Blogging under a pseudonym: the politics & ethics of anonymity in online communities

“Who are you?”

“No one of consequence.”

“I must know.”

“Get used to disappointment.”

~ William Goldman, The Princess Bride

Pinnacles shadow, by @debsnet

The literary world has a long history of authors who have written under pseudonyms. Charles Dickens, Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, Isaac Asimov, Agatha Christie, Benjamin Franklin, the Brontë sisters and Dr Seuss all had alternate author identities. Famous author-names Mark Twain and Lewis Carroll are pseudonyms. Yet while author pen names are an accepted reality of the literary world, blogging under a pseudonym often garners criticism and suspicion. I have read posts and comments in which people claim that blogging pseudonomically is about being secretive and hiding oneself behind a shield of cowardice.

For me blogging and tweeting are about being part of global conversations. Blogging allows me to expand my contribution to and engagement in those conversations in more depth than a micro 140-characters-at-a-time platform will allow. It allows me to reveal more of me, to make visible my thinking, to be transparent about my perspective.

I have written before about the ways that being connected with others online helps me to grow and to feel as though I have found my tribe of like-minded kindred spirits in contexts. This blog post, itself emerging from and at the same time inserting itself into a conversation, has arisen out of a chat today with Greg Thompson.

And yet I write this blog (the édu flâneuse) and tweet (@debsnet) from names which do not reveal my entire identity to the world. How can I make real connections in an online world in which I do not reveal my real name? What’s in a name? Is it the ticket to transparency and a guarantee of fidelity?

Those I have connected with seem to accept my authenticity despite being unable to pop my name into a search engine without first engaging in some interaction. I don’t feel that others respond to my online contributions with distrust, but I can’t be sure that some don’t look at this site or my Twitter profile and discount me as someone who lacks honesty or credibility. There are cautionary tales like this one from Corinne Campbell about the impacts of trusting people’s online identities.

There was recently some Twitter conversation about teachers’ considerations when sharing student work, within the context of the #IWishMyTeacherKnew hashtag. While it went viral, those such as Rafranz Davis questioned the issues of trust, privacy and ownership of the work and voice of others. Whose place is it to publically share details about others? In our world of relentless sharing, do we sometimes under-think the ethical ramifications of what we put online and who we might be exposing?

The pseudonymisation of my online identities is not for me about a rigorous building of a fake persona. I write very much as myself and happily share my posts with bosses, colleagues, professionals, friends and family. I discuss and share my blog with people I know in my personal and professional worlds. I enthusiastically introduce myself in real life to those people with whom I connect with online. I share my email address in direct messages on Twitter, thereby beginning lengthy conversations and sustained relationships. But while I don’t think my online persona is a controversial or argumentative one, I wonder about the ethics of publicising my self in terms of the potential ripples for others: my students, my school, my university, my research participants and even my own children.

My choice to exist online as a pseudonym is a result of grappling with issues of ethics. I have a name that is very easily traceable. One entry into Google and all public information about me is revealed, including where I work and study; who I teach and who I research.

At times I would quite like to publically claim the intellectual property in these posts. I could stamp my name on my blog and link it to my Linked In profile: ‘Look! It’s me!’ But I feel like I am being more respectful of my school, university, supervisors, students and research participants if I give them some cover between my words and their identities. My online identity isn’t only about me; I am the gatekeeper of others’ identities too.

Can we be part of a global conversation without full disclosure of who we are? Should we all be free to publically share ourselves and details of our contexts? Are there finer ethical issues at play in the blogosphere?

Perhaps there will come a time when I figure out a rationale for blogging under my name. Maybe when I submit my PhD thesis and publish papers, I’ll realise there is no such thing as ethical protection in an online world. In the meantime, I’ll endeavour to engage in global conversations in ways which are genuine, considered and with an awareness of how my words might impact on others.

Broome shadow, by @debsnetI hoped to keep this secret a little longer, because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience! It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback from publishers and readers under a different name. ~ J. K. Rowling

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3 thoughts on “Blogging under a pseudonym: the politics & ethics of anonymity in online communities

  1. Pingback: Liquid becoming: Reflections on post-PhD identity and momentum | the édu flâneuse

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