The protection afforded by pseudonyms depends on the community
January 21, 2014
As you know, DearReader, I blog and engage with the Twittersphere under a pseudonym. I do so for a variety of reasons, some of which were in the forefront when I started and are no longer really an issue. Some reasons have appeared or become strengthened over time. Some are relatively more important to me and some are less important.
Some of these reasons overlap with the usual ones described in defense of pseudonymity and some are relatively unique to my own personal decisions on reasons that are both personal and professional.
Some reasons that I have for being a pseudonymous blogger are entirely related to making my blogging more effective in terms of what I want to do.
In what is now over seven years engaging in the blogosphere there is one issue that has brought me to do the most unsolicited, tut-tutting, pseudofatherly advice to bloggers via nonpublic communication methods.
Never assume your pseudonym is iron clad protection against being identified by people that matter to you. Ever. Blog accordingly.
My advice stems from my occasional coursework in human cognitive psychology. It shouldn’t surprise anyone but apparently it is not at the forefront of everyone’s mind (more on this in a second). The brain is a wonderfully synthetic organ that permits the linking of seemingly unconnected facts and experiences into a sometimes brilliant whole. It is fantastic at taking seemingly limited, low bandwith, pixellated information and creating a detailed picture. What this understanding means for pseuds is that you cannot help but leave breadcrumbs as to your identity. You blog because you want to talk about things that are important to you. Good blogging is infused with the personal perspective and the personal anecdote. One can’t help but assert some aspects of ones authoritah! (more on this below) in making an argument. Categorical interests tend to set a context.
Most importantly these random details and contexts permit the Reader to rule out many of the obvious suspects for whom you might be.
Next, I turn to the question of voice. If you are doing blogging right (IMNSHO), you are infusing your writing with a defined voice. Usually, that is your voice and sounds one heck of a lot like the things that you usually say in real life. After all, these are matters that are important to you or you wouldn’t be blogging. While there is no particular reason a complete stranger should recognize your voice, I hold it to be self-evident that your friends and colleagues will. My assumption has always been that if anyone who knows me runs across my blog and reads more than about two posts, they will know it is me. With very little doubt.
With that said, pseudonymity still works. Determining the identity of a given pseudonymous person on the internet still requires a bit of work, if one is not fortuitously connected to that person in real life. Depending on the various categories of personal information available, there may be many people who could be the blogger in question. This will vary tremendously depending on the number of the tiny bits of information one curious pseud-buster has available to them. One of the most important barriers to detection is therefore the avoidance of direct linking of a real name to a pseudonym in a place that is easily Google-able.
Due to these and other factors, maintaining the relative security/secrecy of ones pseudonym depends on the community. It depends first and foremost on the community not to put the identification of a pseud’s real name with their pseudonymous person in any digital format that can be Googled and/or linked. This is a relatively easy distinction.
Integrity of pseuds also depends on the community minimizing the extent to which it provides, amplifies and broadcasts the tiny bits of information that identify the blogger. This, my friends, is the tricky bit.
A blogger may have provided some detail of their person, identity or life many years ago in a random post which a given Reader remembers. Generally speaking, if a blogger talks about something on blog, well this is fair-ish game. If I let you in on a detail of my life and leave it on the blog, I certainly can’t blame anyone else for knowing this detail. And yet. A pseudonymous blogger may not wish the details critical to divining his or her identity to be repeatedly mentioned, in context, over and over for all and sundry to assess. But we exist in a community. We make friendships that depend on personal details in many cases. We make connections with Readers that are based on those tiny details and assumptions about our past and present. We embrace granfalloon. This works at cross-purposes with the integrity of the pseudonym. And so it depends on the community to uphold the pseudonym veil.
One defense I make for people who interact with pseudonymous persons and inadvertently make comments that would tend to out the pseud is a caution for those who are themselves pseudonymous. In many cases where a person identifies the real life identity of a pseudonymous blogger, it consequentially becomes unimaginable that this person is really trying too hard to be pseudonymous. As I said, if a person who knows me well runs across the blog, they are going to be thinking that it sounds so much like him that there is no possible WAY he is trying to be secret about it. Others who put the several obvious clues together, see that a pseud repeatedly mentions such clues and likewise conclude that it is an open secret of the not-very-secret variety.
The trouble is, it is very difficult for such people to remember that this is not the case for everyone and the goal is to not facilitate trivial identification. It is also difficult for people to remember that there are certain details that one does NOT ever cop to on the blog. It is difficult to remember that just one extra detail may narrow down the suspect from a group of six to an obvious one.
It is difficult for the well-intentioned internet friend to remember that a pseudonymous blogger is constantly adding new Readers and that they are not all aware of personal detail.
It is also difficult for the well-intentioned interlocutor to remember the possible harm that might be created by mistakenly linking a pseud to the wrong person- either because of direct accusation or because of mentioning details that might point in the wrong direction. There have been several cases brought to my attention in which it was clear that someone thought “Drugmonkey” was some other scientific peer of mine. This is, given my comments and tone about several serious things in science, not fair to them.
One reason that is a mainstay of my pseudonym is my understanding of the way that one’s personal authoritah! within science can make one lazy when it comes to arguing about the conduct of science. Michael Eisen has made the case for this in an excellent post. I like rambunctious discussion and being called out on the stupid stuff I say on the blog. I value being called out on my privilege. While I consider myself to be no great shakes in the professional arena, it is assy in the extreme not to recognize that my role places me in a position of power relative to others. Some of whom are my readers. There are grad students, postdocs, junior faculty, my lateral peers and even graybeards from my field that interact with me online. People who might hesitate to say something for fear my role as a paper or grant reviewer, potential mentor, associate editor, casual peer-recommender or letter writer may be contaminated by some personal pique over online interactions. See Dr Isis’ excellent post for a reality check on this fear.
A related reason lies in the disconnect between my prescriptive comments about the way this career business should go, my descriptive comments and how I might behave within my sphere of professional obligations. Especially at the start of my blogging, I was worried that I would be compromising the mission of the NIH were I to be directly linked to my blog comments; this had to do with grant review. It would be very easy to conclude that I was pursuing a grant review agenda that was entirely at odds with the charge given us by the CSR. I happen to think that I do a pretty good job of doing the work expected of me in navigating the provision of personal expertise for which I was selected within the instructions and obligations of the formal review process and the cultural expectations of a study section. And every reveiwer has biases. Unfortunately the CSR/NIH is in the business of pretending individual biases do not exist in study section and therefore the admission on the part of a reviewer would be a detriment to what they are trying to do. So this was an issue.
Another reason has to do with insane, theologically motivated opponents of animal research. As you know, we have several colleagues in the neurosciences that have been under siege in their homes for years now. I’ll let you do the math on that one.
I have a spouse. At times, this blog ventures into territory in which people want to know a lot about said spouse and our domestic arrangements. I try not to make decisions and to take actions that directly involve other people’s beeswax without their explicit permission. This is no different.
Now, one of the more interesting issues to distill out of the foregoing comments is that a pseudonymous identity can be misleading. Obviously there are going to be people synthesizing the bits of information and the statements and comments made to come up to a wrong impression. I mentioned misidentification of an individual above. But there is also the misidentification of various personal and professional characteristics. And this misidentification can be viewed as the type of dishonesty that is often used to argue why pseudonymous participants on the internet are horrible and evil.
One specific example has to do with a couple of my friends on the Twittahs. Who have taken to engaging in the sort of tangentially-outing behavior that I describe above as possibly coming from a place that does not include active malice. In this particular case it was by way of referring (inaccurately as it happens) to the number of R01 grants on which I serve as PI. The reason for doing so was because these individuals (or at least one of them) has the strong impression that my comments on the NIH grant game substantially misrepresent this fact about my career. In a way that somehow unfairly benefits my pseudonym. It is not clear to me whether the objection was to the force of my arguments or the appreciation the community has for my comments, these being the two sources of currency I can think of.
In a sense these are mind boggling accusations for anyone who has read my blog over any period of time. I make it pretty clear what my job category is, what my perception of “what it takes” is, my general type of research and approximate depth in the career etc. I also mention repeatedly how grateful I am for both my relative success within the NIH system and to the taxpayers for their ongoing support. All of these should give anyone who has a half a clue about this business some idea of where I stand. Apparently, however, it is possible that my Twitter persona creates an entirely different view of where I stand and therefore the persona created by the blogger seems….different. Somehow.
Obviously I am only partially responsible for the perceptions that I create. And there are people who jump to some pretty far fetched conclusions in their desire to undermine me, as opposed to my arguments themselves.
I think, on more sober reflection, that this anecdote underscores both my reasons for mounting my arguments from a position not directly tied to my status in science/academia and my comments above about the community involvement in maintaining pseudonym integrity.
I end with one of my themes for the year. I ask the outer of pseuds and the arguer against psueds:
What’s the end game here?
As a blowhard on the internet is finding out this week, outing a pseudonymous blogger doesn’t injure this person’s standing, authoritah! or arguments. It doesn’t reduce the size of the persons’ internet platform for advancing a cause or, most likely, interfere with the real life career. If anything, it enhanced all of these things! And said blowhard clearly injured his own real-life standing with his petulance.
Communities have behavioral standards. They tend to be opt-in. On the internet, there is very little enforcement of the rules. So anyone is free to be any sort of ass that they desire. We should all recognize this. This corner of the internet inhabited by academics, and scientists in particular, is most assuredly a community, however. So if you choose to be an ass, the community is going to tell you so. We should all recognize this. All of us are going to be the ass at times. If you aren’t, you aren’t really saying anything of importance. We can control, however, the scope of our assiness. And the response we have when told we are being an ass about a particular topic. We should all recognize this.