Friday, March 05, 2010

Anonymity, Pseudonymity and the Internets

View at Piazza della Signoria from the front b...Image via Wikipedia
So my last exchange has gone to an odd place and made me decide to post some musings I've been having about the meaning of identity online. It's something I've been thinking about writing for a while.

Maurice Blanchot is one of the great thinkers of anonymity. Blanchot writes beautifully about the strange intimacy of what I'll call anonymity with a face, the strange passion, solicitude and care that can emerge between people who do not know each other, or hardly know each other, or only know each other in a very limited context, and that is quite common in urban life --- the first films that I can think of offhand that capture a similar vibe would be Lost in Translation and In the Mood for Love, though in both of those there are extenuating factors that make that dial the anonymity up or down.

Blanchot was introduced in this anonymity I think, as a corrective to the emphasis on the alienating notion of modern urbanism that had been pushed in writers as diverse as Karl Marx, Max Weber and Martin Heidegger, though the greatest stylists in this tradition (Baudelaire, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Sartre, Camus) had already been ambivalent about this ambiguity.

Politically, the care involved in this kind of ambiguity is important because it represents a possible for an ethics and politics based in compassionate human behavior without reducing to the various reactionary communalisms, nationalisms, and religiousness that have been pushed as the "solution" to the formalistic ills that ail liberal modernism.

I don't want to get too far into this here, but I do want to state that I value this form of anonymity aesthetically, philosophically and ethically (and probably in that order).  And one of the things that I've liked about the internets is that it has extended and invigorated this kind of ambiguity. There are people who I don't just consider friends, but who I really care about who I interact with primarily on the internet.  They are anonymous in the sense that I don't really know them apart from a certain very limited context and they are not integrated into a community in which my total life is more or less lived as in the pre-urban life

Now, they are not strictu sensu anonymous because they have names --- sometimes these names are their actual names (their actual El Guapos?), sometimes they are some online pseudonyms (like Ideas Man, Phd., but in either case these names function more in the sense of "faces" in the sense Blanchot is imagining than as names as statements of identity (on the other hand, see Kundera's discussion of faces in Immortality, which is probably the best novel I've read written about this kind of anonymity).  The notion of the online avatar, that stands in for your presence online, probably gets at this pretty well, though I haven't looked at how they work in enough depth to decide if this is true.

But suffice it to say, this kind of anonymity or pseudonymity is totally different from the utter anonymity that plagues the internet.  This is the sort of anonymity that allows trolling and flaming and other douchy behavior to flourish online.  In my own discipline, Brian Leiter, has probably been the most vocal critic of this kind of anonymity.  And I have to admit that I'm fairly sympathetic to the argument he's made, particularly as it pertains to certain kinds of formal discourse that take place online such as, for example, the extension of academic fora into cyberspace.  Even there I'm probably less sympathetic than he is, for reasons I'll discuss shortly.  When I participate online in this kind of formal discourse, I use my real name (and my full name) (unless there are good reasons not to, as for example, when a sensitive policy - like junior faculty blogging or discrimination against homosexuals at universities --- is being discussed --- and to his credit, Leiter has always been very good at respecting the place for this kind of anonymity) because I link that to my professional life as a member of the academic community.  Let's call this the professional sphere.

On the other extreme, there's the use of one's real name in (genuinely) walled but permanent contexts like emails or  (ostensibly) walled contexts like the facebook.  Originally, the facebook was conceived of as a place to connect with real-life friends online and that's how I originally used it.  In this context, one is free to say all sorts of things one wouldn't say in public discourse because one knows all the addressees.  Sure, that person could go on and forward it, but real networks of trust help us be confident that won't be true and it's not much different than he said/she said gossip in the real world anyway.  Let's call this the private sphere.

But then there's a middle milieu, let's think of this as anonymous public space.  I'm thinking of something analogous to sitting outside at a a cafe --- with your family say, or with friends, or --- to keep this focused on the question I'm most interested in addressing --- with your friends near an academic conference.

Now, when I'm sitting with my friends at a cafe or, to be perfectly honest, more likely a bar at an academic conference, we'll be talking about a lot of things --- we'll be catching up on our personal lives (because we live far apart from one another) or talking about the conference or politics or just shooting the shit.  Now, in that context we're neither fully anonymous nor are we fully professional, nor are we fully private.  And that gives certain freedoms to us that we wouldn't have in other contexts while at the same time putting certain constraints on discourse.  If I'm talking with my friends about a paper we just went to, we will be much less formal and obscene and free-ranging in our comments than we'd be in the Q & A session or in a paper we gave ourselves.  We know that we might be overheard by someone we know --- we know there's a good chance someone who we don't know might overhear us.  That keeps us in line, but it also gives a certain value to the conversation

[Some quick example, I once responded to a paper at an aesthetics conference --- in my response I talked about "palimpsests" and made heavy use of Thomas Mann's Dr. Faustus.  While getting coffee, I heard an extremely prominent aesthetics professor praising one of his students' decisions to use examples from child play in her upcoming paper, saying "it's not like we've all read Dr. Faustus." I'm sure he had no idea I was two people behind him in line, but given that we were getting coffee at the hotel's cafe it was entirely possible that I --- or a friend of mine --- was.    Later he told me, "I liked your comment."  I appreciated the feedback and imagine that it was in fact true, but not fully true.  The point is, that we all engage in these quasi-public ramblings.].

[Another example --- I was playing dominos with some people I'd just met at a conference at the hotel bar and started talking with the restaurant owner.  Had a fascinating conversation with him about his great-many-times-removed ancestor who'd been a slave-trader who left the trade to marry one of his slaves and with the bar's pianist who, as it happened grew up about 40 miles from where I did --- and very far from where the conference was.  This later ended up infusing the Q & A session of the paper I gave the next day]

[Final example --- my parents and my aunt and uncle once went out with some of their friends to dinner.  They are prominent in the tiny community of Mormon intellectuals in Utah and were talking about things that would have seemed interesting to the undoubtedly more traditionally Mormon audience in the restaurant.  By the end of the evening the group sitting at an adjacent table had given up any pretense of not eavesdropping and had actually turned their chairs around to face my family's table.  "Let's go," my uncle said. "I think they've heard enough."]

Here's the thing:  I love this quasi-anonymous public space.  To me, that's what Socrates meant by the agora and it's necessary to the vitality of philosophy, even if philosophy is now a respectable academic discipline.  I love being able to be paid to do philosophy and to teach and that means loving the way philosophy is done in the academy (which does not exhaust the ways philosophy can be done), but my first love was (and remains) the agora.

That has something to do with why I started writing this blog and why I wrote write it pseudonymously and why I have covered the range of topics that I have.

My wife and her sisters had blurties that they ran (back when blurty was competing with blog) and I would comment on it as a jokey anonymous guy (they all knew I was the only anonymous person who posted on there with one or two exceptions).

At the time, I thought I'd just post family related stuff on there or the occasional piece I'd written that didn't fit in either with my professional writing or the writing that fit in with my literary ambitions.  I decided not to use my real name for basically the same reason I don't now:  I didn't want the blog to show up if somebody googled my name.  I'm not a narcissist (well I am, but that's irrelevant here) nor am I paranoid (ditto) but I had 3 communities in mind:  1) prospective employers (this is still an issue since I'm part of the growing ranks of full-time, potentially permanent but ineligible for tenure professoriate --- as an aside, it's for us junior faculty that I have some objections to the hard line Leiter and other senior faculty draw against anonymity), 2) students and 3) extended family members.  It wasn't that I cared if any of these groups saw my blog (with the exception of some faculty members), but it was that I didn't want them to be the first face through which they'd see me and I didn't want to imply any connection with my professional life (which is mostly what shows up if you google my name --- I'm assuming I'm not the only one who periodically googles my name).  I knew, and still know, that if anyone who read my blog wanted to they could figure out who I was.  But I didn't think anyone would really bother to.  The blog was intended for family and friends and although I knew other people could find it, I doubted that they would care enough to know who I was --- sort of like the group eavesdropping on my parents' dinner conversations.

The reason that I chose the pseudonym I did wasn't meant to be pretentious.  It was meant to be a joke.  It went back to when Ideas Woman, Esq.  and I were both in grad school and we talked about all the "fantastic" ideas that we had --- like a taco shop in Bryn Mawr --- that we'd never get around to doing anything about that.  So we thought we should start an "Ideas Company" where we'd post great ideas and someone else would do the hard work of doing them.  And you know how if you go to the philosophy section of the bookstore, all the books are written by actual PhDs but none of them list "PhD" in the author on the cover, but if you go to the self-help section of a bookstore everyone there writes"PhD" on the cover of their book even if it's just from a PhD. mill --- I'm looking at you John Gray, PhD.  That's where the PhD came from (let me clarify, that's where Ideas Man's PhD came from --- my real life PhD is real and from an actual accredited school --- otherwise I wasted 6 years of my life and killed a lot of trees for notion.  That is arguably still the case).

Gradually, as I started using the blog to reconnect with friends I had from graduate school, more of my posts became influenced by philosophy or philosophically related matters.  They were an extension of the way that I would do philosophy at a cafe or bar or in the agora, not the way I'd do it in a professional article or at the lectern before colleagues or students.  And that's still basically true, although I have published the occasional rough draft (but even here it's of more experimental things).

The people I interacted with on my blog grew: from family to include friends, some of whom I became much better friends through our online interactions than I was before them.  When I started using the facebook, the community of the blog grew bigger.  At one point I started posting some very serious posts about my history as a Mormon, and I got a fairly positive reaction to them.  Dr. J in particular encouraged me to consider making them more widely available and, because I've always been interested in succeeding as a writer, I started to consider that more seriously.

This remains a personal blog, or a blog that takes place in the public space of the agora, but as the Internet Agora has grown, what that means has changed a lot.  I've submitted my first e-book to Kindle and will be posting a link to it as soon as it's published there.  I hope you'll all shell out a buck for it and then I'll be rich (if rich is defined as making 10 or 11 bucks).

I've also become very interested in e-publishing and a friend of mine and I are working on launching a media company that we hope will help to democratize quality publishing.  What is it Like to Be A Glenn Beck is one part of this push, which I'm working on with some of my philosophy friends here in Toledo.  And it will be fantastic.  And as soon as the website is up and running I'll link to it and you should all contribute.

In all of these ways, the "public" space has expanded and I've engaged in projects that get closer to being "professional,"  At the same time, I still like to write juvenile, humorous pieces and the occasional more literary but non-professional piece.

Since then, I've had two troll experiences, and the last one has given me the most pause.  The first guy I think misunderstood my joke and actually had a minor point (I was being a bit of a douche).  The second guy is clearly off his/her/its rocker.  People have pointed out that it probably isn't a student.  And even if it were a student I would make it clear that any interaction here had nothing to do with the professor/student relationship (sort of like when I awkwardly ran into a student who was working as the bouncer at a reputable bar we'd gone to).  The thing is, I'm worried for how this kind of behavior infringes on student academic freedom as much as the academic freedom of junior faculty (even when students use it in such unsurprisingly brainless ways).

So it has given me pause.  As I've mentioned, who I am is no secret, but I've used psuedonymity to delimit a boundary.  It's pretty clear that they evolution of social media means that boundary is going to partially breakdown.  And I'm basically ok with that, but I am worried that it'll make it harder not just for me, but for everyone to negotiate this middle not quite private not quite professional ground where a lot of interesting and fantastic stuff can happen.

But I know a lot of people who won't participate.  I know a lot of junior (and senior) faculty who are unwilling to engage in the fora of social media or blogs or wikis for fear of what it'll do to their professional career, particularly their shot at getting tenure.  I find it mostly ironic, but also very sad, that the thing that was developed to guarantee academic freedom is now getting in the way of academic freedom (is even as it becomes an increasingly remote possibility for many of us).  And I am genuinely worried that, because the public fora of social media won't go away, if interesting and intelligent academics stay out of them they will evolve in a stupid way, when they could represent a way to re-inject intellectual inquiry into public life.

So what's the solution?  Are the people who use anonymity as a cloak for abuse (and we've only touched on the surface of all the ways its going to be abused, many of which are much more serious)?  We talk about democratizing information, but to my mind one of the real promises of the internet is an increasingly robust social space.  But it's still the case that there are powerful threats that can destroy that social space...

Does this make any sense?
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The Jar said...

Hi Dr Ideas,

Very interesting and thought provoking. I also like the idea of the agora, although I often feel more like one of the uninformed masses trying to contribute in a clumsy manner.

As far as my own two cents, the 2nd troll WAS creepy. My first impression just from reading the first comment was that it was someone who had interacted with you in real life but doesn't actually know you. In a typicaly troll-like fashion I think most of the opinions were fake, but atypically I think they THOUGHT they were being playful. It also seemed likely that the person was between 14-18 because they clearly had a distorted notion of what is socially acceptable. It was almost if the behavior was predictably abberant. I put my money on a student who was horribly and awkwardly trying to "connect" with you.

As an aside, I think that your level of pseudo-anonymity is what I try for. Do you think it is worth changing the address of my blog so that there is less of a chance of the "wrong" people finding it? I think people in my field people are even less likely to care, but the whole teaching thing is worth considering?

The Jar

Thirdmango said...

I also felt the need to have an ounce of anonymity but still let friends and such know about my blog. The trouble is this troll is using anonymity in a different way then you ever intended or thought to use it. He used it instead of a protection or a way to muse, as a way to attack or abuse. If it does go any further or if he does reveal himself letting the police know would be a safe bet.

Hypatia'sGirl said...

Dr. Ideasman -

1st allow me to remind you that we totally wanted to work on a presentation and to mention that I think that this would be a fabulous and rich topic, if only because I'm totally fascinated by it.

2nd In my own less formal and extended way (I am, after all, only Hypatia's Girl, MA and less good at keeping up with the blog) totally agree with the spheres and reasons behind pseudonymity. At some point in meat space, because I'm not established enough to talk about it in data space, I'll tell you about my relationship with names.

3rd I think it is important that you distinguish between anonymity and pseudonymity. Hypatia's Girl is a constant, a tabula rasa to be filled in partially with what I write on the web as close to fully psudeonymized (on other blogs and message boards) as one can be and partially filled in with me. HG is not fully separable from Karen, and yet, is not identical with Karen. (It depends on the day which one is more angry, or more likely to lapse into intarwebz speek (can't be 1337 speak, I don't code)) This is both important to the development of ideas (the rehearsal space if I might rely on my thesis like a jackass) as well as potentially confusing for the generation who grew up as this kind of double life became more fluid.

4th (Perhpas I should split up this comment) I don't know that I agree with The Jar - Creepy troll sounds a lot like the sort of "I know who you are" trolls that show up on the pseudonymed blogs I read. It's about power, the sort of primal power of naming that infuses sympathetic magic, and a pathetic attempt at intimidation. Which is what raises my hackles every time I see it. (Incidentally, naming power is probably why we have names for immature internet behaviors like "troll" etc) I think The Jar is being too understanding, but it's also possible that the fact that attempted anonymous power plays like that get my little heart all afire and I become less kindly than I ordinarily appear.

Devin Zane Shaw said...

I found this thought provoking, perhaps because I considered some form of pseudonymity and then decided against it. But this means that I don't write much that is personal on the blog, making it more of an informal extension of what I do as an academic-- the important difference being that the blog has a lot of initial ideas and sketches, and the academic stuff is hopefully better written and argued.

Man from the Underground said...

I have a great deal of experience reading/listening to abusive language online, mostly while playing Halo and World of Warcraft. In my opinion, Internet anonymity has done little more than foster Lord of the Flies-style free-for-alls where callow anger management cases get a rush hurling racist/sexist/homophobic invective just because. Anonymity allows these boulder-poking Rogers to deliver abuse they never could in RL because it would get them their asses kicked in a heartbeat. It's something I imagine one will probably witness much less often in the blogosphere of pseudonymous junior academics, perhaps because the callow anger management cases are all busy playing Halo and World of Warcraft.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

The Jar: I don't think your blog has any bigger risk of the "wrong" people finding it --- the question becomes, how does it get search-indexed, which is kinda outside of your control.

Hypatia's Girl: The Arendtian context of what I'm writing here is clear --- we should look around for somewhere to present --- there's lots of interesting stuff going on in the digital humanities, so I'll look there.

Everyone: thanks for the advice/support/encouragement.

DOCTOR J said...

Ideas Man,

Wow. I got a couple of days behind on my blog-feed and missed all the drama with your troll. Yikes.

First, let me say for the record that it would be a terrible loss to the rest of us if your anonymous troll forced you to stop blogging (or to self-censor). I'm very glad to see you fight back.

I've also struggled with the various gray areas of anonymity, pseudonymity, and regular-old-identity in the blogosphere. I even posted something about anonymity on nmy own blog. Like you, I choose to use a pseudonym for my online activities-- mostly for the same reasons that you mention here-- but I know that my pseudonym isn't any kind of real "veil" to hide my real identity. At best, it only requires someone who wants to know to expend a couple of extra keystrokes to find the real me.

Your troll was scary, though... and his activities just go to show how delicate (and manufactured) our division of the public/private/professional zones really are.

The Jar said...

Actually, Hypatia's girl, I think you are right that I was too understanding. I wrote the above after only reading the first few comments and didn't see how far it went. Very stalkerish and entirely ugly.

I do try to be slow to take a strongly reactive position in comments on the internets because in the past I have really embarrassed myself by being too hasty in going negative. Other people in the world have more reliable filters than I do, so I try to stay out of it if I feel like I might get emotional.

Anna said...

I've done a great deal of thinking about this subject, as I'm sure anyone who's grown up using the internet has. There's something about the interchangeability and dispensability of online personas that reveal your nature. Do you use anonymity to troll, or use the same nickname everywhere? I tend towards the latter, although I certainly understand the appeal of having no accountability for one's words.

I'm not a philosopher (at least, not in a way that would get me letters after my name) but I really enjoyed this post.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...


Thanks for your comments and I'm glad you enjoyed the post.