Monday, 22 August 2011

Anonymous Blogging

There's been a lot of fuss on twitter recently about @Lord_Credo (account now deleted). A blogger recently announced that he was "fake" and had run an account based on a lot of lies. This got me thinking more broadly about anonymous and pseudonymous blogging. I like blogs under pseudonyms, that's why I have one. I want to argue that some of the greatest works of public discourse were pseudonymous blogs, and that, all things being equal, I dont want the people who run them to be outed.

First the topic at hand. Credo is bad because he allegedly committed real world fraud with actual money. This is the point where @Lord_Credo stops being an anonymous blogger and becomes a real person committing meatspace crimes. There are already laws for this. If people can sustain the allegation that Michael Gordon Bracci has taken money from them on false pretences then he needs to be taken to court and thence to prison. The fact that the internet was involved is irrelevant.

The question for me is this: should the fact that @Lord_Credo turned out to be "fake" tell us something about pseudonymous blogging?

I'd say it reminds us what the pseudonym is for, but other than that not really.

Why do people adopt psudonyms? There are two reasons:

  1. Personal safety: they wish to whistleblow, to talk about things in a repressive country, or to talk about things that are potentially embarrassing about themselves. (An example of the last is Bell de Jour)
  2. They want a level playing field. They dont feel their given name will reflect on the content of the blog fairly. This is both positive and negative, some who feel their name is tainted use a pseudonym to get a fair hearing, some who already have an established and respected name use them to have their ideas respected on their merits. (More later).
There's a reason I'm talking about pseudonymous blogging. Because anonymous blogging properly speaking is another matter. There's a good example of it: 4chan. Almost every comment is totally stripped of any mark identifying the author. There is nothing but the bare words, no way to test if the author's views have been justified in the past. When you read a claim on 4chan it is exactly that, a bare claim. Do the legwork yourself before deciding if it's reasonable to believe it. As such, 4chan is an unhelpful place to find information or analysis. (Not to say it doesn't exist, it does).

A pseudonym is something else, it is a name connecting many posts together. Based on past experience of the claims under this name a sensible assessment can be made of how reliable the author is, and how far the analysis should be respected. This is why @Lord_Credo's outing is upsetting for me, it's not for nothing that he was regularly in the House of Twits top 10 political bloggers. His analysis and insider knowledge was always interesting and insightful. The fact that he got it without the Downing Street pass he claimed is totally irrelevant.

This is fundamentally the point, in a pseudonymous blog the only thing that is relevant is the posts, is the author right or wrong? 

This was shown very well in some of the best examples of pseudonymous blogs ever. The Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers. Get over the fact that they were written on dead trees. These documents were pseudonymous blogs arguing for and against the constitution proposed by the Philadelphia Convention. When reading Publius and the Federal Farmer the fact that the two of them are actually (several) notable politicians is ignored, the only thing that counts is the arguments. If they were published under real names it seems likely that political friends and enemies of the relevant politicians would be keen to accept all the arguments of one side and reject all the arguments of the other. As it is you can clearly see the federalists loose the argument on the size of the House of Representatives and the Bill of Rights and the anti-federalists loose the argument on the election systems and power of the President.

But what about bloggers who aren't pseudonymous for the noble reason of pretending not to be politicians? 

I'd quite like then to stay anonymous, for either serious or flippant reasons.

I have many names, to various people I am: Rebellion Kid, Adam, John, melky, minion, and half a dozen others that I'm not going to mention here. Why not? Because I dont want you to know that they're me. 

We all of us speak to different people in different ways. This is because things said in one social context, whilst not immoral, are unacceptable in other contexts. I would very much like to defend the separation of social contexts. And for this reason I'd like people not to be accountable in one context for embarrassing statements in another. 

I want Paul Chambers to be able to say "Fuck! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together or I'm blowing the place sky high!" and as no harm whatever is caused by this I'd like for him to be able to keep his job. I want to be able to say fuck on here as much as I cunting well please without upsetting my grandmother. I want Bell de Jour to be able to talk about things she doesn't want to tell her relatives and friends. 

I especially want this to be true at the dangerous end. To out a Chinese dissident blogger is indirect murder. To out a whistleblower is to reduce the ease with which others will wistleblow, making every industry more dangerous. 

Finally. Compare two bloggers, Old Holborn and Guido Falkes. Both right wing, both vocal and unpleasant. I know who Guido is, I've only heard OH's voice. ... and based on my experience of Guido, boy do I not want to find out who OH is. I cant imagine he'll be any easier on the eyes or less annoying on TV news. Keeping bloggers pseudonymous spares you their personal unpleasantness and keeps the interesting opinions.

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