Monday, June 08, 2009

Respecting Pseudonymity

Hear hear:
Many people who first venture out into the blogosphere do so under the cover of pseudonymity, even if they later blog under their own name. There are good pseudonymous bloggers who really are in positions that make it so that they would not blog at all if they had no such protection. If those protections don't exist, if we do not protect the pseudonymity of others, that contributes to an atmosphere of hostility in the blogosphere, many good bloggers will be lost, and we will all be the poorer.

When considering these sorts of cases, people often seem to end up only focusing on the particular case at hand, and so determine whether the 'outing' was justified by assessing whether they dislike the outed blogger enough to trump his putative privacy rights. But it's also important to consider the broader impact, as Brandon highlights in the above quote.

We should want to uphold norms that enable pseudonymous blogging. The most straightforward candidate norm would be to respect a blogger's pseudonymity unless there's some pressing reason why the public needs to know their true identity (e.g. to expose sockpuppetry, undisclosed conflicts of interest, etc.)

One might propose a less accommodating norm, e.g. to respect pseudonymity only insofar as the blogger remains civil and inoffensive, and expose them if they piss you off. This may be motivated by the idea that if people want to engage in verbal attacks, they should have to own their words, rather than hide behind the veil of their virtual persona. Or, if retributivism isn't your thing, perhaps such a rule would have the happy consequence of reducing the amount of vitriol that gets thrown around online. People can still feel safe blogging under a pseudonym; they simply need to take care not to be jerks while they're at it.

The obvious problem with this proposal is that "offensiveness" is rather subjective. Is maintaining a polite tone sufficient to guarantee your pseudonymity, or might an opposing partisan decide that your views are substantively offensive, 'beyond the pale', and that you "deserve" to suffer real-life censure for them? If we grant everyone too much discretion in determining whether or not another's pseudonymity ought to be respected, someone is sure to judge poorly, so we'll end up with much weaker protections than originally intended.

So I think we're probably better off sticking with the straightforward norm to basically always respect pseudonymity (except in the very rare and uncontroversial cases of sockpuppetry and the like).


  1. I have the unfortunate problem of having such a common name that it makes it difficult for people to find the actual "me". I chose to have a pseudonym for a blog name so that it IS easier for people to find my writing.

    Perhaps I do not give enough people credit, but I think that many times people do not take the effort to find their identity unless they want to for vindictive reasons. So it makes sense to not try and lash out at someone and expose them if you are only pissed off at what they just said.

  2. Richard, it seems to me there is a quasi-empirical supposition here that may be false: namely, that pseudonymous blogging is, overall, a good thing and adds value to the world. We can all think of anonymous or pseudonymous bloggers who seem to add value, but can we say with rule-consequentialist confidence that upholding the norms protecting pseudonymosu blogging will, in fact, add value? Is there no case for the proposition that *in general* pseudonymity and anonymity in cyberspace is a bad thing?

  3. Hi Brian, yes, I'm certainly assuming that. What would lead you to doubt it? The good pseudonymous bloggers add real value, and the bad ones can simply be ignored, no?

  4. If you grant (as I assume you will) that speech can cause harms, then "ignoring" isn't the issue: the issue is whether pseudonymous speech has any tendency, over the long haul, to produce more value or harm. And that depends on surveying the cyber-landscape. My anecdotal impression is that, at least in otherwise free countries, anonymity and pseudoanymity produces much more harm than value, indeed, that's it's not even close. So my initial reaction was to read your post as a rule-consequentialist argument for in fact doing everything possible to undermine the norm in question. But my anecdotal impressions may be mistaken or involve various kinds of selection effects.

  5. By the way, I take it this is the rule-consequentialist argument Schopenhauer is making:

    [A]bove all, anonymity, that shield of all literary rascality, would have to disappear. It was introduced under the pretext of protecting the honest critic, who warned the public, against the resentment of the author and his friends. But where there is one case of this sort, there will be a hundred where it merely serves to take all responsibility from the man who cannot stand by what he has said […]. Often enough it is only a cloak for covering the obscurity, incompetence and insignificance of the critic. It is incredible what impudence these fellows will show, and what literary trickery they will venture to commit, as soon as they know they are safe under the shadow of anonymity. Let me recommend a general Anti-criticism, a universal medicine or panacea, to put a stop to all anonymous reviewing, whether it praises the bad or blames the good: Rascal! your name! For a man to wrap himself up and draw his hat over his face, and then fall upon people who are walking about without any disguise—this is not the part of a gentleman, it is the part of a scoundrel and a knave.

    --Parerga und Paralipomena, Ch. 23

  6. Hmm, I don't personally know of any pseudonymous bloggers that seem to be doing real "harm". But it is, as you say, an empirical question. So I'm happy enough to retreat to the more modest claim: you should respect an individual blogger's pseudonymity if you think pseudonymous blogging is good on the whole.

    (I should stress that this is a rather more specific question than whether "pseudonymity and anonymity in cyberspace" is good overall. For example, we wouldn't want to abolish blogging under a stable pseudonym if it turned out that the problem lay solely with hit-and-run anonymous commenting. We can - and should - assess these independently.)

  7. I think there's a difference between anonymity and pseudonymity. Someone who is anonymous, with either no name or no stable one, is free to do a lot of the awful stuff Brian Leiter is concerned about. But someone who is pseudonymous, with a stable online identity that just happens to be detached from their offline identity, is subject to much more of the social pressures like reputation maintenance that keep bloggers writing under their own names in line.


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