Tuesday, April 01, 2008

PSEUDONYMITY is not Anonymity, duh

I've been blogging, for nearly four years, under a pseudonym. I chose to do so in part because I was on the tenure track and didn't feel comfortable blogging under my professional (notice I don't say real) name. But what drew me to blogging was the potential that I saw in developing an online identity and writing voice that I consciously constructed. In other words, writing under a pseudonym was part of the fun of the experiment for me, and part of the fun of blogging for me. Indeed, it was central to the fun. I consciously was thinking about form in my choice to begin a blog, and I wasn't merely trying to write without accountability. In fact, I never saw what I was doing as writing without accountability.

And so, I am honestly... dumbfounded by the fact that people are still talking about the "danger" in academics writing with pseudonyms, from whatever perspective. I mean, this whole pseudonymity thing - isn't it old hat?

Apparently, no.

I mean, I had a sense that it wasn't old hat during my whole kerfuffle in the fall with a writer over at The Valve, but I didn't really believe that people didn't get it until I read this piece in The Chronicle.

So here I am, Dr. Crazy, to explain the differences between pseudonymity and anonymity to you. Indeed, they are not the same thing.

Anonymity, is about being without identity, about being untraceable. Now, one could argue that no one is untraceable - we can now use our statcounters to figure out - or to come close to figuring out - who "Anonymous 9:14 AM" is, or at least where that person is. But, historically, anonymity has been about effacing one's identity even as one writes. Now, Virginia Woolf famously suggests in A Room of One's Own that "Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was a woman" (49). Maybe this is the place where the problem with distinguishing between anonymity and pseudonymity begins, as in making this claim, Woolf assigns an identity to the anonymous writer. She's a woman. I think it's no mistake that most of the pseudonymous bloggers that I read are women. Put two and two together, people. But I digress.

Pseudonymity, on the other hand, is not about being untraceable but rather about taking on a traceable identity that is distinct from one's legal identity, or one's identity at birth. It's about taking on a "pen name," a name that people can follow, and by extension a way of thinking that people can follow. Yet, by disconnecting one's writing identity from one's "real life" identity, one preserves first a measure of control over how one's writing is perceived and second acquires a level of protection from certain kinds of scrutiny (often gendered). Let's think about this first not in the context of blogging, or even of writing generally. Let's think about it in the context of Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games. In such games, one chooses a character, an emblem of one's identity. This character has a name, but also a sex, certain powers, certain clothes, etc. Is this construction of identity in some way disingenuous? No. It's part of the game. And, in my limited experience with such games, it's what is interesting about them. Communities develop between the people who take on the roles in these games, and they accomplish tasks together. Friendships develop, and sometimes even "real life" identities are revealed. This is all as "real" as anything else, ultimately, although it is not dependent upon geographical location or one's appearance, or one's race- gender- class- inflected "real" identity. One has responsibilities under this identity, through one's relationships to others in the community. You're "known" as the identity that you've created, and you develop a reputation under that name. You're not, even if nobody knows the "real" you, anonymous.

That's what writing on a blog (or in some other venue, like The Chronicle) under a pseudonym is like. You have an identity, a traceable identity and one to which you are accountable, but one that is not connected to the identity with which you were born. In order to maintain such an identity for more than a few weeks, you need to be accountable. You need to be consistent. You need to present a version of yourself to which people respond as a unified subject position. If you write something that contradicts what people expect of you, then you're screwed. If you write something that conflicts with somebody's idea of what your subject position should be, well, it causes conflict (see the kerfuffle of mine from a few months ago).

But see, this is where writing with a pseudonym made me less free in that kerfuffle. If I were the "real me" then I would have changed my line of response in a particular way, without thought to voice or persona, that would have shut the whole thing down. Part of the reason that it went the way that it did was because under the Dr. Crazy identity I couldn't change tack in that particular way, because it would have compromised who "Dr. Crazy" is. Had I been writing as "Real" self, I would have, in contrast to what the haters would say, have had more options and I would have been less accountable for changing tack. Because here's the thing: if one writes as one's "self" then one is allowed to be contradictory or thoughtful in certain ways that one isn't under a pseudonym. One is ultimately authorized to be more- not less - multifaceted.

But so let me address the concerns of Peter Plagens, as I read them:

1. Why use a pseudonym if one's "bill of particulars adds up to only the mildest episode of Dilbert"?

Well, because here's the thing. Sometimes people want to write about the mundane. Tragically, the mundane does not generally accord one professional accolades. While it's true that one might not face profoundly negative repercussions (like not getting tenure) for writing such things under one's "real" name, one also will not receive professional accolades. In a culture of tenure and promotion that depends upon accolades, well, it certainly doesn't make sense to write about the mundane under one's "real" name. Why? Because, well, it makes one seem mundane as opposed to outstanding, which is what tenure committees even at the most lame universities seek. It's all about self-presentation. And, well, if one presents one's Dilbert-worthy complaints as one's own, it doesn't do one any good. If one presents them under a pseudonym, it doesn't do one any good, but it also doesn't do any harm, and it may help others in the same boat, if only because they feel they have people to commiserate with.

2. Why use a pseudonym when using one might make question one's credibility?

For, indeed, all people writing under pseudonym's are frustrated novelists. I'm not even a college professor. HA! April fool years in the making! It's all a web of lies! It's all too "delicious" to be true! Indeed! You'd think what I wrote had more credence if it were "true," wouldn't you? Indeed, an E! True Hollywood Story has more value than what I write here because I write it as Dr. Crazy! For it is "true"! I can't even offer a substantive critique of this point because I can barely take it seriously.

3. Why use a pseudonym because it will mean you lose "a whole lot of journalistic color and narrative viscera" that would have made the pieces more interesting?

Well, I'm a fan of aesthetic arguments, but I've got to say, I think that the best pseudonymous writers do a good deal to flesh out the details even while preserving their real-life privacy. Moreover, why should anybody sacrifice his or her career (potentially) for another's reading pleasure? Are people really so aesthetically disturbed? If so, then why do I have (approximately) 300 unique hits a day to my blog and around 150 bloglines readers (not counting googlereader, etc.)? You'd think they'd all be unable to deal, wouldn't you?

4. Why use a pseudonym because it further exacerbates the stereotype that academe is a "terrarium for fragile, frightened creatures who can't "make it in the real world"?

Well, perhaps I'm less optimistic than Peter Plagens. I think that whether we write with pseudonyms or not that people will believe this about academe. Furthermore, I actually think that pseudonymous writers go much further toward exposing the fact that this is not what academe is than those who write under their "real" names. Indeed, most writers who reveal their "true" identities are much less candid about the current state of this profession or about the realities of it.

Now, I'll admit. I've thought a lot about "coming out" once I get tenure, and revealing the "real me" behind Dr. Crazy. But you know what? I sort of feel like I don't want to. Not because I'm frightened or paranoid or living in a terrarium (while that would be interesting), but because I value the egalitarian blogging community of which I am a part. I love that I'm on equal footing with Sisyphus and Flavia and Horace and Maude and other pseudonymous bloggers, regardless of rank or position. I love that hierarchy isn't the fucking point. I love that we're all teachers and scholars and friends. I didn't come to blogging for community, but it's what I got through blogging. And in part I got it through my pseudonym. And I'm into that. And I hate the idea that I'd dismiss that with tenure. And I don't want to dismiss it. So if I ever do the grand reveal, it certainly won't be permanent, and it won't make a damned bit of difference in identity. Because whether or not my "real name" is on it, what I do here is valuable, and I refuse to reject it, whatever the consequences to "academe."

So there :)

(By the way, Profgrrrrl also talks about this Chronicle article here.)


Unknown said...

More simply perhaps is the power of Google. At this point, many long-time readers have transgressed the pseudonym as it were in one way or another.
If one could write in one's own name and guarantee that it would show up on page 50 of a google search instead of page one it would be less complicated.
I actually wish I had started with a pseudonym but ah well, I've always been a link poster instead of writer.

Margaret said...

What a great post, Crazy. I actually started out wanting to write under my "professional" name; the pseudonym was kind of a weird accident -- I now can't picture blogging any other way!

In any event, the lack of hierarchy/equality of the community is a huge attraction to me too.

Anonymous said...

I think I might like living in a terrarium.

this, of course, reminds me of my own kerfuffle re: anonymous comments. to me, that situation demonstrated the basic difference between people writing anonymously and their drive-by approach to online discourse and the pseudonymous people, who are really doing something quite different. It also demonstrated, though, that the anonymous folk didn't get the difference by watching people write pseudonymously. I suspect they'd have to start writing under a pseudonym to really make that shift.

Maude said...

i am in love with my pseudonymous identity. i love being maude. (thanks for the nod--you rock). i love that i, too, have come to this community through my pseudonymity, that when i choose in real life i can introduce myself first as "maude" then as my "real" self. this space is so important to me and i'm so grateful for the pseudonymous blog community that i don't think i could ever properly articulate it.

what a great post, as always dr. crazy. i love hanging out over here.

Belle said...

Like Maude, I love my blog ID and voice. I have a RL blog too, but don't tend to it as I do my pseudonymous blog. I treasure the community of bloggy friends I've stumbled into, and the egalitarian nature of that community.

Crazy rocks. And writes well too!

Feminist Avatar said...

I wonder whether women find pseudonymity easier because their 'real' names are never their own? The conflict women feel about taking their husband's names, yet knowing that their surnames are their fathers maybe makes us realise that a name is not 'me', but at the same time is me.

I love my avatar. She has a distinct voice, which borders on the 'lecturey' and her need to relate EVERYTHING to feminism is unbelievable, and yet I find it hard to control her and could not (well ok I don't want to) change her voice. When I think about the blogging community, I refer to myself as feminist avatar in my head. 'Feminist avatar says...'. I wait for the day when I accidently introduce myself by the wrong name in 'real' life.

Katherine said...

Do you use a pseudonym so you can say "fucking" without impacting your job?

Interesting post, but I think I will continue to write as plain-ole-inconsistent me! : )

Dr. Crazy said...

The people at my job know I use the word "fucking." Actually, it'd be incredibly difficult for me to do the work I do *without* using it :)

I'm not saying that everybody in the whole would should use a pseudonym at all, just to be clear. I'm just saying that the choice of using one doesn't amount to lack of accountability or credibility or even lackluster writing, as critics often have it. A pseudonym is a writerly choice, and not one that everyone need make and not one that is appropriate to all writing contexts. I do think, however, that my pseudonym in this context situates me in a particular community in a way that I would not be situated were I using my professional name. And the "voice" I've adopted (complete with the word "fuck") in part is about distinguishing this from the kind of writing that I would do in a professional context.

PhysioProf said...

Plagens is a dumbass. I discuss this at my place:


EliRabett said...

Because it's fun. Eli gets to create a character, indeed a whole set of characters.

Bob_C said...

Pseudonymity is no different than anonymity when one' identity is not traceable. Mark Twain and George Eliot were pseudonyms but their identity could easily be known.

Anonymity in any form is rank cowardice.