On anonymous blogging

In her latest post, Mad Hatter talks about her “coming out” to a colleague as an anonymous blogger. Her post got me thinking about why, about a year and a half ago, when I finally mustered the courage to start blogging myself, I opted not to do it anonymously. In my initial blog, while disclosing my identity, I was nevertheless forced to use a user name different than my own (one of LiveJournal’s, er, “features”). On the other hand, here at my new home I happily use my real life first name.

I do not regret my choice, and I think I enjoy my blogging experience much better this way. I can see why one would feel more comfortable blogging anonymously, as blogging serves different purposes for all of us. Still, I thought I would expound my own reasons for not trying to hide my identity.

Let me make it absolutely clear that I am not in any way criticizing anonymous bloggers (some of my best friends blah blah blah), who have their own perfectly valid reasons for doing what they do. I just wish to articulate here why someone in my position, not needing to remain anonymous and being sufficiently shameless to put himself out there (in the process making a spectacle of his maladroitness with foreign washing machines), may benefit from disclosing his/her identity from the get-go [0].

1) Anonymity greatly limits what one can talk about, and how.
Anonymity must be protected. That means that great care must be taken not to give away details that may eventually lead to the author’s identification. Besides being probably mildly stressful, to me this is detrimental to the effectiveness of the writing, which necessarily must remain vague, to some extent. Descriptions of situations, people and events about which the blogger feels sufficiently strongly to want to share his/her feelings about them with friends throughout blogosphere, are necessarily incomplete, imprecise, and as a result often not as compelling and credible as they could be.
This seems particularly relevant for those bloggers who like to write about their personal and professional lives. It seems impossible not to resolve this conundrum by giving oneself slowly away, as more and more hints are offered (willingly or inadvertently) in order to render the interaction with other bloggers (which is a crucial part of this entire exercise) more meaningful, both intellectually and personally.

2) Remaining anonymous is essentially impossible
Readers wanting to do so, can find out who the blogger is. They will eventually find out. As mentioned above, inevitably a blogger is going to give some details away, which, when patched together, will allow one with sufficient time (surprisingly little is needed in most cases) to identify the author.
It is important to keep one thing in mind: in the vast, overwhelming majority of cases, there is no malice or ill intent whatsoever on the part of someone trying to find out who is the person who writes those posts. Most readers wish to do so out of mere curiosity, elicited mostly by admiration for someone on whose writings they have come to depend for entertainment, education and possibly inspiration.
And sometimes people simply find out by serendipity. Recently, a friend confessed to me to have pretty much nailed down the identity of a fairly prominent anonymous blogger, simply based on snippets of informations contained in that blogger’s own posts, which my friend reads avidly (no names of places nor people were given, ever, in any of the posts). As we discussed this occurrence, we both agreed that it would have been fairly awkward to run into that person — not sure why, it just feels so.
As for regular commenters (normally fellow bloggers), most of us who blog utilize hit counters, which furnish very accurate information as to, for example, the geographical location of those who read our blogs and comment. Much of that is information which we really did not seek. Most of us simply wish to know how many readers we have, and in what part of the world they are located, again out of mere curiosity — but counters give us IP addresses, with which one could in principle find out a heck of a lot more than that. Obviously, it is information with which we are not going to do absolutely anything, but I wonder how many anonymous bloggers are aware of how exposed they really are [1].

3) Credibility
I know, a book should not be judged by its cover, and if the arguments expounded in a post are sound and effectively presented, they should be taken seriously regardless of where they come from. In principle, that is. In practice, I think most of us like to run our own “background checks” on anyone who expresses a view point, no matter how competent sounding, especially on a scientific subject. Granted, often times the language utilized by the author, the level of reasoning and the realism of the situations described, will lend a post sufficient credence; still, there is something to be said for allowing readers to make their own independent assessment as to what extent the blogger’s opinion on that or that other subject should be regarded as credible and cogent.

I would be curious whether the above reasons are shared by some of my blog buddies who also post with their own full name, such as Cath, Cherish, Doug and others.


[0] OK, this is driving me crazy: what the heck is the contrary of anonymously ? Onymously ?

[1] It is in principle possible not to leave a trail behind one’s visit to web site by using services such as anonymizer, but I doubt if many use them. Among other things, often times they make it difficult to comment.

26 Responses to “On anonymous blogging”

  1. Cherish Says:

    Descriptions of situations, people and events about which the blogger feels sufficiently strongly to want to share his/her feelings about them with friends throughout blogosphere, are necessarily incomplete, imprecise, and as a result often not as compelling and credible as they could be.

    I do see an advantage to this: removing the details of the situation can allow one to write something that seems to apply to many people’s work or life. Making it vague creates a situation which is more generally applicable, if done well.

    Honestly, I didn’t run into the idea of posting anonymously until I’d already had my LJ for a couple years. I started it out as a way to keep in touch with some of my friends, so it didn’t make sense to be anonymous. I have noticed, now that other people read it, that I am more careful about what I say, especially about my kids. On the other hand, I like the fact that I don’t have to worry about someone finding out who I am, thus making it easier to interact with others. Trying to write to people under a veil of secrecy seems daunting.

    So yeah…what you said. 🙂

  2. Cath@VWXYNot? Says:

    On point 1: yes, but non-anonymity (I don’t know the word either! Nonymity, maybe, if the a in anonymity means “without”) limits you too. Some of the limits are the same (I am vague about exactly who I work for, for example, and I wouldn’t want any of my friends, family or colleagues to find themselves in a blog post through Google if I haven’t asked them for express permission to mention them by name. So I don’t use real names), some are different (in some cases I would love to have a good venting rant, but can’t because I blew my anonymity in about my 2nd month of blogging by linking to one of my papers).

    Incidentally I would prefer for a Google search on my real name to bring up my Nature Network blog, but not my personal blog. That’s why I never use my surname on my personal blog. The two blogs are extensively cross-linked, it’s not a secret, but I’d prefer that first Google page to look more impressive, e.g. if I apply for a new job and they look me up. Not that there’s anything on my other blog that I’m ashamed of.

    I agree with you on points 2 and 3. And I apologise for my dreadful grammar today.

  3. transientreporter Says:

    I’m anonymous because I’m a coward. That’s all.
    (oh, and I don’t have tenure yet)

  4. Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

    Cath — I do not buy the notion that being anonymous gives you more freedom. In practice, because you have to keep your identity hidden, you end up limiting severely the amount of ranting that you can do, for the reasons that you mention yourself.
    Hmmm…. “distinctive blogger”… I kinda like that….

    transient — I know no probationary faculty who blogs non-anonymously. I can see why one would be hesitant, although, honestly, it is very hard for me to imagine any situation wherein one would be turned down because of a blog. One may even be able to sell it as “outreach”.

    • Cath@VWXYNot? Says:

      What I’m saying is that the limits and freedoms are different. I can mention one of my papers (a pseudonymous blogger can not), but I can’t rant about this annoying thing that a colleague did (a pseudonymous blogger can).

    • transientreporter Says:

      Yeah, and my blog is pretty innocuous. I think the bigger issue is that people overestimate the amount of time one spends blogging – they think it’s like writing a paper. So, colleagues may give you that look – you know, the Why-Aren’t-You-Spending-Your-Time-More-Productively-look. This suggests that the more productive you are, the more forgiving they will be if you blog. You also get the Why-Don’t-You-Have-the-Time-to-Do-That-Thing-I-Asked-You-to-Do-When-You-Obviously-Have-Time-to-Blog etc etc which is always a drag…

      Another excellent non-tenured prof/non-anonymous blogger was Dr Free-Ride. I say “was” because she’s now tenured, so I guess blogging didn’t hurt her any.

  5. Katherine Haxton Says:

    Hi Massimo! Probationary faculty here who blogs non-anonymously! Generally sell it as outreach 🙂 (also Alice Pawley over at http://www.scienceblogs.com/sciencewomen)

    I’d say the restrictions on what I write as real-name me are harder to work around than what I write as various versions of pseud-name me. There is something restrictive about knowing that ones colleagues and parents are reading!

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      I cannot believe this — I went to get a cup of coffee and as I was walking across the street I remembered your Nature blog. I figured, OK, I can always edit my comment, it’s not like she’s going to post a comment in the next fifteen minutes… My apologies.
      Again, I see what you are saying but I am not sure blogging anonymously without mentioning names, places, cogent professional details, worrying all the time (to different degrees, of course) about giving yourself away, really makes for a more complete and satisfactory blogging experience.
      And there is something to be said for taking responsibility of what you write, by placing your name at the bottom.

    • transientreporter Says:

      Hi Katherine!

  6. saskboy Says:

    I had one notable malicious anonymous troll in my comments a couple years ago, and they used an anonymizer, but not before I first banned their other IP. It was very obvious who was using the anonymizer, especially since it didn’t work properly the first time and the “referrer” was the anonimizer service IP for one of the entires of the banned IP.

  7. ruchi aka arduous Says:

    I used to be anonymous, but as I was publishing my pieces at other places and trying to get freelance writing, it struck me as unproductive that my writing samples were all listed on a blog with a pseudonym. So I used my real name to seem more professional like.

    The biggest issue for me though in terms of blogging with my real name limiting my freedom is now my blog is listed on my facebook page. Which means I have people like former bosses reading my blog. Which limits how much I want to talk about how to go green by not using toilet paper. But that’s probably for the best anyway…. 😉

  8. ruchi aka arduous Says:

    Ha ha! Bring it on!! When are you in town?

  9. ruchi aka arduous Says:

    Okay, well as long as I don’t have an exam the next day I think we’re good….

  10. Mad Hatter Says:

    Gotta agree with Cath’s point about anonymity allowing a blogger to discuss topics s/he might not feel comfortable doing IRL. There are quite a few posts I would not have written at all if I were not (relatively) anonymous. After all, a major reason I maintain my blog is to have an outlet for thoughts/opinions that I can’t or won’t discuss openly IRL, so having to omit details is, for me, a small price to pay for the free soapbox.

    And I agree it’s probably relatively easy to figure out who a particular blogger is given enough determination and time. I realized just how “exposed” I was as soon as I figured out all the information I could get out of my hit counter. I’ve always assumed no one would be interested enough in my real-life identity to try to figure it out.

    But just out of curiosity, do you know who I am? If you want to make a guess by email, I’ll tell you if you’re right!

  11. Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

    But just out of curiosity, do you know who I am?

    No I do not. I have actually never tried to find out the identity of anyone. In some cases I figured it out simple because it became obvious (e.g., with a mutual acquaintance of ours). I suspect, however, that it would not take long at this point, especially if you have a web presence (which most scientists do). In fact, I would bet that some of your regular readers know who you are.

    • Mad Hatter Says:

      “I suspect, however, that it would not take long at this point…”

      Interested in putting that to the test? I’d be willing to bet that you can’t figure out who I am. I’m not trying to disparage your investigative skills…it’s just that there are a hell of a lot of biologists, which makes it harder to narrow down.

      You can make one guess by email, and I’ll tell you whether you’re right or wrong so long as you agree not to divulge the information to anyone else. We should agree on a reasonable time limit, and what the winner of the bet gets is negotiable. Needless to say, asking other bloggers who may or may not know who I am is cheating.

      What do you say? I’m actually genuinely curious to know how easily it can be done.

  12. Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

    MH — maybe I have not made myself clear. I am not saying that I, Massimo Boninsegni, can do it, but I am quite sure that others could. I am not particularly good at this, and like I said, I have never had a strong desire for it (though I am obviously curious because my blogging friends are people I deem interesting and worth knowing).
    I am sure that there are many biologists and that narrowing it down would be hard but… I am also equally sure that it could be narrowed it down to a few fairly easily. Remember, I am assuming that the person trying to do that has seen your IP address and therefore has inferred what the university is.

  13. ruchi aka arduous Says:

    Massimo is clearly too chicken to take the bet. 😉

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Me: “I am in London in mid June. Are you ready for a karaoke showdown ? You and me, high noon… are you on ?”
      She: “Okay, well as long as I don’t have an exam the next day I think we’re good….”

      Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, who is the chicken here, huh, huh, huh ?

  14. Cherish Says:

    Imagining you doing karaoke just made my head explode. Never saw that one coming.

  15. ruchi aka arduous Says:

    Oh, come on, I said I was in so long as I don’t have an exam the next day!! That’s pretty fair … I am a grad student after all!! 🙂

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