The Problem with Pseudonyms

As I look at the Library Day in the Life Project last week I think of all the things I could reveal if I didn’t blog as “me”. Things that might help others. Things that might show a better perspective of what I do all day. But because I’m me there are secrets I must keep. I must guard the privacy of patrons and staff. I’d also like to still have a job when I show up for work in the morning. Oh the lure of anonymity.

I have seen the flip side of anonymity. When you don’t own your words you aren’t accountable. Sure you can share so much more freely, but there is the dark side too. Unfortunately those who don’t own their words seem to always go over to the dark side.  You know what I’m talking about: snark, profanity, lewdness, hatefulness, pettiness, name calling, personal attacks, ill thought out arguments and logic.

I am just as capable of swearing and snark as the next person in fact there are those who might say I excel at it. Don’t get me wrong, I love it, I’m good at it, I enjoy delivering my cutting remarks. But I don’t feel I need to do it publicly for attention.

It’s easy to talk crap when you aren’t held accountable. It takes courage and wisdom to own your words

It would be great to see an anonymous account dealing with real issues, objectively and intelligently.  Instead pseudonyms just seem to bring out the worst in people.

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38 comments for “The Problem with Pseudonyms

  1. August 3, 2010 at 6:28 am

    I think this is really interesting when specifically applied to libraries. I agree with all that you say about pseudonyms generally, particularly with regards to accountability. I’ve never really got into Annoyed Librarian, but from what I’ve read s/he used to be pretty funny, but ultimately just become someone who poured negativity on the positive efforts of others – anonymity is a catalyst for that.

    With libraries in particular, and the image problems / public misconceptions that exist already, I think there’s too much anonymity as it is. No one ones what we do, and this isn’t helped if no one knows who we are either – it just adds to this veil across the profession.

    • August 3, 2010 at 6:28 am

      That should have read ‘no one knows’ what we do.. :)

      • August 3, 2010 at 7:53 am

        Thank you Ned. I’ve avoided any and all public discussion of the AL as I prefer not to give him/her more attention in any form. This post was actually not about the AL but it certainly applies from what I understand, I do not read the column.

        • August 3, 2010 at 9:59 am

          Oh yeah I didn’t mean to suggest you were talking about AL, that was just an obvious example that came to mind of going over to the dark side..

  2. August 3, 2010 at 7:54 am

    I get what you’re saying, but I think it’s worth bearing in mind that people might have reasons for wanting to remain anonymous online beyond just wanting to be unaccountable for “talking crap”. For a long time, I couldn’t use my real name online at all because I had a stalker. I’m still wary of putting my name to things that might give people too much information about my real life.

    Agree with the broad point though – anonymity does seem to give some people carte blanche to say things they’d never say if it could be traced back to them.

    • August 3, 2010 at 10:18 am

      Woodsiegirl I completely agree with you. Perhaps I should have been clearer in my post. I had more but felt I was rambling so deleted it.

      When I started LBD I didn’t have my name or my face on it, mostly because I’ve had stalkers in the past than any other reason. I also have accounts under other names, I like my privacy and my private life, I definitely see good reasons for anonymity

      But I used those pseudonyms to protect my privacy not to spread hate or misinformation which is what this post is aimed at. There are perfectly good reason to not disclosure your identity online, including your love of the work “fuck”. My problem is when you do this AND represent yourself as a professional AND you use your anonymity to spread unhappiness.

  3. suzi w
    August 3, 2010 at 8:50 am

    While I agree with you on the professional level, there are a lot of personal blogs (I think the industry term is “cat blogs”) that are wonderful and pseudonymous.

    • August 3, 2010 at 8:52 am

      Can I get an example? I think there is a time and a place for pseudonyms, and they can be used well. Unfortunately I don’t see many examples of it.

  4. August 3, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    RT @librarianbyday: The Problem with Pseudonyms http://librarianbyday.net/2010/08/the-pr

  5. wawoodworth
    August 3, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    RT @librarianbyday: The Problem with Pseudonyms http://librarianbyday.net/2010/08/the-pr

  6. August 3, 2010 at 10:10 am

    I really agree with this. I was anonymous on Twitter for the first two years of my account, until I realized I wanted to engage with people in the library profession, and have them get to know me. I also considered anonymity when I started my blog — it’s really scary to put yourself out there, especially as a library school student. What if I say something really dumb? Pose a question that’s already been answered? etc. But this profession has been so accepting, so willing to help out future librarians (or at least, I have found that to be the case), that I no longer have that fear.

    I’ve read a few snarky, negative anonymous blogs, and they didn’t keep me as a reader (I confess to reading library_mofo, but I see that as just a place to vent). I know who writes every blog in my Google Reader. It really helps me to know who you library bloggers are, what your day job is, what you’ve accomplished, etc. I want to follow your work, and sometimes join in the conversation!

  7. suzi w
    August 3, 2010 at 10:24 am

    This is a big internet topic, one that isn’t written about a lot, and I applaud you for broaching the topic. I would encourage you to continue writing about it, since it isn’t something our profession has looked at (ex: snarky twitter names: @bitchylibrarian, etc.)

    The Feel Good Librarian http://feelgoodlibrarian.typepad.com/ is pseudonymous. She/he? doesn’t write a lot, but the quality is there. There don’t need to be “many” examples for something to be true.

    Also, a lot of folks choose to not use their full real name as they tweet. I don’t, for instance. My last name is not Dubb. I hope that my tweets are taken as real, even if my last name is not.

    Sorry, you have clearly pushed one of my buttons. But the fact is, most people aren’t nice, true, excellent. And even if they are, they aren’t that all the time.

    Let me tell you where I’m coming from. When I started blogging, I started pseud, and that is the blog I write at the most. Most of the blogs I follow are also folks that also do not use their names, but that write quality, true blogs. There are reasons why folks don’t use their name, they want to write about taboo topics but don’t want their name to be associated with it in the first Google search.

    • August 3, 2010 at 10:32 am

      Suzi – I definitely agree with you. See my response to Woodsiegirl.

      I don’t think not using your real or full name means there is less value to work your work.

      I do think that people would be less likely to leave comments on my blog that included “fuck” and “shit” and telling me that I “suck” and instead post well thought out, articulate comments if they were required to use their real name.

      My real issue with pseudonyms is the dark side and it seems that even if intent doesn’t start there, it can lead there.

      I never have hard feelings for disagreement if its done professionally and courteously and I’ve never seen less from you.

  8. August 3, 2010 at 10:33 am

    I don’t think pseudonyms are bad per se; like anything, it depends on how the author intends to use them. The Federalist Papers jump to mind along with some journalistic exposes written around the turn of the last century as examples of people adopting pseudonyms in order to make grander points without having it relate directly back to them.

    For people who want to complain anonymously and say whatever they want (profanity, vulgarity, and other -ity’s included), I support that. But it stops when it comes to ridicule of others and their ideas. “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins”, as Oliver Wendall Holmes once said. The freedom from responsibility from their words is falsely interpreted as a green light for snarky evaluation.

    In the end, for this latter group of people, the credibility they have is the amount we give them. They are generally undone by their words, actions, and lack of substance. Their words turn to noise, losing all meaningful discourse value. They become what they loathe in others for meaningless internet discourse: trolls.

  9. Jenny
    August 3, 2010 at 10:38 am

    I continue to believe there is no one right and wrong way to use Twitter (or blogs or whatever other thing comes along). The mean-girls (and boys?) gang might not be doing what you’re doing, (although for all I know some of them may also have other accounts where they do use their real non-snarky names) but neither do they have the same goals, and clearly they are having a good time among themselves as a group of friends. I don’t have that bunch of accounts in my “professional” list but, you know, after a rough day I enjoy a tour of the “crazy patron” stories. Right after Cute Overload and Gawker. I will say it did irritate me when they posted that stuff in the ALA conference stream.

  10. August 3, 2010 at 11:48 am

    I’ve been dabbling with online identity for a few years now. I’ve represented myself with my real name and with pseudonyms. I also started out linking all of my online networks together– my twitter posts appeared in my facebook status and on my private family ning network, my flickr photos appeared in my bookmarks, my bookmarks appeared on my personal blog, etc. I started to lose a sense of audience when I posted things, and at about the same time I realized that I didn’t have a sense of purpose for my online activities, either. So, I closed down several accounts and disconnected a few others in order to consider how and for what reasons I wanted to represent myself. I’ve recently rejoined twitter with a new name (a pseudonym) that includes a link to a blog that leads to my real identity if anybody is interested enough to pursue that information. So far a layered online identity seems to work– I can relate anonymously or more personally depending on the situation. Also, I keep in mind when I post anything that my identity is not really hidden. That keeps me honest and my snark from getting out of hand.

    Great discussion topic!

    • August 7, 2010 at 3:01 am

      I have been posting stuff pseudonymously for decades, maintaining blogs for the last four years. It’s been political mostly, and I put out hard to nourish a steady readership and commentariate. Lately, I’ve been less political. I sense a growing desire to become more known among my closer friends in the real world. I feel I am poised on the brink of the cliffs of Dover. If I place mistaken trust in confidentiality among certain friends in the real world, my cover will be blown, possibly without me really knowing about it. At first. And you can’t put the tooth paste back in the tube.

  11. will manley
    August 3, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    Bobbi, you have written a very important post. If anonymity provides a sense of security for librarians who have something important to say, then I think it is a good thing. Our profession is all about freedom of expression, and anonymity can further that cause. However, if it becomes a tool of personal attack or abuse, it should not be tolerated. Anonymity for civil discourse…yes; anonymity for uncivil discourse…no!

  12. August 3, 2010 at 7:17 pm

    RT @librarianbyday: The Problem with Pseudonyms http://librarianbyday.net/2010/08/the-pr

  13. August 3, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    @librarianbyday Hi there, just read your post and it made me question why I blog/tweet etc. Now inspired to add real photo to my profile!!

  14. Sara_Mooney
    August 3, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    RT @librarianbyday: The Problem with Pseudonyms http://librarianbyday.net/2010/08/the-pr

  15. tiffanylora
    August 3, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    @librarianbyday “It takes courage and wisdom to own your words.” <— Indeed!

    • August 3, 2010 at 10:18 pm

      @tiffanylora :-)

    • August 3, 2010 at 10:18 pm

      RT @tiffanylora: @librarianbyday “It takes courage and wisdom to own your words.” <— Indeed!

  16. MLLibrary
    August 4, 2010 at 12:18 am

    RT @librarianbyday: The Problem with Pseudonyms http://librarianbyday.net/2010/08/the-pr

  17. August 3, 2010 at 11:56 pm

    This is an interesting thread. I used to allow anonymous comments on my blog, but disallowed them after a few years because 90% of it seemed troll like. Having pseudonyms hasn’t been so bad so far. At least the more obnoxious ones are identifiable and can be held accountable for past statements.

    I was going to bring up the Feel Good Librarian, but I see Suzy beat me to it.

    The reason that I blog under my real name is simple — I think that if you piss off the wrong people (gov’t, motivated hackers, strong ref librarians, etc), you will get outed. I believe that secrecy is poor security and eventually virtually anyone can be outed once their vitriol comes to the attention of someone willing and able to unmask them. So if you can’t count on your cover forever, why bother? Maybe I’m a cynic.

    Like you, I find that I do engage in some self-censorship. For example, in my position I do not express public opinions on Alaskan politics. I vote in every state election, but as far as I’m concerned every politician is a potential client who needs to feel (rightfully) that I’m on their side when they need a question answered or a book or article delivered to them. Publicly taking sides in Alaska’s colorful politics does not help generate confidence – or job security.

    This was pushed nearly to the breaking point during the 2008 Presidential campaign when I was a volunteer for Barack Obama, blogged about the benefits of electing Obama and then having Alaska Governor Sarah Palin nominated as McCain’s VP pick. I seriously thought of deleting everything Obama off my blog so as to not seem anti-Governor Palin.

    I eventually decided that VP Candidate Palin was not Governor Palin for my “ban on Alaska politics” purposes. I did choose to ban all comments with Palin’s name and only writing about the positives of Obama rather than attacking the McCain/Palin ticket.

    I’ve never followed the Annoyed Librarian, so I’m sure what the current fuss is about, but I’ve got a keen interest in civility and I think you’re right that blogging under real names helps promote that. But FGL proves that civility can be done under a pseudonym.

  18. August 4, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    This is a great post, and I agree. I sort of have a pseudonym just because it was catchy, but I’ve never tried to hid my identify (or place of employment) on my blog. I don’t know if this is true, but I think knowing who someone is lends a great deal of credibility to what they say – and for me are much easier to relate to.

    I also have a related question: what are your thoughts on using a generic identity for staff interacting with patrons online? In my library, the practice has been (dating to before I got here) that when staff is responding to an email reference question, they sign the message “Chelmsford Reference Staff.” The logic is that we work as a team and anyone can help with the followup, rather than tying that question to one person. But at the same time, it can feel impersonal and imposing, not having an actual identified individual respond – and also means staff is often asking around to figure out who replied in the first place.

    How do you handle this for the virtual branch, and what do you think is good practice in general? I guess it could extend beyond email to leaving comments, tweeting, etc. Thanks.

    • August 5, 2010 at 8:24 am

      Brian – I have noticed that some librarians are reluctant to share their names with the public. I agree with you not providing a name is impersonal. While anyone can help with a follow up question, no one wants to repeat their issue or question over and over so its much easier to ask the person you’ve already been working with. You can’t do that if you don’t know who that person is.

      Staff are encouraged to share their first name with patrons. Though this is the South so rather than first names staff are often referred to as Miss Newman or if I were a man Mr. Newman.

  19. August 4, 2010 at 6:47 pm

    The Cunning Realist at http://cunningrealist.blogspot.com/ is another example of a pseudonymous blogger who stays civil and avoids profanity most of the time. He describes himself as:

    “I’m a New York City resident in my early forties, an investment professional, and a lifelong conservative. I have an MBA in International Business from Columbia University.”

    Still, it’s a rarity.

  20. November 16, 2010 at 10:53 am

    The Problem with Pseudonyms | Librarian by Day http://librarianbyday.net/2010/08/03/the

  21. February 23, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    The Problem with Pseudonyms | Librarian by Day http://librarianbyday.net/2010/08/03/the

    • suziwalks
      February 23, 2011 at 5:02 pm

      @librarianbyday was there a reason you brought back this old post?

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