Pseudonymous Online

In April 2019, I started this blog to discuss the Society for Classical Studies’ statement on online anonymity. I used a pseudonym, revealing my “true” name at the end for strategic reasons. I have since removed my name. My main purpose in that blog post and its follow-up was to call attention to the complex nature of anonymity. Although I hinted at some reasons why I am pseudonymous online, I’ve never tried to explain my reasons for it. I’ll remedy that here. Since I don’t like to talk about myself, I will frame my decision within a larger discussion of online personae. Although partial, my purpose is to show that the anonymity continuum has consequences for how online spaces work and how we interact within them.

Since I got my first email address more than two decades ago, I’ve used the same pseudonym: “Poldy,” Molly Bloom’s pet name for her husband in Joyce’s Ulysses. This choice was not available when I joined twitter and, later, started this blog. Forced to choose a new pseudonym, I decided on the 13C Byzantine compiler of the Greek Anthology. Both names have connections to my real name. But for those hoping for Byzantine or Greek poetic content, I am sorry to disappoint.

I tied the two pseudonyms together with the handle @lpoldybloom, and this blog refers to my earlier pseudonym. In this way, I try to hold together an online persona that is nearly 25 years old. I consider myself accountable for what I say, and not only because enough people know my real name. My pseudonymous self is still me, as I’ll suggest, and I try online, as offline, to be respectful in interactions. In comments or blog posts, I can be caustic, it is true, in disagreement. I hope, however, still within acceptable bounds.

Let me be clear about one thing: I condemn online trolling, harassment, and other such destructive behavior, whether done under the cover of anonymity, pseudonymity, or using a legal name. I am also aware that anonymity often encourages such behavior. If I find some value for anonymous and pseudonymous identities online, it is with the awareness that it is a trade-off that some would not make.

The push to require legal names for online social activities stem originally from government regulations, where the state is interested in tracking and controlling citizens. But it is also part of the corporate strategies of tech companies to monetize our identities. However, you are most likely to hear about real-name internet in the context of online harassment, underlined by certain ideas about identity. The most infamous example comes from Mark Zuckerberg:

“You have one identity,” he emphasized three times in a single interview with David Kirkpatrick in his book, “The Facebook Effect.” “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly.” He adds: “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” (Source)

As van der Nagel and Frith point out, the discussions of a real-name internet “cannot be divorced from the political economy of the Internet.” It is a salutary reminder that we are the product and our activities online are always exploited within an economic system. That said, I want to focus on the moral and practical implications of this idea of a singular identity and the collapse of different self-images. I completely disagree that we have one identity and that a failure to maintain a singular personal brand identity is a lack of integrity. Here is your obligatory reference to Goffman’s Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (1959).

Even more interesting is the description of a new world order where all our different social situations (between family, friends, colleagues, bosses) are contracted into a single self-presentation. The idea that we will have only one self-presentation, here described as a good thing, an increase in integrity, goes by the name “context collapse” in the literature.

In my myth class, I have long illustrated the importance of audience for understanding the structure of stories with a thought experiment. Imagine you went on a long vacation with your best friend to Rome or Paris or Istanbul. On return, you told the story of your trip to (1) your grandma, (2) to your professor, (3) your friends. Would the story be the same for each audience? What would the story be like if you were speaking to all three at once? I took this idea from a book by Joshua Meyrowitz called No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior (1985). I was surprised to find this book cited by danah boyd, who has analyzed context collapse in social media. Marwick and boyd’s article “I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience” (2010) is an excellent investigation of how Twitter users navigate the the platform. For anyone on Twitter, I recommend this essay highly.

As Zuckerberg noted, being online is a prime example of context collapse. My Facebook, which I stopped using a long time ago, has various family members, old friends from childhood, a few current friends, and former colleagues. For many, this context collapse is not an issue; for me, I cannot imagine using Facebook for anything but broadcasting the most banal information. Twitter is, in general, public and searchable, allowing anyone (potential employers, internet troll, grandchildren, a step-mother, police, etc) to search and read tweets. The choice between real name or pseudonym is often about fighting that context collapse, creating a separated context for an online identity.

Lots of people live lives that make this separation mandatory: for example, activists or people from marginalized groups. Yet everyone is to some extent caught within the same collapsed online mono-context. Graduate students and untenured faculty have to balance creating a personal brand online with having a space for expression. Even established scholars, whose personal brand is already well established, may find themselves in difficulty for a Tweet. All this is just a fact of social media. As one Twitter user put it in a comment to Marwick and boyd:

I think it all depends on what the intended purpose for your twitter account. Professionals should beware how they rep their cos i got threatened w/ lawsuit and loss of work bc of one of my tweets. quite careful now in what i tweet. or try to be!

In many cases, of course, we might think this self-censorship is good. Since there is a lot of online abuse perpetrated by anonymous accounts (and bots!), some advocate for a real-name internet to enforce accountability and social and legal control into online spaces. Some online spaces choose this way, and it naturally affects the kind of space it becomes.

The Classics-L list-serve is a real-name online social space. Being stupidly unaware of this when I joined, I participated for about 5 years before I openly disagreed with a post, which led the author of that post to insist that I be removed. Even though the moderators said it was fine for me to stay because I’d been a contributor for years without trolling or harassment (not every real-name poster could say the same), I left the list. Rules are rules, and I respect the ability of online groups to construe their communities as they please. And they are not wrong: there was a history of anonymous trolling in a related list that was particularly ugly, and the trade-offs of real-name internet were worth it for them. Yet the tone and structure of participants of Classics-L, as any online space, are consequences of the way these spaces are constituted.

I hope that I have shown, even if partially, there are trade-offs for choices within the anonymity to real-name continuum, and not only for users whose real-life situation urgently requires separation of contexts for expression. The tone of a real-name social media space will be shaped inevitably by its context collapse. But where do I fall within this broader question of online behavior?

It is true that I’ve been contingent labor for my whole academic career (more than 15 years) and thus am a privileged member of precariat. Solidarity!

It would be disingenuous, however, to claim that I use a pseudonym for this reason. I’ve used one from the beginning of my time online, after all. The core reason is that I’m a shy and private person. My public persona is, thus, bland. Pseudonymous me is also me, but it is much closer to the person you would know if I felt you were a friend. One reason that I am pseudonymous is that I have decided, because of who I am, to treat social media as a social rather than a professional space. Imagine social media like an academic conference: I want to be at a bar with friends, winding down from the conference, and not the perpetual job interview or even the hosted party. I feel the need for more friendly social spaces, even more now with COVID. But I’m also becoming more and more aware that, even pseudonymously, Twitter is not that place.

There is another, related reason, why I prefer a pseudonym for my online writing. I am looking for a space to develop as a writer. I also am the type who needs to write to understand what I think.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” ― Flannery O’Connor

I wanted, most of all, the ability to play, to find a space to express myself and work out my thoughts in a context that allows responses, but which are separate from my professional identity. I also have a complex relationship to prestige, as is clear from some of my earlier writing in this blog, and being pseudonymous allows me to forgo even the minor prestige I have within the academic economy. I’m aware, obviously, that there are trade-offs for this choice. I’ll explore a few of them.

It is not very consequential, but a pseudonym garners less respect than a real name, a natural consequence of everyday ideas about identity and integrity. What I say under a pseudonym is simply not viewed as important. In a way, that is a correct: where is the courage if all I am risking is a long-term pseudonym. I’m fine with this trade off, particularly since I do not think deep down that what I say is significant.

More importantly, on Twitter and other online platforms, scholars often build networks and produce valuable public scholarship. In COVID-times, it is wonderful to have the ability to build and maintain scholarly networks outside traditional channels. In addition, some of the more successful public scholars have seen their public work turn into opportunities for more traditional scholarly activities, such as lectures or contributions to edited collections. Some have even received book contracts from their public writing. By choosing to be pseudonymous, I set myself outside those networks and opportunities.

It is particularly complex because after so many years as contingent faculty, my scholarly network is near zero. This situation is my fault, given my shyness and lack of ambition. Also, five years ago I took a position as a spousal hire to live with my wife. Unfortunately, the only people happy about me teaching at this school are my wife, the students, and I. Thus, at this point in my career, with my contract running out, it becomes plain that there is no one who could write me a letter of support. I would have been better served, likely, trying to use online networks to supplement the bad job I do of cultivating scholarly networks in real life!

When I put my real name at the end of my first blog post on the SCS statement on anonymity, I did so because I knew it would have more impact if I used my real name. A kindly colleague, whom I respect and admire greatly, wrote me an email to let me know that I had mistakenly revealed my real name. How we decide to use our real name online can be complex. It is also not yet clear what would be the best way to construct online spaces, or if we even have much control over it.



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