A Blogger By Any Other Name

Steven Den Beste has stirred up the metablogging controversy o’ the moment with his essay critical of anonymous bloggers (although in truth, it’s more a criticism of one anonymous blogger in particular).
I missed the first few days of this debate, so I didn’t figure I’d have much to add. But after catching up a bit, to my surprise, nobody (that I’ve noticed) has made some of the most basic points that come to my mind around the subject.
First, I’m not a neutral party here — duh. But I think that’s worth pointing out — both about me, and about everyone involved in this discussion. Unlike many blogdebates, in this one, every single participant is clearly biased either on one side or the other of the debate — although conveniently, you can actually tell what those biases are (for the most part) right up front.
Those who are psuedonymous, like myself, will have an inherent bias to defend their right to have their views respected while not having their lives inspected (also known as having one’s cake and eating it too). While those who have chosen to come out of the closet publicly will similarly see a need to justify their own choice.
So: Let the readers beware. Caveat Emptor, indeed.
Second, I have to say I think the whole debate is, on its face, a bit pointless. (Why am I replying then? Not through my coffee yet and haven’t found a better topic for the morning, I suppose. Glad you asked?) Glenn summarizes aptly, as he is apt to do: “If you want to blog anonymously, fine. That’s your privilege. Responding to your anonymity differently than they would respond to your True Name is other people’s privilege. You pays your money, and you takes your choice.”
Yup. To state the point more generally: yes, this is yet another example of the delusion of community standards in blogging rearing its tiresome head. As I think I’ve made clear in the past, I stand firmly in the “Thou Shalt Do Whatever Thee Damned Well Pleases With Thy Own Blog” camp. Any exercise that takes as its goal deciding what the “right” way to blog is, in my mind, is not only doomed to an ignominous demise but should be speeded upon its way there by any and all bystanders with picks, axes, and whatever other implements of destruction happen to be handy. The absolute last thing blogging needs is standards of behavior; in diversity lies our strength, and in the back button lies our readers’ power to choose.
So: Anonymous, Pseudononymous, or True Name: all are absolutely, 100% exactly equally valid approaches to blogging in my mind.
That said, a few thoughts on psuedononymous blogging. Demosthenes clearly explains the position that one can, in fact, develop a blog persona with its own history and credibility separate from one’s real life identity — and I am here to tell you that this is certainly true.
For good or ill, “N.Z. Bear” is a bear with a past by now. I have allies and friends in the Blogosphere; I arguably also have at least one or two enemies. When a reader sees that name in a link, they likely have a predetermined inclination to either click, or not, depending on their feelings on my previous writings.
But it goes further than that: the web of back-channel communication, emails drifting back and forth between fellow bloggers and readers, also builds one’s reputation. By now, bloggers that I have interacted with in the past have a mental image in their mind of me, and my behavior. When I send an email to one of them they will either open it with interest, or prefer to ignore it, based on their history with me.
I would argue that this component of reputation in the blogosphere — ones past writings and past actions — is vastly more significant in most instances to readers and fellow bloggers than one’s real-life identity. Many True Named bloggers disclose their real life identity as simply their name; a contextually empty identifier that really adds nothing to their readers knowledge of them as a person. Sometimes a location is provided; sometimes a profession or a few tidbits on their hobbies, interests, or family.
But with the noted exception of “celebrity” bloggers whose names are already linked to a famous persona offline, I think in the broad majority of cases, knowing a blogger’s true identity doesn’t really add much at all to the reader’s contextual knowledge. Does knowing Amish Tech Support is written by “Lawrence Simon” in Houston, Texas really add anything to my enjoyment of his general silliness? No. Does knowing Martin Devon is — well, Martin Devon — increase my desire to sample his fine punditry? Nope.
There are exceptions, of course. When discussing matters in which speciality knowledge is addressed, knowing that a blogger has experience in that field is certainly relevant. Den Beste and Devon both have a history in software engineering; therefore I’m slightly more inclined to take their thoughts on that subject seriously. But note that this knowledge is generally completely independent of the blogger’s True Name — because, for example, I’ve made clear that I too, am a software professional by trade, so others may take that or ignore it in judging whether to accept my opinions on coding or any other subject.
Then there is the argument of “accountability” — that in some sense, disclosing one’s True Name makes one more accountable, more responsible for one’s writings. In a sense, I suppose this is true. But from a reader’s perspective, what does it mean, really? For the average blogger with no particular fame or public reputation, knowing their true name means to a reader…. what, exactly? That they can look up their address and phone number, if they so choose? Ironically, the only people who I can see as being truly interested in an individual’s true identity are exactly those that a pseudonymous blogger is seeking to avoid — the crank who wants to harass your family; the editor of the newspaper who you have Fisked; the corporate execs whose spin you have demolished. In short, disclosing one’s True Name seems to me to be helpful to those who wish you ill, but not of terribly much value to the readers and fellow bloggers who simply wish to interact with you on a civilized level.
Finally, one last point on the concept of separating one’s blogging identity from one’s True Name identity. I find it interesting, actually, that nobody has brought up the analogy of one’s professional life versus one’s private life. Because virtually everyone prefers to maintain a separation between those two identities in their day to day existence. Do you freely and completely discuss your political views with everyone at your workplace? Do you share the same level of detail on your personal life and family with those you meet in a workplace setting as you would with a similarly unknown stranger you met at a social gathering?
For most folks, I think, this kind of separation is quite natural; so much so that we don’t even think twice about it. For pseudonymous bloggers, I think, the seperation between Blog Name and True Name is much the same. The two are seperate and distinct not out of one’s shame for the other, but simply because the one life is not terribly relevant to the other.
But in closing, I will violate my own vow of pseudonymity, and finally reveal a photo of myself, in order to build my own credibility with those who fear the truly unknown. Take a look here, if you choose, and see me for who I am.
So now if you see me inexplicably giving Friends a good review, you’ll know why.