Monday, June 8, 2009

Anonymity and the Internet

If you don't follow the political blogs obsessively, you're probably unaware of this weekend's brouhaha regarding the NRO's Ed Whelan's "outing" of Obsidian Wings blogger publius's superblogger secret identity. Bloggers from all political persuasions seem to be roundly condemning the action as basically a dick move that provided no benefit to anybody... not even Ed Whelan, since it looks like the childish action of a man without an argument to support his case. The incident itself seems pretty clear cut... but I gather this sort of controversy tends to happen every few years and everybody chimes in with the same sorts of thoughts... but I've never said anything on the issue, so I figure I'll throw in my own 2 cents even if it's been hashed and rehashed a thousand times.

When I first started calling up my friend's computer with my 2400 baud modem to post on his BBS, I used a pseudonym... not because I craved the ability to post my thoughts anonymously... of the dozen or so regular posters I knew probably half in real life... but just because that's what you did. It continued as I joined gaming communities that frequently require user names for multiplayer and for forums. It was big surprise to me when I started to meet people online that posted using their real name... mainly because it was so uncommon, not because I thought they were taking some terrible risk by having their name associated with whatever they were saying. There is certainly a non-zero chance that if I'm applying for a job in the future that a quick Google will turn up this blog (though if you look for Jason Hamner you get a body builder... you have to throw in the "W" to get me), and that if said employer disagreed with my political views I might not get the job. Similarly, some of my relatives are much much more conservative than I am... and if they read this blog it could lead to some arguments, and possibly minor familial strife, in my future. For someone tenure tracked, or in a job where being seen as having any opinion whatsoever can cost you business, I can certainly see where some level of anonymity is a prerequisite for blogging/posting.

There is of course a big difference between true anonymity and using a pseudonym... it doesn't take more than 5 seconds looking at a site that allows unmoderated anonymous comments to see what a disaster that is. While I think there does tend to be a little less civility and a bit more snark from people who adopt a pseudonym as opposed to posting under their real name... it has certainly been the case with me at any rate... it seems to me that there is still a fairly high cost for behaving badly in either situation. For me personally, posting under my real name gives me pause before I hit publish that I might not otherwise have... and it helps moderate some of my passions for politics in ways that I think are generally positive. With someone like publius or Anonymous Liberal, on the other hand, it seems likely that they wouldn't have blogged at all if they were forced to do so under their real name... which doesn't seem like much of a trade.

UPDATE:  It looks like Whelan apologized after some reflection, which is a good thing...  but  I'll leave the commentary to Anonymous Liberal.