The protection afforded by pseudonyms depends on the community

Jan 21 2014 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, BlogBlather, Blogging

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.

So....about me.

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.

31 responses so far

  • bill says:

    We embrace granfalloon.

    Are you sure it's not a real karass?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Yes. Vonnegut was correct in ALL the things.

  • Thanks. This is a really good post.
    But being pseudonymous, don't you even wish to tell people around you about your blogging success? I have to bite my tongue every time I want to run around the lab bragging about how many page views I've had that day… It's very weird for me not to be able to share that enthusiasm with IRL people around me.

  • drugmonkey says:

    There are many people in my real life who know about the blog. Friends, family and several colleagues both within my department and without. There are also a set of people in the professional sphere who surely must know and are kind enough not to bring it up with me directly.

    For the most part if I am asked, I will admit it. The exceptions are generally when someone asks me in front of other people. The fact that they do so I attribute to the points I was making above- they find it so obvious that it is you that they cannot remotely imagine that you are maintaining the pseud for-real. So they blurt it out in front of other people.

    I will either evade or just straight out lie to such people.

  • Ginger says:

    I left this comment on Michael Eisen's blog, but it seems to fit here as well.

    You're assuming that we can believe you when you say your name is "Stephen Hurrell", but the truth is we can't. The spurious debate over anonymous or pseudonymous names on the internet is a red herring; what we're really talking about is how we code people by names. The internet allows us to disguise certain aspects, such as gender, race, orientation, nationality, etc., and this is what makes it difficult for some people to deal with. If you're privileged enough (i.e., white, male, heterosexual, Christian, American, middle-class, etc.), then you (plural) haven't had to check your assumptions of the default persona before (or very often), and when challenged to do so, many of the privileged people become defensive.

    Henry Gee outed Dr. Isis because he felt challenged by her, and wanted to make it easier for others to assign gender, race, etc., so they could treat her differently again. That's the basic underlying pathology, which is misogyny.

    All of us can claim any name or moniker online. Our identity isn't our names; it's our interactions with each other. We create our identities by the way we interact and where we interact, and this becomes associated with the label of name or nickname. I can post under a different name in my regular online communities, and it may take some time for my attributes to become reassigned, but people will recognize me because of my specific style of interactions. That is true for all of us. That's why reviewers become identifiable in peer comments; it's not a bug, it's inherent in our social capabilities -- whether face-to-face or online makes no difference.

    If a person is bigoted, his behavior will give him away far more quickly than his name in an online forum. That's why Ed Rybicky and Henry Gee have run into opposition: they're demonstrating their inner attributes very publicly, and being called on it, which is new to them. That is the power of the internet."

    Which is to say, using a nym to protect oneself from conflict (of interest or other potentially sticky issues) is perfectly acceptable, and has been an accepted use for pseudonyms since before the founding of the US. Posting as a private citizen benefits the scientific community as a whole, especially when the poster is not the default "person", and has a different perspective to bring to our attention. The rich diversity of the internet is its strength.

  • dsks says:

    "And said blowhard clearly injured his own real-life standing with his petulance."

    You'd think, but the bugger has been blowing harder than a Nor'easter for years by all accounts, without apparent consequence.

  • rs says:

    whatever your real name is, I don't care and never tried to figure it out. I enjoy reading your blog, its comments and has learned a lot from your active interactions with other scientist online. Keep doing good work, DM.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    This is so annoying. If people want to feel like you are full of it when discussing grants and what not, then they can easily do that regardless of who you are or what is true about your experience. I would be very nervous about this kind of outing behavior, because one motivator is that someone doesn't agree with you and since the argument is on the internet, they want to diminish your perceived authority. But I think this is an imagined audience- they want to diminish you publicly in other people's eyes to the level of how they see you- who are they performing this show for? This seems silly.

  • Grumble says:

    Damn. I hope your grants are far less windy and pointless than this post.

  • Dave says:

    Anyone with decent hacking skills could find out who we are in a few minutes, so it's really not worth worrying about. Just don't upset Anonymous and you should be fine!!!!!

  • gingerest says:

    Irony: I am just chiming in to say that the Ginger above is a different person than I am (I have previously commented here and elsewhere as "ginger", and part of the reason I switched to "gingerest" was to try to differentiate from the other Ginger, who's been around the science blogs for quite a while too.)
    I agree with what she says, mostly - I do think Gee was motivated partly by misogyny, but the argument falls down because Dr I, under the 'nym, was so openly a female scientist.

  • GAATTC says:

    By not knowing who you are DM, I can make you who I want you to be -- which is a fount for funding news and guidance. You obviously have areas of passion, and that's ok. But if I knew who you were it would, in my opinion, dilute your general-ness.

  • Ginger (the Third) says:

    Ironically, I hadn't realized there was more than one (1) Ginger on the science blogs, as I rarely meet one in Real Life. My apologies to gingerest for potentially confusing things! (And I am probably not That Ginger, either; I tend to lurk.)

    As for your point about Dr. Isis being openly female, yes -- and I had meant to suggest that was one of his reasons for targeting her (for retribution): because a female blogger didn't agree with him, called him on his BS, and opposed his misogyny. For some privileged people, when another blogger dares to fight back while openly female (or other Other), it is going to trigger a rage. That doesn't mean we shouldn't fight such misogyny, of course; quite the opposite!

  • Macrophagic says:

    Without a pseud I probably wouldn't have any online content whatsoever for fear that a future employer would find it with a simple google search and not approve. Whatever is posted with my real name is carefully screened to make absolutely certain it can't be misconstrued or taken wildly out of context.

    This is why my professional twitter account (not Macrophagic) is 100% separate from my personal one. And why my private livejournal [hey, if it's good enough for George RR Martin, it's good enough for me] will not be tied in any way to either.

  • None says:

    There does seem to be an odd balance of power here. If people want to have others respect their thin veil of anonymity then they will have to offer a bare minimum of respect back... even if it's not deserved.

    I don't know you but I do know who is behind the veil - with the internet these days it's usually not that hard to figure things out. I will respect your veil because, why not? One doesn't have to go out of ones way to be a jerk all the time but it goes both ways. I think it's pragmatic for those using pseudo to keep in mind that they are asking people to stay classy and respect their anonymity. I think the condition there is that a minimum level of respect need to be offered back if you are asking for that.

  • drugmonkey says:

    There does seem to be an odd balance of power here. If people want to have others respect their thin veil of anonymity then they will have to offer a bare minimum of respect back... even if it's not deserved.

    and yet you are unconcerned about the "odd balance of power" that is represented by the usual power structures and is a substantial part of why some people pseud-up. sigh. And this is exactly the sort of threat that I'm addressing tangentially and Eisen took on more directly. The "bare minimum of respect" is sadly translated in many minds to "I must not feel uncomfortable or like my ideas are disrespected in the slightest!". So it makes your standard here the same as saying "boo, pseuds".

    I think the condition there is that a minimum level of respect need to be offered back if you are asking for that.

    and what might that be? how is that a universal standard? how is this any different than people who say "I cannot ever be called out because it is not cricket in the Ivory Tower, wot, wot old boy"?

  • None says:

    It seems to me that some Psued bloggers want their cake and eat it too. They want to be able to criticize and insult and belittle without concern of any blowback. I said some and not all.

    Of course there isn't a universal standard, what one thinks is within the bounds of acceptable behaviour may be way over the line for others.

    What I see from this whole HenryGee things is immaturity on both sides. Do I disagree with a lot of Henry's writings? Sure, that woman space thing was god awful. I think we could stop right there and say he's lacking in judgement but 'outing isis'? C'mon, that's lame. He 'outed her' (I put that in quotes as he identity was widely known by her omission) was simply Henry giving her a poke in the eye for accusing him of something he didn't do - and he was pissed and limited to 140 characters. I don't see it as the huge drama that everyone is making it out to be - one thing the Sciblogger community is FANTASTIC at is drama. I think the vast majority of serious scientists roll their eyes and get back to doing research.

  • drugmonkey says:

    They want to be able to criticize and insult and belittle without concern of any blowback.

    In one sense you are correct. However this overlooks at least two things. People who have power are able to "criticize and insult and belittle without an concern of any blowback" This is what it means to have power. So for them to want to be able to deploy their considerable power in defense of themselves, while behaving the ass to the powerless, and simultaneously whining about being criticized, THIS is the very definition of wanting to have their cake and eat it too. Second, you simply refuse to believe that a pseud identity has any vulnerability to community or social "blowback". This is unsound.

    I don't see it as the huge drama that everyone is making it out to be - one thing the Sciblogger community is FANTASTIC at is drama. I think the vast majority of serious scientists roll their eyes and get back to doing research.

    Right. So just because you personally do not give a shit about some issue that is of importance to another person, you roll your eyes and dismiss them as "dramatic". No doubt "hysterical" is on the tip of your keyboard as well. I realize you have a lot of company in this self-righteous stance but it is juvenile. I don't happen to agree with you that it is a good way to behave. We all have eye-roll moments about the concerns of other people, not saying I don't. What is "immature" in this, however, is to trivially dismiss others concerns instead of trying to understand where they are coming from.

    If you think it is only the Sciblogger community that is fantastic at drama, well, you need to get out more. From academic societies, to departmental and University politics to subfields competition, to graduate student life, to....dude, there's drama. The only difference here is that being a public venue with a record, you can see it if you want to.

  • None says:

    Sure it can be hard to know when to take someones hurt feelings seriously. nice to see that you are so ready to throw the *hysterical* word out there. Seems to be on the tip of your tongue. Funny that.

    I don't take the isis thing seriously because *as per her own omission* she wasn't all that anonymous. Most people who wanted to know who she was knew already so what's the big deal?

    I totally agree that academia is full of drama and silliness. On the plus side I don't really believe in science based conspiracies because academics are the most gossipy group of people I've ever worked with. At least it can be entertaining.

  • Juniper says:

    Yes. Everyone knows who us pseudonymous bloggers are. Doesn't make it right to make it nothing-but-easy for people to identify a pseudonymous blogger without her permission just because you dislike her. It's called principle.

    That "inconsequential" thing is really, as you say, chapping my ass. It is making boil over all the resentment I feel over academic/STEM narcissists and egotists, not all of but a lot of whom are men, who routinely decide that the degree of professionalism someone deserves depends on whether or not she is Special. In their own "objective" estimation, no less!

    Why do you guys think that whether or not you should out a pseudonymous blogger in your supervisory capacity at a powerful institution relevant to her career or otherwise adhere to workplace policy/university policy/FERPA/etc. is contingent on whether or not you think that person is worthy enough for professional behavior? Are you high? Did you do acid and hallucinate that part into the text of the policy/law? Did Mommy teach you that you were a special snowflake way more special-er than the plebeians and slobs you were woefully cast out of heaven to endure?

    Why do you guys also think that whether or not you behave professionally is contingent on your m'f'ing intentions? I couldn't care less about your intentions. You're still in the wrong. Open your narcissistic mouth and say it with me-- without appending all your stupid excuses, either.

    Who are you guys, anyway? What makes you so superior? Are you Issac Newton? Are you Charles Darwin? Will science collapse without your scintillating contributions?

    If you have a problem with someone's arguments/performance, fine. There are professional ways to address that. And for fuck's sake calm the fuck down and stop going into every interaction with a zealot's conviction that you are so much better than the rest of us!

  • drugmonkey says:

    Most people who wanted to know who she was knew already so what's the big deal?

    I doubt Gee knew this and I bet he thought he was doing her significant harm. And the next person he (or you or some other asshole) decides to out might not be in the same degree of "outness". Or might not be in a position in which outing wouldn't do much harm.

    Do you actually read the posts that people write or do you just jump in with your pre-existing opinion, unfettered by what anyone else might be saying?

  • None says:

    [EDITED on request- DM]

  • chemicalbilology says:

    To respect None's next reply, I edited out my response.

  • None says:

    You know what? I regret the above post. Looking at the links again (which I got off twitter) there's actually a slim chance you tried to out Isis back in 2012.

    That's what I really despise about these online forums, they tend to drag people to the lowest common denominator and I fell for it. Sorry about that.

    If you would delete my post above I would appreciate it.

    God damn I hate twitter - I really do think it brings out the worst in people and is a major largely useless time suck.

    I need to go do some actual work instead of participating in these juvenile online debates.

  • drugmonkey says:

    [Deleted, no longer relevant - DM]

  • None says:

    That's what tipped me off. Although Elvis was jewish (or at least his grandmother was) I was made aware that DG firmly believes that elvis is still alive and therefor the tense was incorrect.

    It's the small details that can tip you off. :p

  • None says:

    Thanks - sorry for being a douche. Good day.

  • anonymous postdoc says:

    I did appreciate the experience of watching the pseud "None" argue against the utility of pseudonyms. Delicious.

  • […] The protection afforded by pseudonyms depends on the community. In which community standards are discussed. Hint: they do not include outing […]

  • The Other Dave says:

    Stuff like this was interesting in, like, seventh grade.

    I'm not used to seeing it among grown-ups.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I had a recent experience in which a professional peer (who actually knows me relatively well) remarked "I had no idea who 'Drugmonkey' was and Dr. X [another peer of mutual acquaintance] laughed at me and said it was the worst kept secret on the Internet".

    This validates my assertions in the post. Again.

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