On Anonymous & Pseudonymous Blogging

There’s a lot of chatter going on in the blogosphere right about anonymous and pseudonymous blogging and whether or not it is right to out a pseudonymous blogger.

Yesterday, Ed Whelan of Bench Memos outed an pseudonymous blogger (who blogged under the name “Publius”) who he felt crossed a line with a personal attack.

Several bloggers I know and respect have weighed in on the appropriateness of this action.

Ed Morrissey:

Had Publius published Ed’s personal information, or had slandered him factually, I could understand the need to make his identity public and force him to bear responsibility for such attacks.  However, as Rick says, calling someone a “know-nothing demagogue” doesn’t qualify.  It may be annoying, and I think it reflects very poorly on Publius, but that’s the kind of ad hominem attack bloggers get from Day One.  Truman’s Axiom comes into play here — if a blogger can’t take that kind of heat, he ought to reconsider blogging.

James Joyner:

While I generally find the practice of revealing people’s secrets to the public distasteful, there are times when it’s appropriate.  Public officials who are abusing their power is the most obvious case.   Here, however, there is no public benefit achieved. Whelan is simply annoyed that Publius had been “biting at my ankles in recent months” and critiquing his blog posts.

Rick Moran:

The point is, there are a lot of good reasons for bloggers to remain anonymous and Ed Whalen has no right to decide differently just because he got steamed about someone’s response to his analysis. Did Publius commit a crime? Was he slandering Whalen? If not, Whalen’s fit of personal pique looks low, tawdry, childish, and vengeful. The closest Publius got to getting personal with Whelan was in calling him a “know-nothing demagogue.” And this was after making the point that Whelan knew better and was simply pandering to conservative sensibilities.

Robert Stacy McCain:

The “no harm, no foul” principle might apply to this situation. Whelan blogs under his own name and felt that he was being abused by the anonymous “Publius.” The fact that “Publius” was relatively obscure — I’m not into legal blogging, and have seldom read Obsidian Wings — might make Whelan’s “outing” of him seem an overreaction. But I don’t presume to judge what is or is not abuse of another. If Blevins is harmed by his “outing,” he ought to be able to demonstrate (not merely assert) that harm.

Personally, this issue is a tough one for me. I have been blogging since 2003, and from day one under by real name. Sometimes the price you pay to blog openly with your own identity is high. At one point, I was convinced my blogging actually had a negative impact on my job search when I was unemployed a few years ago. I have gotten anonymous phone calls and threats. I’ve had property vandalized. There is a price to pay by putting your political views out in the open, and that price is gets even bigger when you are more successful — which changes everything. Of course, it was too late for me to change my mind at that point.

I know bloggers who blog under pseudonyms, and that is their choice. I am well aware of the risks involved of blogging under your own name/identity, and don’t blame any blogger for choosing to avoid all the crap you inevitably have to put up with when you reach a level of notoriety in the blogosphere.

That being said, I completely understand the frustration of being attacked by anonymous commenters and bloggers, who, from where you stand, aren’t willing to put their own reputations at risk when they publish their words to the internet. It is a lot easier to make baseless, personal attacks on another blogger when you are anonymous, than when you go by your own name. The main reason is accountability. For everything I blog, here or elsewhere, I am accountable for every single word. Anonymous and pseudonymous bloggers aren’t so much. With that knowledge, I can understand Ed Whelan’s actions. 

For what it is worth, liberal bloggers, who have been expressing outrage over Whelan’s actions, have a history of exposing details of the private lives of Republicans, Of course, two wrongs don’t make a right, but a double standard is nothing short of hypocrisy.

We belittle news stories that rely on anonymous sources because anonymous sources (and the reporters who keep relying on them) aren’t to be trusted, for a variety of reasons. Similarly, we have every reason to be skeptical of anonymous bloggers, and have every reason to feel angry when they hide behind a wall of anonymity while erroneously trashing our reputations. 

I use a lot of restraint when dealing with bloggers who attack me and/or my positions. I prefer not to get into sophomoric back-and-forths, and to the best of my abilities avoid them by ignoring bloggers who feel personal attacks are a viable substitute for reasoned debate. 

Ed Whelan explained his actions thusly:

Law professor John Blevins (aka publius) and others seem to assume that I owed some sort of obligation to Blevins not to expose his pseudonymous blogging.  I find this assumption baffling.  A blogger may choose to blog under a pseudonym for any of various self-serving reasons, from the compelling (e.g., genuine concerns about personal safety) to the respectable to the base.  But setting aside the extraordinary circumstances in which the reason to use a pseudonym would be compelling, I don’t see why anyone else has any obligation to respect the blogger’s self-serving decision.  And I certainly don’t see why someone who has been smeared by the blogger and frequently had his positions and arguments misrepresented should be expected to do so.

Blevins desired to be unaccountable—irresponsible—for the views he set forth in the blogosphere.  He wanted to present one face to his family, friends, and colleagues and another to the blogosphere.  That’s understandable but hardly deserving of respect.  If he wanted to avoid the risk of being associated publicly with his views, he shouldn’t have blogged.  It’s very strange that angry lefties are calling me childish (and much worse) when it’s Blevins who was trying to avoid responsibility for his blogging.  (Law professor Michael Krauss has a good post on the matter.)

Sure, anonymous and pseudonymous bloggers have legitimate concerns for not using their real names. The blogger Ed Whelan outed, gave several “private and professional reasons”:

As I told Ed (to no avail), I have blogged under a pseudonym largely for private and professional reasons.  Professionally, I’ve heard that pre-tenure blogging (particularly on politics) can cause problems.  And before that, I was a lawyer with real clients.  I also believe that the classroom should be as nonpolitical as possible – and I don’t want conservative students to feel uncomfortable before they take a single class based on my posts.  So I don’t tell them about this blog.  Also, I write and research on telecom policy – and I consider blogging and academic research separate endeavors.  This, frankly, is a hobby.

Privately, I don’t write under my own name for family reasons.  I’m from a conservative Southern family – and there are certain family members who I’d prefer not to know about this blog (thanks Ed).  Also, I have family members who are well known in my home state who have had political jobs with Republicans, and I don’t want my posts to jeopardize anything for them (thanks again).

Well, we all have similar risks. My political views have strained and/or ended friendships, caused tension or discomfort in the workplace, and have been the source many arguments at family gatherings. But, bloggers who make the choice to remain anonymous ought to respect bloggers who, for one reason or another, don’t have the luxury of anonymity, and give them the courtesy of refraining from personal attacks they themselves are immune to.  

It is not my place to say whether Whelan’s actions were appropriate or not. To me, this situation underscores the point that anonymous and pseudonymous bloggers are not playing on a level playing field as bloggers who stake their name and reputations on their published words on a daily basis. And when the latter feels slighted by the former, it’s not unreasonable for them to want to level that playing field.

UPDATE: More from Don Surber

UPDATE II: More links and reactions via Joe Gandelman

UPDATE III: Blogger Simon Owens spoke to both Whelan and Blevins