We All Use Pseudonyms. Some of Us Are Just More Honest About It Than Others

In light of the recent outing of pseudonymous blogger Dr. Isis by Nature editor Henry Gee (and the resulting commentary), this post by the Epicurean Dealmaker seems relevant (boldface mine):

I am not The Epicurean Dealmaker.

It is worth reminding you periodically of this, O Dearly Beloved, because as Mr. Wilkinson notes the persona to which you ascribe the words you so faithfully read on this site does not exist. For that matter, the persona you ascribe to Will Wilkinson—“Will Wilkinson”—does not exist, either. It is a construct, formed partially out of the meaning, motivation, and character you impute to the words he writes and the actions and interactions he pursues on the internet among an audience of people who are personal strangers to him. He sketches the outline of his character with words, and he and his readers fill the picture in. Whether the creation of an online persona is a primary motivation for personal blogging, as Mr. Wilkinson maintains, or simply a (hopefully) beneficial side product thereof is not really my concern. But everybody does it.

Some of the motivations behind this character creation are the same or similar for everyone who blogs: we want our online persona to appear smarter, funnier, wiser, better-read, and more articulate than we are in real life. Some of them are more unique to my own situation and adopted persona: I want to appear richer, more powerful, better connected, more successful, more handsome, and more wicked here than I am in actuality. In any event, these exaggerations or deceptions add up—we hope—to create an online “self” that is more compelling and admirable than our own and in whose reflected glory we can bask our gratified egos. We tell ourselves that yes, my online self is the real me, me as I want others to see me, minus all those embarrassing, incidental flaws and imperfections which do not define me as I would be seen. As I want to be. As I really am….

Now, any old obscure investment banker with a case of scotch and a laptop can create, cultivate, and grow an online character which, thanks to forces completely outside his control, becomes widely known among thousands of strangers and takes on the force of reality for private and public persons alike. In less egregiously fictional and more subtle fashion, so can a real person like Will Wilkinson or Freddie deBoer manufacture, through the simple act of publishing their words and participating in online discussions, a more perfect, coherent, and clear simulacrum of himself. These simulacra become known as “Will Wilkinson” and “Freddie deBoer” to tens of thousands of strangers who have not and likely never will meet the authors and therefore will never learn how they differ from the originals.

I’ve never understood the need to know who is blogging. Sure, I might really be a right-wing creationist who knows nothing about science. If that’s true, however, I do a really good imitation of a left-wing biologist with a PhD (Shia LaBeouf wishes he could do ‘performance art’ like I do…). Even if you knew my real name (and many readers do), does it really matter? Paul Krugman often responds to Noah Smith, but, by Henry Gee’s criterion, Smith is a ‘nobody’ (a very junior professor). But online, Smith says some pretty sharp things (and not always about economics). Would it matter if Noah Smith were a pseudonym, as opposed to his real name? The arguments are still valid. Likewise, while ‘Yves Smith’s’ identity is a horribly kept secret, if she did manage to keep her identity secret, so what?

I think some of the people who are upset about either civility or a potential lack of expertise are actually upset because they haven’t figured out how to navigate between the person they are and the person they would like to be–or believe they are (online or in real life). A lot of famous people (and sorta, not-really famous ones too) have gone off the rails this way: the image they present to the world–regardless of the medium–collides with reality and gets dragged fifty yards to boot. Pseudonymous authors are just more honest about it.

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3 Responses to We All Use Pseudonyms. Some of Us Are Just More Honest About It Than Others

  1. Jim Thomerson says:

    I don’t understand what that was all about., I suppose I am a pseudonym because my legal first name is Jamie, and, no, I am not the lawyer in Tennessee.

  2. anthrosciguy says:

    I’ve often mentioned that my IRL name is incredibly common, shared by literally tens of thousands of people in North America, while my nym is, as far as I’ve seen, unique. Which, then, is a better identifier?

    And as Orac mentioned on this subject, the nym becomes like a stage name, like how Eileen Twain is known as Shania Twain or James Paul McCartney is known as Paul McCartney (or Archie Leach being Cary Grant, etc. etc.).

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