Thursday, April 03, 2008


Pseudonymity and Authenticity

Dr. Crazy has a terrific post about the differences between pseudonymity and anonymity. To oversimplify, pseudonymity attaches a persona to the writing, where anonymity doesn't. Over time, a sustained pseudonym becomes a character, an alter ego, generating reader expectations of relative consistency. Anonymous posts are more like shouts in the dark. So the folks who've read my stuff as Dean Dad for a while have probably developed some sense of what to expect – whether good or bad – and would find certain things out of character. Anonymous posts can't be out of character, by definition.

For obvious reasons, I simply couldn't write some of the things I write if I attached my real life name to them. They aren't scandalous or slanderous or secretive, but they're controversial, and 'controversial' is a kiss of death in administration. What this says about the true state of open debate in higher education, I'll leave as an exercise for the reader.

There's also the annoying truth that most of my readers, if they saw my real name, would react with something like “who?” Sometimes I envy my persona's audience. In blogland, nobody has to read you; you earn readers, or not, by what you put out there. It comes much closer to a real exchange than does most interaction in higher ed, which is riddled with the distortions of prestige. (The time I walked around at my scholarly discipline's annual conference with a cc nametag made this painfully clear.)

Dean Dad isn't a perfect representation of me. He's nicer than I am, more patient, and sometimes a little stuffy. I'd like to loosen him up a little, but the combination of my limits as a writer and the expectations that I've encouraged his readers to develop puts limits on that. Besides, if authenticity were the point, I wouldn't have needed to invent him in the first place. It's not about authenticity.

And I think that's part of what makes some people uncomfortable about the pseudonyms. If you can't pin the tale on the author, then there's a greater burden on your judgment as a reader. Everything I've written about myself on the blog has been true, and the folks who know me IRL know that. But if you aren't one of those folks, you have to judge for yourself. Does it sound true? Does it hang together?

That's where the persona can become restrictive. As Dr. Crazy noted, real people are complicated and contradictory in ways that personae usually aren't. Some things don't find their way onto the blog, for fear of muddling the persona. While that can be frustrating from time to time, it also forces a kind of focus. As a reader, I appreciate focus, so I take that deal.

To reduce pseudonymity to a kind of cowardice is really to miss the point. Thanks, Dr. Crazy, for elevating the discussion.

Thanks for the shout-out, DD, and I'm glad something that I said resonated with you!
So true.
IRL I participate in a niche "obsession" (an olympic sport). We have an international bulletin board with a mix of anonymouns, pseudonymic, and known "personalities."

The halo/referent effect is huge. It is amzing how a dialogue can morph on a dime when an anonymous poster is revealed as either a world-class medalist or local club also-ran.

The previously "sage advice" of the nobody becomes dog doo. The previously "WTF" idea of the medalist miraculously transubstantiates into wisdom.

Yah gotta love how "pedigree" is substitutable for "truth."

Then again there is the "third way," where you actually address ideas/issues on their merits, irrespective of who's family crest is on the sig line . . .

. . . but of course, that takes too much time and effort!
I think anonymity or pseudonymity on blogs in particular or online in general depends a lot on what one does with it and the motivations for hiding in the first place. In that sense, it seems to me that DD is different from any number of other academics who blog under-cover.

First off, as an administrative-type, DD is probably under different pressures to toe the party line than people who are teaching part-time, full-time, on the tenure-track, etc. Second, every once in a while, I think DD says some things that are close to "insider information," and anonymity and discretion is probably best for all involved. And third-- perhaps the biggest reason why I'm okay with the pseduonymity that is DD-- is he isn't an asshole.

Now, I do think that in taking on such a pseudo-identity, DD also reduces his credibility because "anonymous" sources are inherently not as reliable as sources with real names. This is why academics in all fields depend on research from sources they can properly cite instead of "some guy who seems to be in the know." It's a reasonable trade-off in a situation like this, but it is still trade-off.

My experience has been that many academic bloggers (and non-academic bloggers too, of course) violate at least one of these motivations. Particularly #3. Besides in a variety of different blogs out there, I have more recently seen/experienced this first-hand on a blog I maintain called, in the form of anonymous comments that were posted to start rumors, to flame, to antagonize, etc.

For most academic-types, I think that Plagens in that CHE piece has it exactly right: any tenure-track or part-time instructor at a college or university who truly feels that they might lose their job for voicing a complaint or an opinion that might not be popular with that institution's administration ought to look for a different job. Or a lawyer. And any academic-type who keeps his or her identity under wraps in order to blog about their students or their awful colleagues or their sex life, well, maybe those folks ought to keep a more private diary instead.

BTW, it's worth noting that Plagens wasn't complaining about anonymity in CHE and not in the blogosphere. I think that too is a different animal.
Plagens clearly has a problem with blog anonymity--not just in CHE--and is full of crap. I discuss this at my place:
There's also the annoying truth that most of my readers, if they saw my real name, would react with something like “who?” Sometimes I envy my persona's audience.

Heh! Definitely. Not that my blog persona has a spectacular audience, but it's way more than my professional persona. (Of course, my blog persona is much more productive... :-P)
"The time I walked around at my scholarly discipline's annual conference with a cc nametag made this painfully clear."

Truer words, as they say. I used to have a friend whose husband was a prof at a 4 year university; whenever I would complain about some lacking aspect of my job, with all of the disdain she could muster she'd say, "oh, well, that's because you teach at a community college." It was no wonder that when push came to shove in our friendship she shoved in a particularly nasty way.

I've often wondered if the people who have such disdain for our lowly institutions are the professors who hate teaching. If it is all about the education of young minds then it shouldn't matter where you teach, right? If, on the other hand, all you want to do is publish and students are a side note in your life, I suppose the big money 4 years are the only way to go.

Oh, and it must be said: I rarely complain about my job because I love it more than life itself. I swear! (says the woman stupid enough to start blogging with her real name)
"The time I walked around at my scholarly discipline's annual conference with a cc nametag made this painfully clear."

Actually, I have to ask: is it due to the CC on the nametag, or because your list of peer-reviewed publications doesn't lend one to a high level of status amongst your discipline?

As so many are quick to point out, published peer-reviewed articles are the coin of the realm. At least, the realm of your academic discipline.
This is a tangent from the original post (to which my first comment to the statement "He's nicer than I am, more patient, and sometimes a little stuffy" was "Good Lord! I wonder if I would want to work with the REAL DD?") but on the question of how we are perceived in our disciplines I would echo Anonymous' question.

There are several/many scholars in my field who have no real academic home or one that is considered subpar on the larger academic field of play yet they themselves are so well-known that they are treated with the respect that they deserve. So are those at the conference ignoring one because one has made no impact on the field or because they disdain the name of the institution on the badge?
Might I suggest that the pseudonym actually doesn't "protect" the author, and perhaps gives them a false sense of security? Feeling that one can write "openly" because of the perceived veil unfortunately can cause one to reveal perhaps too much.

This is especially true, if one believes that they can adopt a 'voice' that is in many ways similar to their own. Especially if, as part of that voice, one uses the telling of their own experiences.

I speak as one who "has been there." I was under such a guise at one point. I was then "outed" when I angered another blogger. It even had me a bit worried ("How could he POSSIBLY have known this? Is he a stalker?") until I realized that I had simply provided all he needed to know through various connections and linkages easily learned through my blog.

So, DD, realize that you are perhaps not a "secure" as you might otherwise think.
It makes me wonder...what if DD was "outed"? DD, would you continue to blog? Would you be embarrassed or concerned about what you have said on this blog? (And how strong would the vitriol be for the one who revealed the identity of DD?)
Hey, it's great fun creating a persona.
True. For instance, Amanda Chapel (see is actually a man. A very bitter and vindictive man apparently, who not only attacks people online (as Amanda) but also harasses them at home, and at work. (see here and here

The point is, creating a pseudonym really allows you to be anyone, and allows you to "pretend" without any requirement to back things up with ability. Being "real" means you are who you say you are, and by your real accomplishments (and verify that you are accomplished at what you do.)

Of course, this Amanda Chapel person is an extreme, but if this was what one knew of pseudonymity would you support it?
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