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.