The Pseudonymity Laboratory: Do you trust me?

At the upcoming ScienceOnline’09 conference (16-18 Jan 2009 in RTP, NC, USA), PalMD and I will be leading a discussion session on the needs and justification for anonymity or pseudonymity in blogging. Women bloggers have additional needs for blogging under a pseudonym and PalMD and I are currently enlisting such unadvertised participants so as not to, you know, compromise their identity (yes, those present will learn who he and I are but we can assure all that it will be anti-climactic).
Even prior to developing discussion points for the session, I had been considering the possibility of disclosing my real-life identity because of a couple of good things happening in my professional career that would be nice to share with you kind readers. However, I think we have a unique opportunity here to explore the concept of blogger pseudonymity and begin a discussion not so much of whether I want to reveal my identity but, rather, whether I need to reveal my identity. For this, I invite you into The Pseudonymity Laboratory.

I’m closing in on three years of blogging as Abel Pharmboy and, as I’ve said before, I am often referred to in meatspace as “Abel” regardless of whether people know my real name. What would Abel Pharmboy lose or gain if he wrote under his real name? Would he be any different? Do Abel’s voice and my real voice differ in tone or authority?
In fact, authority is probably one characteristic that a science blogger cannot command immediately upon hanging out the blogging shingle. You cannot rely on my publications, my academic pedigree, my awards and honors (if any), or any other verifiable criteria to know if I am truly speaking with any degree of expertise on drug information. All you know from my “about” page is that I claim to have a PhD and know something about pharmacology and toxicology. Perhaps I gain some authority from being part of the collective assuming that they do any vetting of their bloggers.
I’ve turned to several blogging colleagues for insights on what might be learned about pseudonymity while I consider uncloaking – of course, Bora Zivkovic/Coturnix is already chomping at the bit to link to some real-life things about me. I’ve kept him at bay by convincing him that a slow, deliberative process will be valuable for the ScienceOnline’09 conference.
Among the bloggers providing the most methodical feedback – no surprise here – was Prof Janet Stemwedel of Adventures in Ethics and Science. Janet had the most comprehensive and systematic idea to use myself as an example to poll the community here about what pseudonymity really means. (Of course, Janet is also running a ScienceOnline’09 session on Online Science for the Kids (and Parents) that competes in the same slot with me and PalMD, so she may be trying to sabotage us with boring content and drive attendees to her session.).
So, I’m really going to beg all of you, especially the 95% of you who read regularly but don’t comment (aka “lurkers”), to answer a couple of questions over the next three or so posts:

Do you trust me and the content I provide here under my pseudonym?
Why or why not?

You may then go back to lurking until the next post.
Thank you for your support.


29 thoughts on “The Pseudonymity Laboratory: Do you trust me?

  1. I think that visitors will trust you, just as we trust any stranger in a safe environment. (Neither of us, Abel, can kick each other in the shins over the Internet, so we’re safe here.)
    If you get a phone call, you trust the other party. If you run into somebody on the street, you will trust them.
    Unless, of course, they go wrong on you. Then the defenses come up.
    If a stranger writes to you and seems fine the first couple of paragraphs, but then in the next it all goes sideways, you throttle back the trust, thinking, Okay, I’ve been had. You may at that point quit reading, rather than waste your time.
    If the other guy is only occasionally off his trolley, you can still work with him, but not on his crazy subjects.
    Take Bill Maher. Most of what he says is right on. On a couple of subjects — (cringe). But overall I really like the guy.

  2. Remember Dr. Charles? (You better, you still have him listed in your Blogroll). I “followed” him to ScienceBlogs. I took note of yours when it came around because I found it interesting, insightful, and accurate even when I was in doubt. These are the same reasons I started reading Dr. Charles’s writings and why I continue readings yours. I didn’t need to know who Dr. Charles was to appreciate his writing any more than I need to know who you are to appreciate yours.
    All I have to judge is what you write.
    Besides, even when somebody has a PhD and is a Prof. in their field doesn’t mean I should trust them: Behe has a PhD in Biochemistry and is a Professor of Biochemistry, yet I wouldn’t even lend him a pencil.

  3. Trust… Trust, as in I think you’re basically writing about things the way you really see them? Trust, as in I believe you are normally being honest with us, and not deliberately holding back relevant posts? Yes, I trust you.
    But trust, as in I would take medical advice from you? Or take specific action – perhaps with significant consequence – on the basis of what you write? No. I do not trust you for that.
    In the first case it’s about trusting your blog. And the only measure of the blog is past performance – have your posts been rational, reasonable and verifiable? Is, in other words, _the_blog_ trustworthy?
    In the second case it’s about trusting you. And I can’t do that without knowing your professional identity (not necessarily your name or private life, take note). If you would give me advice about a farmacological issue, I do want to know what background you really have in the field. The same if you give advice about something else.

  4. Janne says it all, really. Of course, if you out yourself to announce that you’ve just been appointed Egregious Professor of Everything Else at the University of Much Binding in the Marsh, that would go some way towards building the kind of professional trust she refers to. Or not, depending on one’s view of that faculty. But the trade off is that you may exppose yourself more than you’re comfortable with.

  5. Speculating wildly and with no credible credentials myself….
    Trust involves signalling trustability, which is built up via expressing ideas and using means of inference which listeners have accepted. When multiple ideas lead to a contradiction, usually someone rejects one. (Rarely, they may get stuck like the proverbial burro between two hay-bales for a bit.) If someone starts introducing ideas/means which are explicitly rejected by listeners in the present worldview, trust is eroded. Ideas which are not clearly one or the other are compared to how they fit in the present world view, to see if a contradiction is produced, in which case the idea least consistent with the rest of the worldview gets axed.
    Of course, just because you’re trusted, doesn’t mean you’re correct.

  6. I’m afraid I don’t understand. Why do women need anonymity in blogging more than men?
    Seems to me that most of the SB women are open with their identities (Mrs Revere being the only anonymous one I regularly read).

  7. Come to the conference!
    We have a number of anonymous female bloggers here. There are issues of stalking, abusive commenting, and real-life repercussions that female bloggers seem to experience more than male bloggers, but of course this is based on anecdotal evidence. I hope to learn more in January.

  8. I trust the content you provide to the degree that I would trust any opinion maker, pundit or website host.
    Why? It is much as you have outlined. You build your blogging reputation with me by writing well. First and foremost by creating posts that are internally consistent and logically argued. By citing where appropriate and identifying your sources of expertise and experience where you are relying solely on your opinion. I think these are the basics and apply regardless of the identity of the blogger.
    After that it becomes a question of checking against my internal knowledge base or other readily-available external sources of knowledge. I have a little bit of a base level regarding several of the more technical posts you write. I think that reading parts of your posts that are consistent with my informed knowledge base supports additional trust of those parts that go beyond my knowledge base. That again, builds credibility in a way that does not depend at all on your identity.
    I guess the next step is to ask if there is anything that would change in blogging authority if you were identified. I think not…and for cause.
    The first bit of evidence for me is actually the “out” bloggers, here on Sb and elsewhere. The most salient point is that I do not know who they are. In the sense that they were not famous in other contexts before I ran across their blogs and I found nothing of either positive or negative trust valence in their various degrees, job titles, publication histories, etc that seemed to have a bearing on the blogging. (Perhaps it is the case that those bloggers who do think that identity is important are optimistic about the amount of authority that accrues to their various credentials?)
    The second bit of evidence on this is from the handful of pseudonymous bloggers for whom I have come to know the real world identity after their reputation has been established for me. Some via on-blog self-outing like PalMD, others via email exchanges or just because the clues added up. I found no change in my perception of their authority and in many cases I think of them primarily as Pseudonym and have to stop to think a bit to recall the RealName.
    Third, what about untrustworthy pseudonymous bloggers? I think here it is important to dissociate two things.
    First, as you say, you have some basic credentials listed about you. You could just be flat out lying about these. So yes, there will always be the issue of just plain lying with any blog. Similar to, perhaps, the James Frey case and some other literary examples in which the author was not quite as represented. Are these rare cases important to the discussion? I think not. Unless one has evidence that the blogosphere is teeming with fakers?
    The more interesting question has to do with perspective of the voice. I will have a tendency to account for generic identity issues. Is someone a graduate student or professor? A professor or professional writer? A researcher or a hobbyist? A neuroscientist or a physicist? Those things shape, for lack of a better concept, authority. Actually I think it best to say these categorical properties of bloggers excuse a lack of authority. That is, one may find a younger or less experienced person to have naive perspectives. One may find a scientist to be underinformed on medical topics or a doctor on scientific topics. But it would be wrong to think that pseudonym/real identity is the issue here. Because usually those categorical distinctions are revealed, through the writing if not in the “About this blog” page. Taking account of possible perspective biases is not quite the same as diminishing the authority.
    Finally, the question of mis-match. When there is something that seems not quite right between the blogger’s description of his or her world and one’s knowledge base. We can dismiss the more overt differences of opinion on politics, religion, etc easily. But what about those all important personal perspectives that drive blog reading? What happens when you get the sneaking suspicion that the blogger is being disingenuous in some way? That there is an unusual imbalance between the blogging and reality? This sure diminishes authority. This is one area where just maybe the outing of the identity would permit the reader to judge whether the mismatch is because that blogger really IS in a very unusual situation or whether that blogger is reacting abnormally to a usual situation.

  9. Terrific feedback folks – a great kickoff to the discussion!
    @PalMD – so does that mean you wouldn’t trust me with your beer when you went to the men’s room?
    @Dr Free-Ride – I have a standing streak of making it to all of your sessions and hope to have enough influence on the schedule to keep it going, especially for your session this year.
    @Janne, chris y, Rev Matt, abbw3: you each touch on various points of related issues: I should have clarified more about “trust” to restrict it more to whether you trust me on topics I claim to be knowledgable (natural products, pharmaceuticals, non-botanical dietary supplements, academic career development, women and minorities in the STEM professions, beer and wine, some music, etc.)
    @chris y specifically, I am nowhere near, “Egregious Professor of Everything Else at the University of Much Binding in the Marsh.” My thinking is that knowing my meatspace identity would be anti-climactic as I consider myself just a simple working professor like thousands of others, just trying to keep the lab flush with pipette tips and antibodies, and keeping the students excited, engaged, and moving forward in their curriculum.
    While I trained with mentors who were from Hopkins, UCSF, Harvard, UT-Southwestern, I did such training with them when they were at maybe top-20 to top-50 academic medical centers of state universities. I have some unique experiences for which it might be nice to fuse Abel and the real me for informational purposes but my guess is that any unmasking would be followed by utterances of, “Who???”
    @NM – PalMD follows with examples at Sb, as only a few, of feamle bloggers who have been threatened, taunted with vulgar sexual content, deranged propositions, or otherwise unconscionably insulted in comment threads or more so via direct e-mail. The most egregious public example to date has been the death threats issued to former tech blogger, Kathy Sierra, which I discussed back in March 2007.
    @Mike – wow, what a terrific and well-reasoned comment; if okay with you, I’ll use this to kick off part two. Lots of key considerations but I particularly like the concept of how knowing who a person is or isn’t probably doesn’t give you much more basis for trust of the information than their actions or arguments. Even if you read an “out-blogger,” you indeed still don’t really know them.

  10. Anonymity is not the main factor. In fact it seems to me many pseudonymous bloggers do want to be found out “by the right people”. Otherwise they’d be a lot more discreet, or plain lie…
    I think that this “trust” (I don’t think it’s the right word) thing should also be viewed as an interactive/social thing (as opposed to based on solely your work on your blog). Poeople read many blogs and things like do you comment on (and banter with the authors of) blogs I already “trust”, do they read your blog, etc do come into it..
    Basically it’s just like high school.
    PS: I was popular in high school but it’s also tedious to maintain that popularity.. Hence I won’t be blogging anytime soon.

  11. In fact it seems to me many pseudonymous bloggers do want to be found out “by the right people”.
    I suspect that the critical issue here is that it is difficult to maintain any sort of fake voice. Consequently, if someone happens to know the blogger personally and happens across the blog it will indeed be overwhelmingly easy to connect the dots.
    I think it is also very easy to overestimate the chances that a member of a given blogger’s circle of friends will stumble across the blog. Particularly for what seems to be the older demographic who seem most concerned about the anonymity. The youngsters who are more likely to have all-online, all-the-time friends are also less likely to be blogging anonymously are they not?

  12. Things I would trust you for…
    *directing me to an appropriate peer-reviewed source to learn more about a subject in your field
    *answers to factual questions I might ask about your posts for satisfying curiosity
    Things I would conditionally trust you for…
    *answers to factual questions I might ask about your posts for deciding important things (e.g. what drug to use in a given context)
    *career advice
    In these situations, I would check your answer against other information but defintely add it into my analysis.
    Things I would not trust you about, that are unaffected by pseudonymity…
    *medical advice in urgent situations
    *good wines to drink
    Things that I would not trust you about, that are affected by pseudonymity…
    Hard to think of any. Maybe the implications of blogging on your career? Even then, it’s not that I wouldn’t *trust* your assessment, just that it wouldn’t be as interesting to me as if you were “out”.

  13. Sorry that I missed a few of the earlier commenters earlier (I need to figure out how all the kool techie bloggers add the comment # to the field of each of your contributions).
    @Gilipollas Caraculo – you really hit on the central aspects of all human interactions (and I’m glad you can’t kick me in the shin). We also take the good with the bad in any of our interactions, online or meatspace, and who we trust on certain issues depends on our concordance with the views and evidence of others. Thank god, or FSM or no one, that we can still respect people with whom we don’t always agree.
    @Chris – I am soooo glad you brought up Dr Charles. I still don’t know exactly who he is even after several e-mail exchanges, but talk about a person whose soul you can view easily through their writing. Wow, Dr Charles need not be known by real-life identity because his/her writing was/is among the most insightful medical humanities examples I’ve ever read.

  14. Yes.
    Because you live-blogged your vasectomy. That makes you a person to reckoned with even more than a person who always has a towel.
    Seriously though, I have read and thought about the stuff you write and, over time, have arrived at a level of trust in your words.
    Still, it is an impersonal trust so if you write something that sounds a bit off, I wouldn’t hesitate to suspect and check independently. This is why I think anon/pseudon bloggers kick a bit more ass.

  15. I enjoyed anonymity more then Identity. I believe you or any other credible blogger (such as FSP or DM) whom I read frequently will become bit boring or authoritative under your real name. some mystery of real identity actually is cute. It also gives you more freedom I believe. About trusting, yes, it depends on the blogs. Even with pseudonym, some blogger have created their reputation with their consistent writing, so it doesn’t matter what their real name is.

  16. Whether anyone “needs to”, or can “justify”, blogging pseudonymously is besides the point. Whose fucking business is it whether someone else chooses to blog pseudonymously? Anyone who doesn’t like it can choose not to read pseudonymous blogs.
    I think all this pseudonymity/anonymity handwringing is driven by the florid neuroses of a handful of non-pseudonymous bloggers who are outraged by the fact that their real-world credentials gain them no credibility at all in the blogosphere, while numerous pseudonymous/anonymous bloggers have developed–through their actual motherfucking content–tremendous respect and credibility. It pisses these doucheknockers off that people laugh at their inane gibberish despite their fancy-ass degrees, while taking very seriously the well-developed and well-written content of pseuds, all of whom could very well be labrador retrievers with Windows passwords.

  17. The issue isn’t so much is anonymity justifiable, but what are the implications of it. A writer can do whatever they choose, and readers will make what they wish of it, but some people are curious about it…
    …also, it might be interesting for nascent bloggers to explicitly explore what level of identity they want to work with.

  18. PalMD, I believe you erred a bit in your three categories, particularly in your definitions of anonymous and pseudonymous.

    Pseudonymity (my particular choice) involves using a pseudonym, but having one’s true name generally known or available. Anonymity is just that—the attempt to keep your real life identity completely secret.

    I do not think of pseudonyms as you describe it. You are referring to a nickname. PalMD has become your nickname, not your pseudonym, ever since you overtly connected the two identities. Should the blogger presently known as Abel Pharmboy do the same, “Abel Pharmboy” will likewise become a nickname, not a pseudonym.
    For me the pseudonym does indeed mean that the blogger is trying to keep the real life identity and the pseudonymous identity unconnected. Yes, I’ve read all the breastbeating about how nobody can really prevent a determined Googler from connecting the dots. That is not the point, however. Neither is the fact that pseudonymous bloggers vary in how hard they try to keep the two identities unconnected. The important consideration is that the pseudonymous persona presented on a blog or other internet discussion forum (as author or commenter) is not easily connected to the real world identity.
    With respect to true anonymity, I tend to reserve this for a participant that wishes to remain unconnected to any persona, virtual or real. Meaning that there is no attempt to use a consistent handle/name so as to generate even an partial impression of an identity or persona.
    I beleive that the sort of complaints that are usually advanced with respect to pseudonymous activities are in fact addressing issues that are more likely to attend anonymous online discussion activities.
    Returning to Abel’s main interest, I think that there is a clear drop-off in my ability to trust a truly anonymous commenter or blogger. Far below the trust for a pseudonym which has generated, over time, a partial persona. Note that this does not mean at all that anonymous comments are to be automatically discounted. Not at all. An assumption of good faith is the best default, I find. Distrust should probably be as evidence-based as trust.

  19. One other thing that I didn’t fully realize until I posted the above comment. It has to do with why I pulled PalMD’s comment over here to continue the discussion.
    I’m currently in the anonymous category. Obviously. Perhaps not so obviously I’m an occasional reader of many blogs at Scienceblogs and elsewhere.
    That little blowup in which your co-blogger Markh threatened to out a fellow blogger was absolutely devastating to my ability to “trust” your blog’s respect for my anonymity. He (and let us be frank, also his co-enablers who acted much like McCain/Palin are acting in winking at their more violently-voiced rally participants) broke trust in this one particular community rule. Irretrievably.
    It had nothing to do with the nature of his identity and everything to do with his actions.
    Sadly, with respect to certain blogs I find myself commenting much less than I otherwise might and even reading/visiting much less than I did previously. denialism, respectful insolence and any other blog that threatens to disrespect the established standards vis a vis anonymity.

  20. Well, this is an interesting conversation. Within a community of bloggers living with chronic illness, the issue of anonymity comes up fairly regularly. Usually it doesn’t have much to do with credentials but with fear of discrimination. Then there’s the question of motives which affect trustworthiness. I’ve found myself even questioning someone sincerity if I feel like I “don’t know” them yet.
    Here’s a post I wrote few months back which touches on trust in the blogging world in the context of potential stealth marketing.
    It sorta applies to the discussion.

  21. I’m with Lisa here. I don’t read blogs to gain any knowledge other than “that sounds interesting”. If I really need to know something, I’m going to look it up, preferably in a book or peer-reviewed journal.
    My anonymity has NOTHING to do with any credentials. It has been beaten into me that I work in a very small world. If I discuss some of the stupid things I’ve done and the annoying things other people have done (which I do) and my anonymity is shot, it may well have severe repercussions on my career.

  22. I’m not particularly interested in why or whether a blogger chooses to use a pseudonym, and besides, it’s not my business anyway. I return to blogs that I like not because of credentials (I’m surrounded by people with credentials all day, some of whom talk nonsense in spite of prestigious degrees), but rather because of engaging writing about subjects that I find interesting or funny or enlightening.
    My distrust of certain bloggers has little or nothing to do with identity or credentials, but rather with honesty. For a “real name” science blogger, one can easily check publications, university webpages, and federal funding, but that’s not the kind of honesty to which I refer. Rather, I consider whether the blogger seems to repeat the kinds of little white lies and exaggerations that almost anyone can get away with in meatspace. Is the blogger always the shining hero or heroine of every anecdote? Does the blogger rarely or never admit to making mistakes, screwing up a lecture or talk, thinking a politically incorrect thought, dropping a gel box, throwing a recyclable in the regular trash, accidentally running over a squirrel on the way to work, coveting a particularly handsome but egregiously inefficient pickup truck, succumbing to road rage (my particular failing-I cannot see the “journey as the destination” or whatever), forgetting to put the vegetable scraps in the compost bin, etc. etc.? None of us is perfect and we all fuck up from time to time – the key thing (for me, anyway), is whether we can admit to our mistakes, pick ourselves up, and try to do the right thing the next time. Bloggers who are too perfect give me the creeps, and I don’t trust them.
    I also read several crafts (particularly knitting) blogs, and there the dynamic is refreshingly different from that of most science blogs. The blogger might be trying to sell you some things (patterns, yarn, wool, socks), but she (most are female) isn’t trying to pretend she’s something that she’s not. Works in progress and completed items are photographed and displayed, and failures and frustrations are discussed, because they might be useful for others to know. Knitting blogs are believable, with a pseudonym or real name. I just don’t trust some science bloggers: they seem too perfect, claim to know and do too much, and there’s absolutely no way to check or to call them out, even in meatspace. It’s the small duplicities that add up to distrust.

  23. For me, a benchside researcher, having one’s real name out in the open only affects trust through my being able to evaluate the work you have done in the medical/scientific arena, depending on the blogger. For a layperson, stepping out from a pseudonym may only reveal a name and some accolades, i.e. their PhD or MD, and that may or may not raise trust and/or authority. For someone like me who is an active scientist, it gives me the ability to read papers, and generally look at the work done by the blogger in their professional capacity. If that work is of high quality, I am certainly more inclined to trust their opinion more on such subjects. In general, I think it is up to the reader to determine how right or wrong their bloggers of choice are, and build their trust from there. Otherwise, beware what you read.

  24. while numerous pseudonymous/anonymous bloggers have developed–through their actual motherfucking content–tremendous respect and credibility.
    It was certainly interesting to see this at play during the scienceonline2010 conference. Particularly when it came to the graduate student bloggers, you might even extend this pseudonymity/anonymity axis to the totem pole of academia.

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