Tell me again how pseudonyms are lame

Aug 17 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

It's starting to come up yearly, or so. Maybe a little less often. It's like a weather pattern, the blogging El Nino, briefly stirring up, and then going away, somewhat predictable, but just rare enough that you forget.

But here it is again, someone telling the world that they don't understand why people use pseuds. That pseuds limit impact. I understand the concerns, but every time someone blogging under their real name says they "don't understand" why anyone would use a pseudonym...I always tend to hear a vague note of patronizing. That pseuds are slightly disreputable. That there is something vaguely embarrassing about them, and if we were all adults, we'd all blog under our real names and be civil all the time.Today it's from Terry at Small Pond Science, a site that I usually like quite a lot. I really appreciate the perspective of someone from a smaller college, as opposed to the ones I usually see on large research institutions. It's interesting to see similarities and differences and I admire his dedication to teaching and students.

But I have to disagree with his views on pseuds. And as a former Pseud myself, who is now a "real adult blogger" under my own name, I still believe that pseuds can make a big impact, and that pseudonyms are an incredibly important voice in the science blogsphere.

Terry argues, using the example of the public artist Banksy:

I think there is a ceiling to how much difference Banksy can make in the world, because of his pseudonymity. I don’t think the social impact of something like Picasso’s Guernica could be matched by any single work by Banksy because the origin of the message matters along with the artist itself.

I have to say I disagree with this claim. The impact of many pieces of art is quite independent from who it was who made them. For example, we don't actually 100% KNOW that it was Shakespeare who wrote Shakespeare's plays. It does not lessen the impact of them one jot, they have been and remain valuable art, entertainment, and social commentary.

If you want to talk about visual art, consider one of my favorite pieces: a little metal chicken, about a foot high, 14th century, in the Barnes museum in Philadelphia. No one knows who made it. It's in a sea of famous arts by famous artists, piles of Renoirs, Reubens, Degas, Picasso. But ask people who have been to the Barnes museum if they remember the metal chicken. The vast majority I have spoken to know instantly what I've talking about.

No one knows who made it, it's an anonymous piece of art. It could have been an artist, it could have been a monk or a farmer. The fact that no one knows who made it gives it an even bigger impact than it might have otherwise. It's not just some metal chicken. It could be anything. I like to think that a farmer maybe made the chicken, painstakingly, as a gift to his child, who cherished it for the love it represented. I'd like to think of the look on that farmer's face knowing his little chicken is in a famous museum, and thousands of people come by every day to see it. And now, here it is, in a museum. It has lost none of its impact. It's a lovely little metal chicken, and everyone who sees it remembers it.

I feel the same way about pseudonymous bloggers. I strongly disagree that pseudonyms cannot make big effects for change. In fact, in some cases, you can get a bigger effect for change by being a pseudonym than you can under your real name. Consider: a woman who agitates for equal treatment at her university might get somewhere. But she might also receive labels of being a whiner, or of not spending as much time on research as her peers because she is spending time (that they see) agitating for equal treatment.

Now consider if that woman has a pseudonymous blog. Nothing prevents her from agitating at her university, and probably she still does. But as a blogger with personal stories to tell, she gains a following. Inspires other people to do the same. Writes pieces that are used by others to perfect their arguments and agitate that their own universities. Helps to mentor other women in science who might be unable to find mentors at their university. The pseudonym makes her the every woman, approachable, a voice that others easily identify with (in fact, Terry gets at this himself when he speaks of the artist Banksy's work. "Since we don’t know who Banksy is, it’s easier for me to imagine that he is speaking for many of us."). In this case, that ability to create a sense of identity is part of what spreads the impact of the pseudonymous blogger. Was her impact limited? I would argue the opposite. And this can be incredibly important for people who are minorities in their fields.

I was also somewhat irritated when Terry brought out the old canard about how pseudonyms can write whatever they want, the implication being that this leaves a door open to be badly behaved. Obviously, some pseuds ARE badly behaved. But many are not. Many need to use a pseudonym to speak their minds.

If you wanted some examples as to why one might want to do this, here are a few. There are some people who think that blogging is social media is not a useful thing to do, that it takes away from time when you could be writing grants or papers, that it is self-promotional. People might get the wrong idea and think you are looking for alternative careers, and not take you seriously. People might get the RIGHT idea, and think you are looking for alternative careers, and change the way they deal with you on a professional basis.

Terry asks "Why do these pseudonymous authors are seeking from having the blog? Without using your name, then what is your motivation for having the blog, on a personal, interpersonal, and societal scales?"

Well, what if you want to write, but are early in your career, and cannot take the risk of people in your department labeling you for the reasons I listed above? What if your field is not open to social media? What if you need mentors, what to create a network? Maybe there are not many people like you, with similar experiences, at your university, and you'd like to find some? Perhaps you want to develop a valuable set of writing skills? There are many reasons to start a blog, and certainly, not all of them need a real name behind them.

In addition, it is ridiculous to believe that writing under your real name will lead to good behavior, or that writing under a pseudonym leads to bad. I can think of a few people who's real names did not save them from making complete asses of themselves. If you're going to be a jerk on the internet, you'll be one under whatever name. And as many people have noted, a pseudonym is thin protection at the very best. It won't stop determined people from finding you. But it can allow you to express yourself, to build a network, to build skills.

There are many reasons to be a pseudonym, and many of them are quite "real". I may not be a pseudonym any more, but I will always believe in the value of a penname.

NOTE: Bug_Girl (who's name, to me, will always and forever be Bug_Girl, has a post about pseuds as well. It's very powerful and an important read. Also, trigger warning for violence and abuse.

31 responses so far

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I dunno, I started out pseudonym and then switched to usual name. Jim is a nickname, actually. There are some things I don't say, which I might say if I could do so completely anomously. As it is, I'm willing to stand behind most stuff I post.

  • Jason Dick says:

    Asking others to always use their real names is a paean to the status quo. As long as you are privileged, as long as you are buttressed by not having to worry about serious negative consequences from your actions, using your real name is easy.

    It's the people who don't have privilege, who want to speak out against the status quo, or who simply want to behave in a manner that the status quo deems unrespectable that benefit from a pseudonym.

    Sometimes, that's a good thing. Sometimes the status quo keeps the vilest bits of humanity back. Not many non-black people today, for example, would use the n-word publicly. Overt harassment is also generally frowned upon.

    But sometimes it's a very, very bad thing. The status quo is, in our society, primarily the comfortable province of older white straight cis men. Buck any dimension of that, and you're not going to be as comfortable out in the open because people are more likely to harass you for stepping out of line.

    So yeah, if you don't like the way somebody is behaving, speak out against them. But don't be a douche and try to take away an essential tool for the less well-represented sections of our society to speak out.

    • scicurious says:

      FTW. I love this comment.

    • Scitrigrrl says:

      Fantastic, insightful point.
      Thank you.

    • Who was asking someone to use their real name?

      Obviously the disempowered and those at risk have their reasons to not use their names.

      To people who use pseudonyms and operate blogs, it's a dumb question to ask why they blog and why they use a pseud. But to the people who aren't experienced bloggers or who don't use pseudonyms, it's an opportunity for learning.

      Thanks for taking the time to post about it.

    • Justin says:

      I strongly agree with "Asking others to always use their real names is a paean to the status quo." although I don't share all the standard group-victimology stuff in your comment. Truth is, at most universities I have ever seen, people from approved victim groups speaking up to demand better treatment do not often have much to fear and usually have much to gain: whether their grievances are right or wrong, administrators will generally pay them off well. Google MIT commission on status of women to see one famous example--that turned into a huge windfall for all involved. One might even say shakedown.

      In my experience, it is young people who are critics of that sort of standard university grievance-group politics who have most need to comment anonymously.

      But anyway, anonymity can be a tool for anyone with facts to tell but vulnerability to retribution, so we can all support anonymity and let local reality determine who is most in need of its protection.

      • DrugMonkey says:

        Why is it a "windfall" or a "shakedown" when reparations are made to correct a previously unjust situation? Sounds more like "partial compensation" for injuries to me.

  • While pseudonyms may not work for everybody, they are not necessarily a bad thing. I also wrote a post about pseuds, where I insert a reference from Breaking Bad (the TV show). I'm not trying to implicate that we can use pseuds to do bad things, but sometimes we speak so loudly and we want others (like us) to listen to our message and we need to use an alternative identity. Mark Twain, Emily Bronte and many other writers used pen names because the messages they were trying to give were not widely accepted and they showed a society that people didn't want to see. Sometimes when we blog, we talk about things universities don't want to hear, but we're merely speaking from our experiences, for other people to know that they're not alone. Like you said in your post, the message that we convey is often more important than the identity we decide to use.

  • Thanks for the response! I appreciate the thoughtfulness, respect and substantial discourse. (I wouldn't expect any less from you, as a pseud or non-pseud, of course.)

    And I'm flattered that you even read my blog on occasion. Thanks.

    You'll note that the title of my post wasn't anything bad or negative about pseuds or telling them what they should or shouldn't do. And, there was nothing like that inside those post either. My post was wondering about the relative effect that pseudonymous creators can have an effect on the world than non-pseudonymous creators.

    And you make a good argument that there isn't much difference, if not an advantage to the pseuds.

    Actually, I like your point about Shakespeare a lot, and now I'm made at myself that I didn't write it. I'm one of those dudes who is mighty convinced that the historical William Shakespeare didn't write the plays, but it was someone else in a position of power who couldn't afford to be connected to them. The author of the plays didn't choose to write them under an obvious pseudonym, but instead to actually but a genuine face and name to them. It's unclear that at the time, it was thought to be a pseudonym, but history has gone down such that people really think it was written by this Shakespeare dude. So, the author chose against pseudonymity when he could have just gone by a secret identity, like some excellent bloggers use.

    "Actually, the I was also somewhat irritated when Terry brought out the old canard about how pseudonyms can write whatever they want, the implication being that this leaves a door open to be badly behaved."

    That was not an intended implication. Actually, the intended implication is that the consequences of being misinterpreted are much greater for a non-pseud than a pseud.

    Boy, how I have learned that, this fine sunny morning.

    I do find it ironic that a frequent knee-jerk response to my post is to say that "pseuds don't bully more than non-pseuds" when I never suggested that concept at all.

    My post was in fact more about Bansky, public art, and Picasso than science blogging, and I like that you've written about my interest in pseudonymity rather than misinterpreting what I wrote as a lack of respect for pseudonymous bloggers, which apparently happened with a respected colleague.

    I wrote that you need to be more careful with your words as a non-pseud. That wasn't a remark about being a bully, but about just the opposite. About inadvertently offending. Which apparently I've done.

    Obviously, I do take serious pseudonymous blogs seriously. And, the primary motivation for being a pseud is obvious.

    I wasn't questioning the motivation for pseudonymous blogging I did want to know why the pseudonymous blogger chooses to blog, sometimes prolifically.

    If I chose to blog pseudonymously, then I would be doing so not let me be mean, but to not have the bad real-life consequences of a miswritten or misthought idea. If I unintentionally offended someone, as there could be consequences in real life. We'll see.

    • scicurious says:

      Thanks for stopping by! I appreciate you taking the time to clarify.

      I understand that it wasn't your intention to imply that pseuds are a negative thing. For me, though, when someone asks WHY pseuds exist as bloggers, well it does imply that it's a negative thing. You never SAID that pseuds were used to bully, instead you said that pseuds never have to think three times about everything. Which implies, very strongly, that pseuds do not face consequences for their actions in the way people writing under their own names do, and in fact you said it above "I would be doing so not let me be mean, but to not have the bad real-life consequences of a miswritten or misthought idea".

      I do not believe that this is the case at all. Many people who write under their real names have never seriously had to worry about whether the world would respect what they said on its own merits. Many people who write under their real names (especially those who know very little about finding things) also perceive a pseudonym to be a much stronger defense than it actually is. When a pseud is targeted, they are VERY MUCH targeted. They will be found. And whatever they said that made people angry will be amplified by the fact that they did it under a fake name.

      In addition, when you state that you would be a pseud not to face consequences, it suggests that what pseudonyms have to say, they are only saying behind a pseudonym because they are too cowardly to face the consequences. When the consequences are things like violence, dismissal from your job, or similar, I don't blame anyone for using a pseud. For example, you know very well that if someone on your promotion committee found your blog and disliked what you had to say, well, it wouldn't really affect you professionally. They would see your blog and know that it was your own personal opinion, and would be able to separate that from whether you do well at your job.

      But many people do not have that privilege. When my work colleagues found out that I blogged, it was widely assumed that this would be a VERY negative thing for my career, even though I am rarely personal and write usually about pure science. I am a woman, I was a grad student. Science writing MUST have been because I was not dedicated, because I wished to waste time, and because I did not value my future in academia. But I wanted to write, I wanted to hone my skills, and develop a talent that was important to me. And in a world where 80% of grad students won't get a tenure track job, I also thought it was very prudent to develop an alternative career that I enjoyed. Is it any surprise that I preferred to keep it under wraps?

      I also wonder why you question people's motives for writing under any name at all? Why do people paint? Draw cartoons? Play games? Why would writing under a pseudonym have any different motivations than that of writing in general? Of wanting to air your thoughts to the world, work on your writing, and see what other people think?

      PS: I am from the side that believes Shakespeare DID write the plays. 🙂 We can argue about that another time.

      • Thanks SO much.

        This is a good point, that pseuds have a greater risk, of being outed, which could be worse than just doing it without a pseud the whole time.

        Those kinds of things might be obvious to people who use pseuds, but if you don't, it's not something to keep in mind every day.

        The responses I'm getting are from people who have blogged under a pseudonym for several years. I've never blogged under one, and I've only been blogging for six months, so the input is great. While I don't think pseudonyms are lame, this is something that people do say. I wanted to think more about this and put it in context.

        Keep in mind that I intentionally chose against a pseudonym, even though it comes with the risks of always being out, because I thought it would help me have a greater impact. In my case (as a dude of a place of white tenuredness), being out probably does allow for greater impact. But it's not the white or the tenure that was my reason for being out, but because the mission of my blog is about research in teaching institutions, and if I just talked and talked about research - without taking the risk of backing it up with my face and CV - then people would think that I'm just full of nonsense. If my message is that research is important and matters in teaching institutions, the fact that I back it up with what I do on a day to day basis with specifics matters. At least, I suspect it does.

        My post was a question and not an answer. Other than the Banksy-Picasso comparison, of which was not well convinced anyway, most of what I wrote was me wondering rather than me making an argument. And, I don't have to wonder anymore, because I've gotten my answers, in spades.

        It'd be hard to answer who's more awesome: Picasso or Banksy. Fortunately, I don't have to choose. So, obviously, the people behind the pseudonyms aren't lame.

        When I was asking a question, "I wonder, " "It might be possible" or stuff like that - I'm genuinely asking. Pseudonymous bloggers live this stuff every day, but it's still a novel phenomenon to me. I was just asking and I touched off a big nerve.

        I suppose if I was just some dude with a website I wouldn't have gotten this response, and I'm surprised that both you and Bug Girl and you even care enough about what I think, because I wasn't quite sure that my words have mattered, so it's heartening to know that it does.

        I see lots of great writing on the internet, from people whose identifies are not known, and I wish more people read them. I pass links on to other people, who don't read blogs, and they don't choose to read from the pseudonymous blogs. It drives me nuts, but there it is.

        I need to read a couple more books about the Shakespeare thing, but this is really interesting to me. An old family friend is an "Oxfordian," and a brilliant academic person, and she mounts a particularly convincing argument that the establishment doesn't address too well. But I'm not yet equipped to make that argument.

        • DrugMonkey says:

          You just can't help the passive-aggressive, can you? Sci is correct- your assertions about what out-blogging protects you from are indeed your criticism, subconscious or otherwise, of pseuds.

          "People would think I was full of nonsense"

          My blog readers either agree or disagree with my careerism posts because of the content. They rarely, if ever, seriously question my views because of any doubt that I've represented my real life career experiences in accurately. Same goes for the pseudonymous comment regulars.

  • Dennis says:

    I am privileged. I am a mid-30s middle class, single, non-parent, white dude who got higher education for free. I don't have family members in jail or with a psychological disorder and my parents didn't divorce - whatever social inconvenience you can think of, I didn't and don't have it. Ever. Everything I did worked out for me somehow so far. Just for those who think I wasn't aware of that. I know that. I know other people have problems I don't have and that they deal with much more basic things. There is no need to remind me of it.

    But here is the thing: I feel stressed, too, sometimes. I want to rant about unfair things that happen to me or threaten me, too, without somebody telling me how these are problems of a first-world privileged white man from Europe. No matter where you are and who you are there are always new problems popping up, and sometime I just want to shout them out. With nobody knowing my gender, my skin color, my age, my name. And I really don't care so much about getting positive feedback or anything. It's more like screaming out of the window in the night. I need that, because I am supposed to use my privileged stand in society to support the less privileged, not the guy who has it all and still complains. I understand how people are annoyed by it, so I do it in my little chamber of anonymity.

    When I am in an angry/annoyed mood I use my pseudonym, when not I use my real name. Yes, that doesn't mean I don't say controversial things with my real name. But it is still better this way.

  • Don says:

    But it would have been a lot easier to find the chicken if it had a sculptor's name attached to it and I knew the sculptor's name. But the pseud is a searchable name so it really isn't a valid comparison. Unfortunately "anonymous" finds nothing on the Barnes site.

    But the name, whatever it is, is important, using Steeple Cock gets you right to it but a search for chicken finds you nothing.

    http://www.barnesfoundation.org/assets/collectionImgResize/0/01/529_600_01-22-43_i7.jpg

  • physioprof says:

    McGlynn is a whiny boring humorless douche, who couldn't even be bothered to actually do some motherfucken research--by actually reading what pseudonymous bloggers have been saying for fucken *years* about why they blogge pseudonymously--to find answers to his whiny humorless douchey "questions".

    • I wasn't wondering about motivation. I was wondering about actual impact. I was wondering, if the avenues for impact are reduced, which is what the informative comments in my post suggest, then then what the other motivations are. I've read plenty of a variety of pseudonymous blogs, including their earliest posts before they end up in blog networks. It wasn't satisfying. This new conversation though, goes down like a nice Belgian ale.

      Okay, I'm boring and humorless - and I don't show much humor on the internets because I want to avoid it being at the expense of others. Now, who is whiny? I'll stay mum, for the same reason.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    I have to disagree with the assertion that pseudonymity is a barrier to effective writing.

    Just to pick a two exampls, there's "Publius" and the various books of the Christian scriptures. Agree with them or not, but they were certainly pseudonymous.

  • Bob says:

    We do know Shakespeare was the author of the plays. KNOW it, even. But your point remains. 🙂

    Bob ( skepticalhumanities.com)

    • scicurious says:

      I agree that we do know Shakespeare was the author, but there is a small school that disagrees and thinks it was something higher placed.

    • Wait, I'm just curious, but how do we have that kind of knowledge from so far in the past. Is there video footage of him writing the plays or something? If you're "skeptical" then wouldn't you express skepticism? I'm, yet again, confused.

      • Vicki says:

        The "is there video footage?" question can be used equally well to argue that Jane Austen didn't really write Pride and Prejudice, or Geoffrey Chaucer the Canterbury Tales.

        But I don't think scicurious wants us to rehash all the Shakespeare biographical and literary arguments here.

        • scicurious says:

          I've always thought that Chaucer musta been a cover for Richard II's literary ambitions!!!! 😉

        • Clearly, I wasn't arguing that video footage was required for authorship; I think you're aware of that. It was a rhetorical response to the unsubstantiated claim that we "KNOW" that the historical William Shakespeare was the author of the plays that are attributed to him. I was asking, sincerely, what constitutes that kind of knowledge. Just sayin'.

  • Bob says:

    We actually do KNOW that Shakespeare wrote the plays. 🙂 But your point stands.

    Bob (skepticalhumanities.com)

  • sasha says:

    Pseudonyms are very important for people with 'portfolio careers' -- especially if one career requires for safety that you be careful about your online presence. For example, teachers, social workers, lawyers, health workers, correctional system workers, etc.

    Also, for those -- especially women -- who have had stalkers, pseudonyms are essential for protecting our safety. Even if we are blogging about seemingly random things.

  • kaleberg says:

    When I was a kid I always wondered why Erle Stanley Gardner sometimes wrote under his own name and sometimes as AA Fair, especially since a lot of the AA Fair books explicitly noted that they were written by Erle Stanley Gardner writing as AA Fair. Why have a pseudonym and put your name on the cover? The answer was simple. ESG wrote one type of story. AA Fair wrote another. It was simple branding. I don't always write the same kinds of stuff, so I use the appropriate brand name depending on what and where I am posting it. I share some of the pseudonyms with others, since we do similar writing on similar subjects. We aren't the first. Look up Nicolas Bourbaki.

    In the 19th century, a lot of authors used pseudonyms. Dickens often published as Boz, and his wife published as (I believe) Mrs. Buttercluck. The Bronte sisters all used masculine aliases, as it offered better publishing opportunities. This latter reason is still effective. Look up Why James Chartrand Wears Women's Underpants for a good explanation. Writers to various forums, such as the reader's column of Punch or Lewis Carroll's (aka Charles Dodgson) mathematical and puzzle forums used amusingly clever pseudonyms, and a lot of them were regulars.

    Personally, I've grown to like pseudonyms. Unlike "real names" they are what you make of them.

  • […] Dr Isis has highlighted something. Most people out there have no idea what the word “pseudonym” means, and how it differs from being anonymous. Because I find this rather jarring, […]

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