The Pseudonymity Laboratory: Up from the Comments

Wow. Thank you, dear Terra Sig readers, for your thoughtful responses to our first query about the concept of blogger pseudonymity.
For background, I have threatened to reveal myself (in text, not photographically) and wished to use this opportunity to provide grist for a session led by me, PalMD, and several women bloggers on the sci/med blogging under a pseudonym at ScienceOnline’09 on 17 Jan 2009 at Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society Center in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, USA.
Just as many people might be frightened by me uncloaking in meatspace, readers have responded that not only is my online blogger uncloaking unnecessary, but even something they don’t really want. Well-regarded and widely-commenting scientist, Becca, said:

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”.

In fact, Becca’s entire comment outlines specific cases where my pseudonymity might sway her views.
Of course, I appreciate each and every comment and will indeed compile each one and share them with PalMD and others as we prepare our conference session. But I was particularly struck by another lengthy comment by a reader who clearly needs to have their own blog (which is, interestingly, how I started out for six months before launching the vintage Terra Sig blog).
What I found enlightening in this nice diatribe from reader Mike is the comparison of the pseudonymous blogger with public figures and pundits whose identity we know, but whom we really actually don’t “know.” This comment presents quite a comprehensive thesis:

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 negativetrust 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. [all boldface emphasis mine, APB]

PalMD, tell ya what – I’ll just be hanging out at the conference with the guys from The Wine Authorities extending the live Friday Fermentable into Day Two and you can hunt down this commenter to co-moderate the session with you. Who needs me or my real identity?
In fact, readers, check out PalMD’s post related to pseudonymity.
Here are The Pseudonymity Laboratory Posts from us and others, thus far:
The Pseudonymity Laboratory: Do you trust me? – Terra Sigillata
Why should I trust you? – PalMD at denialism blog
Abel’s Excellent Pseudonymity Inquiry – DrugMonkey
I will have more questions tomorrow or over the weekend as suggested by my intellectual and spiritual advisor, Prof Janet Stemwedel, holder of two PhDs, a fabulous tenured professor, devoted life partner and mother, and author of the truly outstanding blog, Adventures in Ethics and Science.


4 thoughts on “The Pseudonymity Laboratory: Up from the Comments

  1. Hmmm…i might have to bring some michigan wine…we’re finally learning how to do it right up north—some good gewurst’s and rieslings (i’m not too fond of michigan’s drier wines yet, or maybe my nose isn’t any good anymore). I’ve been dying to try a michigan ice wine (got spoiled on Bonny Doon when i lived in cali).

  2. Hey, can the mentor get a link?
    My, how these young whippersnappers who blog under their real names are so easily offended.
    Deepest apologies, O Teacher. I pressed ‘publish’ before putting in my last links and checking formatting. All should be fixed now.

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