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Letter To An Anonymous Blogger

June 14, 2007, 1:59 pm

I just posted this as a comment on Tim Lacy’s History and Education: Past and Present, and realized that, although it is part of an ongoing discussion Tim has been trying to spark about anonymous blogging, the post I attached it to was old enough that it might get a little lost. This is my own reflection on anonymity, and on having come out as a blogger. I have edited it a bit more because I am a compulsive re-writer; I have also not included a link to the blog under discussion so that no one is confused that it is a critique of that blogger. It isn’t: this is a smart blog by a graduate student, with great posts, and you can find it over at Tim’s place.

Dear Tim,

Thanks for sending AnonymousBlogger to my post about relinquishing my anonymity — I do think anonymity raises ethical and practical issues that everyone at all ranks of the profession ought to think about on an ongoing basis, and not just those unprotected by tenure. As I reflect once more on my blogging life prior to my decision to give up anonymity, several things come to mind.

When we publish things anonymously that are incautious, and we are more likely to do that when we believe ourselves to be anonymous, there are immediate and sometimes long-term consequences for ourselves and for others. There’s the equivalent of the flaming email phenomenon — putting up a post in a fit of rage, or self-righteousness, or manic humor — in other words, making a set of thoughts public in a way that doesn’t engage one’s own super-ego as it should. I know because I’ve done it, and I had to go back and edit or delete a bunch of stuff once I came out that seemed funny at the time (was, in fact) but was potentially hurtful since the humor depended on sarcasm or on exaggerating the characteristics of composite characters that real people were too likely to see as themselves. I remember at the time how differently I saw some of these posts once I had to imagine the reality of them being attached to my name, and to real people at Zenith. That change in perspective is a learning experience I have not forgotten.

But even when the posts are serious and accurate, I do think you need to ask yourself, before publishing something that is critical of others, would I stand up for this in public? After all, simply because something is the “truth” doesn’t mean you should publish it. If you can’t imagine saying such a thing to someone’s face, or don’t want to engage your own critics publicly, you probably shouldn’t put something up on the web.

I want to emphasize that I personally don’t feel critical of anonymous bloggers, and complications in my blogging life will not necessarily be problems on your blog. I am, after all, well known in my real life for taking all kinds of risks either to get a laugh, to make a teaching moment work in a memorable way or to get something done that I think is important. But assuming that your identity as a blogger is privileged information still means that you risk having to be personally accountable for what you write anyway. There is a high risk that some people will discover who you are eventually:it’s clear to me that a number of anonymous bloggers’ identities are well known to a circle of friends, for example. If you have been hiding your identity to avoid consequences or retaliation, that will be over in a flash when someone — anyone — who gets really angry at you wants it to be. And things could get really ugly — people might know for months before you have any kind of tipoff and have re-thought your blogging ethic.

There are also intangible questions about how the people around you may perceive collegiality and professionalism. Whether what you have been posting is truthful or not, some people will think you have been dishonest in spirit if perhaps not in fact by recording and publishing things without their permission or without attribution. That really is damaging to a reputation, and you can’t control the damage, because the people who will think that don’t necessarily know you or want to know you. The ones who do know you may feel betrayed — and this is drawn from my experience of discovery: a variety of people who knew me and thought I was a decent person felt puzzled and hurt when they thought I was blogging about them (when in fact I was not.) And that required a lot of straightening out — from friends, to students to casual acquaintances — and I am quite sure I will never really have an honest exchange with everyone who was upset or misperceived a post. Now that I am out, if someone is offended or thinks they have been written about, they can just drop me an email and we can straighten it out. If they don’t, it’s not because they can’t, and it’s a decision that I am not responsible for. More important, someone can look at me in a meeting or during a conversation and say, “I hope you aren’t going to blog about this.” And I can reassure them that I won’t — even if I want to!

Now I want to say that your blog, AnonymousBlogger, is a wonderful, thoughtful contribution as many anonymous blogs are, and I really love hearing things that graduate students and untenured people might be hesitant (afraid?) to tell me in my potential role as gatekeeper to success. These are things I need to know. But I have also been in the position of having been abused by anonymity and it has changed my view of it a bit. This may seem unfair or irrational, but I must warn you that there are many people — if you are using your blog as a place to address charged topics — who will simply think anonymity is cowardly. I certainly thought all the racist and anti-semitic stuff I got from the “anonymous” commenters in relation to the Duke lacrosse affair, in addition to being offensive, was deeply cowardly. And I continue to think that the historian who turned these people loose on me by posting my email address on his blog, behaved in a highly uncollegial, unprofessional and frankly, unethical, way by exposing me to what was not critique or criticism — it was just crazy abuse, where anonymity became a weapon that he deployed through other people to punish and intimidate someone as an object lesson to others. So did HNN, in fact, where this person is listed as a regular contributer: they chided him in a column, and as far as I know he never responded to them. I know he never explained his actions to me.

The most serious problem from my point of view is that this person and I had a genuine difference about the content and meaning of my original post, and his took a great stretch of the imagination to either articulate as genuinely harmful or justify such a public, personal and vicious verbal assault. What the blogger and his cronies said I did, I did not do: I did not spread or make false charges about the students under indictment. Actually, I reported on coverage of the case, not the case itself, in the service of making an argument about race and culture that compared how those students were depicted in the press to another case. Frankly, even if I had made false charges against these students, it would have been without material consequence to them because I have no standing in their lives, their community or in the legal case. I was in no way responsible for the situation that brought on the press coverage in the first place, or Duke’s decisions about how to deal with it. But the anonymous people attached to this blogger wrote emails and letters to my colleagues, officers of the university, trustees and to me: as I came to understand, they have also been sending abusive, obscene and racist email to members of the Duke faculty. Only when I began to investigate their real identities by filing complaints with their servers did they stop. I still don’t know, because of the multiple anonymous comments and the accounts opened under pseudonyms, whether these were many real people, a coup
le real people, or whether it was just the blogger himself in a fit of paranoid rage and grandiosity. And not inconsequentially, although the blogger claims to be engaged in a campaign for justice that has held up factually in recent decisions in the Duke case, that he deliberately misinterpreted my post and fails to exercise any retraint over the “anonymous” comments to his own site, many of which seem to be from right-wing conspiracy theorists, frankly calls him into question as a scholar as well as a colleague in my view. As far as I can tell, he has one identity as a historian and another as the convener of a bizarre, right wing conspiracy group. And the two identities cannot help but overlap because they belong to the same person.

This is all a way of saying that the question of one’s reputation, and one’s responsibility for the reputation of others, is a very serious one indeed. It has many dimensions that anonymity makes very, very ethically complex. I don’t want to be hard on you or any other anonymous blogger, because I’m not against anonymity in principle, but in no way should you feel that you are protected from the consequences of other people’s perceptions of you because your name isn’t on the blog, nor should you think you are immune from people making judgements about you that may be really unfair. It simply isn’t so, and even if you wish to remain anonymous, you need to write as if you were not anonymous. And you need to police other people on your site who are anonymous, because no one knows that a comment written under another pseudonym, or by an anonymous commenter, isn’t also *you.* That said — as people advised me when I was pondering the question of coming out — remaining anonymous is useful because it makes it harder for people to google you and have your blog come up before any of the articles and books you have written!

Good luck, and happy blogging, AnonymousBlogger: I will continue to read your blog which is, if I have not made this point sufficiently, very fine;

TR

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