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Monday, July 11, 2005

Anonymous and pseudonymous blogs.

Jess has taken up a theme from a conversation about blog ethics we began over dinner two weeks ago in Fort Worth, and so far several UU bloggers who don't publish their legal names on their blogs have responded to her posts about the ethics of blogging under a pseudonym. It's an interesting and lively conversation.

Jess has four posts on the theme so far, with responses from Chalicechick, Chutney, and Fausto, among others.

I don't think there's one "right" approach. People write blogs for many different reasons, and I think it's important to think about the ethics of blog writing as it pertains to specific kinds of blogs.

Blog readers and writers alike bring a range of assumptions about authorship:

Solo journalism.

Those who think blogs are like journalism tend to expect more journalism-like accountability. They often want to know who's "behind" the opinions and reporting they read. My models were journalists — Dan Kennedy, Andrew Sullivan, Josh Marshall — and because I also work in the media, I suppose it was natural for me to think of what I was doing on this site as journalism-like. I definitely understand what I'm doing here as related to my professional reputation, and when I think about the ethics I try to follow on this site, I draw on many of the standards I try to follow in the practice of my profession.

And yet, I almost exclusively use "Philocrites," my pseudonym, in the blogosphere. It's a branding strategy — I'm the only Philocrites there is — and so my use of the name online ties what I say in comments on other people's sites to what I write here. My "real" name is on every page of this site because I do in fact want people to know whose commentary they're reading — but all that really means is that I want them to be able to draw connections between what they find here and what they read or know about me from other contexts. In a further wrinkle, however, I write professionally under a much more formal version of my name than I use in any other context. No one calls me Christopher. My professional byline is, in that sense, yet another persona.

I have a strong interest in letting people draw connections between my published writing and my blog — but that's not a connection every blog writer wants to make. I respect that. My choice involves its own ethical thicket no less than people who blog under one name and earn their paychecks using another.

Personality blogs.

Journalism isn't the only model. Many blogs resemble letters, diaries, or personal essays — "creative non-fiction," as they called it in when I was studying the art, a writing exercise carried on in public with any number of purposes and using a broad range of styles — including many that derive their authority from rhetorical felicity (or authorial personality) rather than, say, deference to "facts." Some people write in order to be funny; some in order to be scandalous; some in order to pose questions people won't be able to shake. I read many blogs whose authors I don't know by name or in any other context — and I don't find that my respect for their writing or their insights is especially related to the presence of what looks like a "real" name. Real Live Preacher and Camassia earned my trust without telling me their real names, for example; Fafblog! tells the truth through absurdist satire.

There are ethical considerations that pertain to personal essays — for example, is it appropriate to tell a personal story that clearly involves describing and characterizing someone else without asking their permission? — just as there are ethical questions that pertain to any kind of communication. These aren't laws; they're just considerations that affect the confidence of readers and even of the writer herself. Does it really matter to you if David Sedaris exaggerates? It might to his relatives, but that's an interpersonal dilemma for the author more than an ethical shortcoming of the writing.

The poet Stephen Dunn's prose collection Walking Light has a great personal essay on artful distortions called "The Truth: A Memoir," and another essay called "Artifice and Sincerity," from which I feel compelled to quote:

I have distrusted "sincere" people for as long as I've encountered them, people who begin sentences with "In all candor . . ." and conclude them without a deep enough sense of it. Yes, they mean what they say, but they usually haven't thought very hard about what they mean. In poetry, likewise, I've distrusted the unadulterated heartfelt utterance. And I've been in love with artifice for as long as I've made things up, which seems like my entire life, yet I've been wary of the artificial, which through usage has come to be synonymous with contrived.

A trustworthy voice may in fact be profoundly deceptive, but the semblance of honesty is no guarantee of the truth.

Some people write what I'd call "personality blogs" under their own names, under pseudonyms, or anonymously. Although many sorts of specific ethical questions come up depending on what someone is writing about, the key question is whether the writing works. Does it achieve its goals? And, as a critical reader, I will also ask whether its goals are worth achieving.

Ephemeral conversation.

Those who treat blogs more like instant messaging or online chats seem to bring very different expectations to what they read and write. For one thing, writers in those worlds frequently use handles or even avatars rather than given names. At Beliefnet, FUUSE, LiveJournal, and any number of other such places, it's actually quite rare to see a user writing under a first and last name. And yet that doesn't seem to make them less ethical forms of communication. Many times, these blog writers and forum participants take for granted that their readership is made up of people who know each other: They think of themselves as community members. Some blog-writing resembles "ephemeral conversation" — even though blogs and online forums are much more public and much more persistent than many writers fully appreciate — because the writer's emphasis seems to be almost purely conversational.

When blogs grow out of online communities, a pseudonym is often a more meaningful name to an audience of readers than a real name would be.

So what?

Mostly I've been suggesting that different kinds of writing bring up different sorts of ethical issues. The kind of writing by itself doesn't seem to dictate whether you should use some version of your legal name when you publish it on a blog. Anonymity isn't fundamentally the issue.

But this all assumes that writing is judged as writing, when in fact much writing is judged by different criteria by current or future employers, colleagues, friends, relatives, fellow church members, parishioners, etc. And this is where things get sticky.

One large Unitarian Universalist congregation posts this bold announcement at the top of its online archive of sermons: "By all means send a copy to a friend or relative, but please do not distribute or publicly offer these sermons without the author's expressed permission." If a blog writer were a member of that congregation and wanted to write about a sermon she had heard, the ethical question she would ask wouldn't be abstract. It wouldn't be about copyright or the free exchange of ideas; it would be interpersonal, involving relationships with her minister and fellow parishioners. She might post anyway, ruffle some feathers, and find a satisfactory way to resolve the interpersonal tension — or she might discover that others weren't feeling all that forgiving. She might decide it's not worth the trouble, and transform her comments about a specific sermon into a general observation. She might decide not to write at all.

There's no rule that says blog writers shouldn't write about their own congregations, but isn't it interesting how few of us actually describe or comment regularly on the local congregations we attend or serve? I suspect it's because the interpersonal dimensions of congregational life and the requirements of a good blog post can run up against each other. Many people are circumspect in blogging about their jobs for the same reason. Interpersonally, it may be more trouble than it's worth.

Ministers have an especially tricky set of relationships to figure out. They already live in a fishbowl that many experience as exceedingly public and isolating. Their opinions — on everything from the color of the office carpet to their choice of vacation plans, not to mention what they say in the pulpit — are scrutinized and gossiped about by their congregants. But some of their opinions and observations aren't for their congregations. Sadly, Unitarian Universalism has lost almost all of its journals of opinion; we've been reduced to a series of e-mail lists and members-only conferences for much of the intellectual conversation in our movement. Where and how can ministers comment on the state of their religious movement today? Some have started blogging — and like clergy in other traditions, not all are using their professional names. A list of blogging pastors I discovered in the Christian Century's new "Blogs on Faith & Culture" column only lists blogs with "real name" authors, but others blog under pseudonyms — like Father Jake, who suggests not using a real name "to limit folk's ability to google you, [because] it could be disruptive to a family member's ability to effectively live out their vocation." (Intriguingly, the leading journals of Unitarian opinion and scholarship in the 19th century didn't carry bylines, although people often recognized writers by their style.)

Even when they are writing pseudonymously, ministers have collegial relationships to each other and recognize that they are, more than anyone else, the public faces of a religious movement. When it comes to UU blogging, I suspect that ministers are most keenly aware of the ethics of reputation. But this has little to do with blogs as a kind of writing or a kind of publishing; it has to do with preexisting relationships.

So, what do I conclude? My rule of thumb about blogging is this: Have some idea what you want your blog to do, and pay attention to the feedback you get to see if you're accomplishing what you want. Wouldn't it be great if everyone, articulate and inarticulate alike, could freely express their opinions in an environment of free and responsible dialogue? Sadly, they can't; we each choose not to say all sorts of things out of deference to important relationships or the constraints that govern our lives. In some cases, a degree of pseudonymity makes expressing an opinion possible. Could there be negative consequences? Of course.

But anonymity, as risky as it is, opens one more door: Unfortunately, not every good deed goes unpunished. Even in liberal religion in the United States of America, there may well be extremely good reasons to write pseudonymously or anonymously in order to tell a truth one would be punished for telling. Am I happy about that? No. Would I regard every anonymous bit of truth-telling as ethical? Certainly not. But I look at it this way: Some people write using their "real" name to tell lies; some people wear disguises to tell the truth. Are they both acting unethically?

Although I try to follow essentially journalistic standards, I've long believed that the Fool in King Lear, the trickster in many legends and myths, and the prophet who speaks in parables or jeremiads often hit the truth more squarely than those of us who want footnotes. I'm not sure that everyone who blogs anonymously is justified in doing so, but I'm quite sure that not everyone who blogs using their own name is wise. It's not the name; it's the writing that matters.

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 11 July 2005 at 8:19 AM

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July 11, 2005 10:24 AM | Permalink for this comment

I was wondering when you might weigh in!

This is extremely helpful, well-thought out, and eloquent. Thank you for posting it. I feel like I got ambushed and therefore sidetracked on my own site, and haven't been able to process effectively.

You're absolutely right, there is a place for "wearing a disguise to tell the truth." I wish it weren't that human beings are as retaliatory as they can be, but since we are... Sometimes a mask is only safety.

As far as ethical choices go, I feel it is what a blogger chooses not to say that sometimes matters more than what they do actually post. I feel that some of those who post anonymously or pseudonymously sometimes feel more protected than they actually are, and some are not aware of the consequences of being "found out." There are many well-publicized cases of bloggers being fired from their jobs once found out, and the majority of them were posting pseudonymously. Queen of Sky and the Phantom Professor are the two that jump to mind, but there are more.

I can't help but wonder if their situations would have played out the same way if they had started their blogs openly in the first place. On Phantom's part, this would have taken incredible guts, but I wonder if she would have been able to better influence positive change at her University by being public in her criticism. Of course this raises more issues of tenure and freedom of speech in academia, but I find the scenario interesting to ponder.

Anyway. I'm beating a dead horse, and you've done it much more eloquently than I could have. So, I'm off to my multi-multi part review of the new hymnal supplement. ;-)


July 11, 2005 10:56 AM | Permalink for this comment

As usual a very well thought out comment on the subject, well done.

For my part it's all about google. John Cooley is a fairly common name, and I am not even close to being the most famous bearer of it.


July 11, 2005 11:24 AM | Permalink for this comment

Well Philocrites, this kind of post is exactly why we love you.

Dan Harper:

July 12, 2005 01:24 AM | Permalink for this comment

One or two further comments on this interesting topic:

-- I don't know if it's still true, but a few months ago I found that among UU bloggers more women than men were blogging anonymously.

-- As far as "creative non-fiction" -- I spent a year in grad school doing creative non-fiction, which I understood as coming out of the tradition of journalism (it was originally called "new journalism"). In my experience of the field, creative non-fiction retains quite a bit of the ethos of journalism. It's unthinkable that Dan Wakefield or Hunter Thompson could write what they have written anonymously. So I'd distinguish between creative non-fiction blogs (which carry some or many of the expectations of journalism), and online journals (which carry essentially no such expectations). By the way, I can't think of a single UU creative non-fiction blog.

-- Parody, irony, barbed commentary, savage attacks, reviews, editorials, epigrams -- these genres have long histories of anonymous writing. Many (most?) UU blogs really fall into this category, while masquerading as online journals, journalism, etc.

-- Some other categories of blog that might have different ethical implications include -- blogs of scholars and thinkers (CK's "Language Games" heads that direction), which might be governed by some of the ethics of scholarship and academia -- minister's blogs, which are governed by professional guidelines and general ministerial ethics (and seminarians quickly find that they are in this category) -- and offical staff blogs, like Phil Lund's "Little Blog on the Praire." In short, ethical standards of a particular community or profession might govern blog ethics.

-- Final thought -- When you come down to it, *all* writing is governed by basic ethical considerations including good manners, a modicum of good taste, and common human decency. Blogs are just another form of writing. Ergo,....


July 12, 2005 07:37 AM | Permalink for this comment

My definition of creative nonfiction is broader than yours, Dan, since the term was used to cover personal essays and belles lettres when I studied it. And, although it pains the goody-two-shoes in me, I have to disagree that all writing should be governed by good manners and a degree of good taste.

I divided the interpersonal ethics of communication from the ethics of literary craft, if you will, for one crucial reason: There are forms of writing, especially satire but also many other forms of criticism, that are not improved by good manners. Good writing, yes -- the strongest prose and clearest argument possible -- but I'd say that different degrees of politeness are demanded of different kinds of writing. What matters is that a writer have some sense of their own aims, and that they find the right tools to accomplish them. Prophets, for example, had their own literary form -- but it definitely did not involve good manners and good taste. Satirists probably don't maintain strong friendships with the people they satirize. It's worth knowing that there are interpersonal consequences for certain kinds of writing, but sometimes the truth hurts.

Having said that, of course, it's worth remembering that human beings are always on the other end of every bit of text we publish. Someone's reading what we write, and their reactions are worth imagining. I try not to be surprised when a barb sticks.


July 12, 2005 03:33 PM | Permalink for this comment

Okay, I'll bite. How do you define GOOD WRITING, Philo'? I mean, just for fun.


July 12, 2005 05:04 PM | Permalink for this comment


You write: "Parody, irony, barbed commentary, savage attacks, reviews, editorials, epigrams -- these genres have long histories of anonymous writing. Many (most?) UU blogs really fall into this category, while masquerading as online journals, journalism, etc."

I'm not aware of any UU bloggers presenting their blogs as online journals or as journalism, masquerade or otherwise. Please enlighten me as to their whereabouts...

"When you come down to it, *all* writing is governed by basic ethical considerations including good manners, a modicum of good taste, and common human decency."

Not only do we need to throw out the prophets, then, but also the Gospels. Oh well...


July 13, 2005 12:30 AM | Permalink for this comment

Dan writes: "minister's blogs, which are governed by professional guidelines and general ministerial ethics (and seminarians quickly find that they are in this category)"

I'm a seminarian trekking toward parish ministry in the UUA, but my blog's theme, scope, and subject matter has very little to do with pastoral ministry and its accompanying professional guidelines and general ministerial ethics. I know full well what these ministerial guidelines and ethics are, and practice them while fulfilling the ministerial position (which is by no means limited to the church or fellowship), but my blog is heading (hopefully) in a totally different direction.

I think this broad placement of all seminarian bloggers into such a constrictive category is a bit presumptuous. I can be an M.Div student with a present/future in ministerial guidelines and ethics, and a blogger faced with a totally different set of ethical implications, can't I?

Dan Harper:

July 14, 2005 01:24 PM | Permalink for this comment

Me and my big mouth.

Chris, I want to resist broadening the definition of "creative non-fiction," because I want to believe belles lettres are belles lettres, essays are essays, and Francis Bacon wrote essays not creative non-fiction. But OK, the definition has changed, I'm wrong, and at least you didn't throw Truman Capote's ethics at me, for which I am grateful.

As for good taste, for me good taste *is* good writing. Good taste means choosing something that's worth writing about, bringing a certain quality of presence, personality, and observation to it, and presenting it to readers so they want to read it. Maybe we're saying the same thing, Chris, but from different viewpoints?

Then we get to good manners, by which I don't mean extending the pinky whilst drinking tea, or bowing to dictators. Satire and parody are governed by good manners, because you're supposed to be afflicting the comfortable, not afflicting the afflicted. Dan Savage's redefinition of "santorum" is just barely good writing manners because Rick Santorum is powerful and way too comfortable. Ad hominem attacks, however, like saying "Bush is stupid," or "I hate Christians," are always bad manners.

Chutney, I only read half a dozen UU blogs regularly, so I'm sure I overstated how many UU blogs are online journals. (And yeah, the only UU blog I can think of that resembles journalism is Philocrites.) By online journals I mean blogs where some narrative force is provided by events in the author's life. I know that Peacebang is off in the Berkshires right now, because her blog has the quality of an online journal. By contrast, "Paul Wilczynski's Observations," tells us nearly nothing about Paul's life. Most of the UU blogs I read are diaristic.

But Chutney, I believe the prophets did have good manners. They could have just said,"Hey #$%!! you, you *@#%$* #$%!!$#!," which would have been bad manners, and which we wouldn't have bothered reading 2,500 years later. The power of their writing lies in part in the fact that they observed certain boundaries of human conduct.

sA, you might well be right, and certainly I came off sounding pretty snotty (what the heck, I guess I *am* pretty snotty). But I would never badmouth a lay leader or another minister in my blog, nor would I reveal pastoral confidences, nor do anything that would violate my relationship with my congregation, etc., so ministerial ethics do trump any other ethics for me. I suspect the same might be true for doctors, therapists, etc. But I can dimly see how you might find a different way to work this.

Finally, Peacebang has asked the best question, which I think gets at the root of this whole discussion -- how *do* we define good writing? Her question clarifies this whole discussion for me. And Peacebang, I think the taproot, the deepest root of all, will be that good writing comes out of what it means to be human and what it means to participate in the good. Ethics really gets back to beauty and goodness, doesn't it?

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