Anon and Non-Anon Blogging

Anon and Non-Anon Blogging

I’m intrigued by anything that lays down a how-to in terms of blogging. What to say, what not to say, whether or not to delete a post, whether or not to delete a comment, correcting mistakes (typos, grammar or otherwise), how to avoid mistakes. All of these how tos do something else when they tell us what we should be doing with our blogs; they’re defining blogs and the content they contain.

The ethical discussions (introduced to me most recently by Karen Schneider over at Free Range Librarian) underscore a very journalistic, professional undertone to the practice of blogging; we do it as a public service, as a voice of the profession, as a citizen journalist. So a code of ethics, some guidelines to absorb and follow, makes sense, if that’s what your blog is.

So today the post that enters into this discussion is How to blog Safely, which came to me via Depraved Librarian:

Blogs are like personal telephone calls crossed with newspapers. They’re the perfect tool for sharing your favorite chocolate mousse recipe with friends–or for upholding the basic tenets of democracy by letting the public know that a corrupt government official has been paying off your boss.

I think this is an interesting and fair assessment of what blogs tend to be. Personal telephone calls is an interesting analogy; a blog is a way to communicate with family and friends, the sorts of things you may or may not want to become fully public. The second analogy, the newspaper designed to keep the public in the know, is the precise opposite. Not personal, just a journalistic witnesss to important events.

It’s easy for me to take a moment here to point out that your blog doesn’t have to be either of these things, but for the sake of fairness let’s assume the author is trying to span the spectrum.

If you blog, there are no guarantees you’ll attract a readership of thousands. But at least a few readers will find your blog, and they may be the people you’d least want or expect. These include potential or current employers, coworkers, and professional colleagues; your neighbors; your spouse or partner; your family; and anyone else curious enough to type your name, email address or screen name into Google or Feedster and click a few links.

This is completely fascinating to me. The presumption here is that people would blog as themselves and not expect anyone to find them, or not want anyone to find them. I know that this is often the case; the internet is huge, how would anyone find your blog? Why would they want to? People approach these huge sites like Blogger or Livejournal, sites with thousands if not millions of users. The internet is larger every single day, how would your friends and family possibly find your blog? Your tiny little insignificant blog? We have so instilled this idea of the impersonal web that people actually seem to believe that they can write personal letters to the internet in privacy.

The internet is getting increasingly well-organized, so it’s not a matter of being a tiny little cog in the gigantic machine that is the wired world. Unless your name is John Smith, you can reasonably expect a Google search to turn up something that relates to you when you punch in your name in quotation marks. If you have a more unique name, as I do, then Google is going to turn up pretty much everything you every put out there.

Since it’s easy to find a person’s blog or whatever internet activity they have engaged in in the past ten years (my heart did a nervous little twirl when I learned about dejanews in the mid-90s, a service that put usernet on the web, and was then bought by Google), the next logical step is to go underground. Embrace anon. The safest way to blog, this article suggests, is to do it as someone else.

What does it mean to blog anonymously? On the upside, it means that you can gossip, diss your boss, and generally complain about the people in your life in the desperate hope that none of them will ever find out it’s you. You can consider whether or not you’d like to be unfaithful, discuss the pros and cons of your current relationship, or paint an unloving portrait of your mother-in-law. Anonymous blogging pins the tales of your life on Jane Doe; your life could be anyone’s.

When you write about your workplace, be sure not to give away telling details. These include things like where you’re located, how many employees there are, and the specific sort of business you do. Even general details can give away a lot. If, for example, you write, “I work at an unnamed weekly newspaper in Seattle,” it’s clear that you work in one of two places. So be smart. Instead, you might say that you work at a media outlet in a mid-sized city. Obviously, don’t use real names or post pictures of yourself. And don’t use pseudonyms that sound like the real names they’re based on–so, for instance, don’t anonymize the name “Annalee” by using the name “Leanne.” And remember that almost any kind of personal information can give your identity away–you may be the only one at your workplace with a particular birthday, or with an orange tabby.

I disagree with this on some levels. This kind of thinking presumes that someone you know has found this blog and is trying to find out if it’s you. How likely is this?

While it’s definitely easy to find the blog of a person using their real name, it’s almost impossible to find one by a person using a different name and avoiding the most obvious pitfalls of named specifics. While tell-tale details may indeed point fingers at you, there is very little about any person’s life that is so remarkably different from another’s that the trail would lead directly and inarguably to anyone. If you are a single woman named Annalee living in Seattle with two orange cats, and your blog byline is Leanne, your blog is highly unlikely to surface in an employer’s search for you no matter how many times you talk about how orange and wonderful your cats are. Without naming names, your cats are just like anyone else’s cats.

It’s remarkable how much personal detail you can safely hand out online without anyone being able to trace it back to precisely who you are. And why would anyone want to, really? I find this one of the most intriguing and compelling parts of personal revelation on the internet. The boring details of our lives (our address, phone number, full name, birthdate, etc.) are not the things that prompt us to spill our guts in hypertext. The sorts of things people actually want to dish about are rarely traceable; for instance, a man in New Orleans posting about his gender identity issues may feel that he’s pouring his unique heart out onto the internet, but there is nothing unique about his feelings or his experience. Conflicts with parents and siblings, troubles at work, relationship problems; none of these things are unique enough to point a finger at anyone in particular. The more secret and private an issue tends to be, the more likely you are to find thousands of anonymized bloggers moaning about just that thing on the internet in just the same way. You could be any of them. You could be none of them. Strangely enough, there is something truly anonymous about incredibly private confessions; they are so universal that you effectively blend yourself out of the picture.

The trouble comes when you start to take a little pride in your blog. People do, eventually. They want to let one or two people in on it, they want to get a network going of anon. blogs. Gossip ensues. Secrets are revealed. The larger the group involved, the more likely everyone is to be revealed to others. And then you get the worst of all scenarios; the anonymous moniker you took on in order to reveal the insanely private becomes connected to your real name. Now there is no distinction, and while your employer or prospective employer may be out of the loop, the people you care about will see a side of you you may not want them to see. Insert mass livejournal deletions here.

There’s a part of me that reads articles like this one and wonders whether I made the right decision in using my full legal name online. I did it very consciously. Blogging anonymously makes me feel like I’m chipping away at myself, giving away my stories and my ideas to some generic internet person rather than claiming them as my own. The fact that my real name (and thus all my friends and family) are revealed here keeps me from doing anything truly dumb. This isn’t a place to muse about the private elements of my life. Maintaining a venue for idle gossip and the detraction of my peers is not productive, and not particularly good for anyone’s mental health, least of all my own. In that I suppose there is loss of some kind; but the gain is that I get to control my own web presence, I get to speak out as myself and be heard as myself.

What is your blog? Is it a venue for personal and private venting, or is it a venue for you to communicate on a variety of levels with others like you? It seems to me that that’s the distinction between an anon. blog and a signed one.

I don’t fear the prospect of friends, family, co-workers or prospective employers reading what I write here, because I am ashamed of none of it. I am honoured when anyone I know takes the time to see what I’m thinking. Using my real name, knowing that I am adding to my Googleable profile with every word I type, keeps me honest and thoughtful. It also allows me to enter into dialogue with my profession as myself. I value that ability.

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