “personalities” involved.

I’m not sure where I would fall on this spectrum, but I consider myself a semi-pseudonymous blogger. I have a semi-catchy title, as well as the not-so-catchy name. That was a deliberate move on my part. Others have taken all the “cool,” “hip,” and “edgy” names, so it behooved me to use something rather dull as a way to distinguish myself. Nevertheless, clues about my identity remain sprinkled throughout my blog, so anyone who really cares can figure it out. Still, for reasons I outline in an earlier posting, this seems like the best approach for my purposes.

Of late, I have determined that the Annoyed Librarian (AL) is a perfect example of a high-quality blogger who remains pseudonymous (not anonymous). In John Berry’s blog, she has been lumped into one side of a dualistic Weltanschauung. Closer readings of her postings indicate that she gives a great deal of thought to various issues. I may personally disagree with some of AL’s opinions, but they also make me consider more carefully what I believe. Therefore, it seems unfair to dismiss her as “cowardly,” just because she posts pseudonymously. In fact, considering some of the unfair comments made in the aforementioned posting from Berry’s blog (such as #8), it seems little wonder that AL remains pseudonymous.

Unfortunately, some people abuse anonymity/pseudonymity. As many of us already know, Kathy Sierra has received a series of anonymous threats that have forced her to cancel speaking engagements, and to stay confined to her house. Considering the disturbing nature of the postings left by the person(s) making the threats, I hope that someone can bring the offender(s) to justice.

Since anonymous postings can range from the Annoyed Librarian’s carefully-considered opinions to the disturbing threats made by an unidentified coward against another blogger, it seems unfair to look upon all anonymous/pseudonymous comments and postings as beneath contempt. If an anonymous person makes a coherent or nuanced argument for or against something, it seems worthy of response from interested parties… especially if that person wishes to continue the discussion in the same spirit of civility, collegiality, and (one hopes) wit. On the other hand, I can certainly understand a lack of response to trite comments, regardless of the person’s anonymity (or lack thereof). As for making threats, it has no place in any venue, and certainly does not fall under free speech. Whatever side of the various Libraryland debates you’re on, I think we can all agree that immediate action needs to be taken against such thugs.


17 Responses to “Anonymity in the blogosphere”

  1. I’m not sure where anyone has really suggested that people should look upon anonymous/pseudonymous quotes as beneath contempt, because I certainly wouldn’t agree with that position. But I do believe that comments should be backed up with a name, especially if they are controversial and the victim of the controversy is using his/her real name.

    Sure there are sites where the flame/troll etc. ratio is way up there and everyone is anonymous and everyone makes their brave comments on the misguided posts about, well tripe. But no one considers this sort of thing true debate — it’s more just fun, or brow-beating depending on one’s mood. It’s pretty much fine in my view — like going to a costume party or something.

    On the other hand, I really hate being attacked or flamed by an anonymous person when I am using my real name in the discussion. It automatically shuns my attention to be frank. No matter the eloquence of an opinion, I can’t really credit someone with integrity if they say something nasty to me under a pseudonym that I do not believe would be said to my face with any level of sincerity. In that vein, although AL has never said anything about me personally, I wouldn’t really care much if she did. Basically, I assume her annoyedness is enabled by her pseudonym.

  2. Jason Says:

    In response to Jennifer’s and Ryan’s comments, now seemed like the best time address the issue of anonymity and pseudonymity, especially with the discussion started on John Berry’s blog (and Annoyed Librarian’s response), as well as the threats made against Kathy Sierra.

    Anonymity and pseudonymity are forms of power, as they help someone hide their identity and do things that they would not do under their real names. It makes me think of the iconic quote from Spiderman (“With great power comes great responsibility.”), as well as the cliched question one might have whenever they obtain such powers: “Do I use it for good, or do I use it for evil?” Of course, superheroes like Spiderman and Batman (and numerous others) do not perform their deeds as Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne. They take on personae that allow them to get on with their normal lives of brooding and existential angst, and to avoid the pitfalls of celebrity.

    Thinking about the real world, would we think any less of someone who speaks out or acts anonymously against a repressive regime in their own country? If they’re caught, they end up imprisoned (at the very least), physically abused, or even dead. As much as we may admire martyrs, how can one continue a good fight if they’re no longer around? Better to remain anonymous and keep dictators and their minions guessing than to get caught and reduce the ranks of dissenters.

    AL may not have to contend with eccentric criminals or tyrants, but she might have to worry about her professional standing if someone ends up “outing” her. Considering that John Berry used his blog within Library Journal to engage in an ad hominem attack against her, I don’t blame her for retaining her anonymity. Granted, she does get in some “snarky” comments, but many of her postings have enough substance to raise substantial questions within our profession. It’s too bad that she has to remain anonymous, but we at least have an opportunity to engage her thoughts… if we can see past the stigma of anonymity/pseudonymity.

    Of course, personal attacks have no place in civil and collegial debate. I agree with Ryan on that point, but it shouldn’t matter if the person is anonymous or not. At least among civilized people, someone who attacks their opponent (rather than their opponent’s argument) automatically loses face in the argument.

    I think that Ryan and I will need to “agree to disagree” on the validity of anonymous/pseudonymous posts. Personally, I feel compelled to respond to the good ones (if time allows), and steer clear of the nasty ones (even if someone attaches their real name to them).

  3. Hey Jason — I’m with you about “agree to disagree” but I do want to clarify my position. I think the anonymity question is less about validity and more about integrity. If I said 2 + 2 = 5 and an anonymous person told me it was 4, I wouldn’t ignore it — that’s validity. Certainly anonymous people can be right.

    It is the integrity question that makes me hold the anonymous opinion with a greater bit of salt than others. The premise (for me) is this. If we were to find each other at a conference, I would expect that we could continue this debate in person, perhaps even if it got nasty. It was because Jenny Levine puts her name on her opinions, I could go up to her at the OLA superconference and say “by the way, I disagree with you on copyright.”

    For the anonymous person I cannot do that and there is a bit of hypocricy in that for me. It makes me think that the anonymous person might not be willing to stand up for his/her opinions in the real world. That reads a possible “this person is just shooting off at the mouth” to me.

    Of course there are places where anonymity is the only way out of a situation, such as the case of a person living in an oppressive regime. But in those cases, people have to stoop to alot of things, anonymous criticism probably being the least of these.

    So, while I believe anonymity should be possible in a free society, I still contend that it is better, more ethical, more impressive to refuse to use it.

  4. […] people say “that’s exactly how I feel, though I’d never say it.” As the Pragmatic Librarian wrote: Contrary to what some have stated, I believe that anonymity and pseudonymity do not automatically […]

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