The Ethics of Anonymity in the Academic Blogosphere

BlogHer Original Post

Last month, in the wake of threats experienced by Kathy Sierra, Tim O'Reilly called for a bloggers' code of conduct." In the drafting of this code, there was a good deal of discussion about the role of anonymity in the blogosphere, and by extension, bloggers who write under aliases.

In the academic blogosphere, faculty who write about their experiences in the classroom (that is, about their students) or about their personal lives tend to use pseudonyms. Depending on the blogger's preference, her anonymity may be loosely or fiercely protected.

I say "her anonymity" because it seems women academics are far more likely than their male colleagues to blog under a pseudonym. Statistics already show the tenure-track deck stacked against women, and especially new mothers. Why risk offending hiring or tenure committees? (This is exactly the argument the pseudonymous Ivan Tribble, who writes occasional columns for The Chronicle of Higher Education, has tried to make in writing that academics probably should not be blogging at all.)

As an academic, it makes perfect sense to me that most of us should blog pseudonymously if we're writing in less than flattering terms about our working lives or in any terms about our personal ones. Do our students need to know so much about our lives? Do our department chairs? Do our deans? Probably not.

At the same time, the academic in me has always been assiduous about evaluating the validity of her sources, about citing the experts in her field. And that's tough in blogging. Whom should I cite in any essay I write about blogging? Dr. Crazy? Profgrrrrl? The Queen of West Procrastination or StyleyGeek? (Tedra Osell and others are coming to speak at my university this week, and a fellow academic technologist (and non-blogger) thought I was joking when I sent him an invitation to a talk by "Bitch Ph.D.")

So there are these competing academic impulses:

- Know your sources.
- Value transparency, especially in the production of knowledge.
- Take responsibility (and credit!) for your arguments.

But also:

- Let all people speak freely.
- Everyone has knowledge to share, even if they don't have a recognizable name.
- Protect those (e.g., research subjects) who are vulnerable.

I think the academic blogosphere has struck a fine balance. We have those women who write quite successfully under their own names or easy-to-crack pseudonyms. We have others who zealously protect their own confidentiality. And we've been pretty successful at protecting our own, at not disclosing, even to one another, the names of bloggers who have revealed themselves to us. I may know the real name of Breena Ronan, but I'm not going to disclose it to anyone, even to other bloggers I trust. It's just not what's done in our corner of the blogosphere.

Still, despite the relative consensus, we worry about pseudonymity and defend anonymity. Veo Claramente defends anonymity but admits

Something is not right if so many people are out there, blogging about being grad students, postdocs or faculty, all staying anonymous and guarding that anonymity intensely.

Professing Mama writes about bloggers who understand the importance of anonymity, non-bloggers who don't, and the potential consequences of being outed:

If my real-life identity and my blogging identity were connected by "everybody," it would be extremely upsetting to me. The thought of my old professors, my current colleagues (excluding Catherine), and people in my field knowing is enough to send me into a major panic attack. Seriously--I can feel my heart racing as I write these words. I worry about harming my relationships with some of these people, I worry that they would think less of me, I worry about the impact on my career. When I think rationally, I suspect that most of them could care less. But that is not my first reaction. My first reaction is overwhelming panic.

While I've "come out" to some other bloggers, for the most part in my real life I've treated the fact that I blog kind of like Arvin Sloane treated knowledge of SD-6: "a virus that must be contained." Well, okay, I don't kill the people who know my two identities, but you know what I mean. ;) I've told very few people in my "real life" about my blogging identity; I can count them on one hand. Keeping my blogging identity quiet is a very big deal to me.

Tedra Osell asks the hard questions, and provides some answers, at Blogging Feminism:

But the association between women and anonymity continues to resonate, and the impression that women are more likely to be anonymous lingers. Though we are just beginning to test the reliability of this impression by gathering hard data, it does seem to be the case that, though women and men both blog, women may be more likely to do so under an assumed identity: for example, one study has found that "74 percent of the anonymous academic bloggers . . . are women."[7] Historically, we know that publication presented problems for women: while the modern world of novels and newspapers was being formed, readers "heard the word 'public' in 'publication' very distinctly, and hence a woman's publication automatically implied a public woman"[8]—that is, a whore. This problem, however, is surely a relic of the past, and since blogs are self-published, women bloggers need not mask their identities to overcome real or imagined publishers' prejudices. Do women bloggers write anonymously more often then men? And if so, why?

So there you have it: the anxieties of the academic blogosphere laid bare. Still, we won't stop, no matter what the Dr. Tribbles of the world advise. It's too important that we talk to one another, and that we do it in an environment where people feel safe to express themselves, to cultivate some little bit of authenticity in an academic culture that requires us to always put our best faces forward.

Leslie Madsen-Brooks, a recovering academic and an fledgling academic technologist, blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and Green West Magazine.


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