The identity of one of the pseudonymous bloggers I enjoy reading was recently exposed by someone who was feeling vindictive. To avoid adding fuel to the fire, I’m not going to say which bloggers and sites were involved, because I don’t think that information is particularly relevant to the more important issue here, which is that the exposure of people who try to maintain pseudonymity or anonymity is a dangerous thing. And, in my opinion, it’s a bad thing.
I distinguish here between someone who uses a pseudonym, and someone who wants to remain truly anonymous. People who write under pseudonyms usually do leave clues to their identities, and may in fact be generally known, but the use of an alias gives them a greater degree of freedom. Their identities may be periodically discussed or referenced, although one does not explicitly spell them out, as a mark of courtesy. People who want to be anonymous, as a general rule, have to work a lot harder at not being discovered, and their identities are intended to remain secret. Both play an important role in social discourse.
The ability to write without having your identity is critical in a lot of regions of the world, because sometimes it’s the only way to openly criticize, reveal, or discuss issues. For these pseudonymous and anonymous writers, being exposed can actually be deadly, or at the very least result in a lot of time in prison, along with harassment and torment from the authorities. Yet, without these brave individuals who speak out about issues, the rest of the world would remain unaware.
Other people may not be immediately in personal danger if their names are known, but they are able to write more freely when they work under aliases. They may feel that their professional positions could be threatened, as in the case of the former teacher who occasionally writes pseudonymously about education on this website, or they may be concerned about being outed to their families, like a lot of LGBQT activists, or that their family members could find their social or political positions under threat by association. There are numerous professional, personal, and family reasons not to attach your name to something, especially when a lot of people are reading your words, and I respect those.
And there have been a number of prominent outings in the last few years which have caused people to lose their jobs, and sometimes much more, illustrating how dangerous it is to reveal the identity of someone who is trying to write anonymously or pseudonymously. Not that blogging offered the first opportunity to conceal your identity, but given the ease of publishing, it’s made anonymous and pseudonymous communications much easier, which I think is generally a good thing. Obviously there are dangers, such as people who hide behind a pseudonym to spread vile gossip and lies, but the system is self correcting, to a certain extent, with those types of people being penalized.
I think that writing under your own name does give you more authority, which is why my identity is public, but I also think that sometimes the only way to write is under an alias. And the ability to work as an anonymous author, or to use a pseudonym, allows the rest of us access to things we might not otherwise see. Like great legal opinions from lawyers who would otherwise remain silent for fear of being perceived as political. Like frank disclosures about what goes on inside abortion clinics from care providers who really do risk their lives to write about what they do. Like whistleblowing. People in sensitive positions don’t have the luxury of writing under their own names.
And that’s why I respect the identities of people who choose to write in obscurity. I know the identities of a number of pseudonymous writers and at least one truly anonymous one, and I don’t out them, even when I disagree with them, and I certainly wouldn’t engage in a threatening and juvenile e-mail exchange which they might well decide to publicly print later to make me look like an idiot in addition to an asshole (everyone already knows I’m an asshole, after all). As far as I’m concerned, as long as someone isn’t libelous, inciting hatred, endangering national security, or claiming authority he or she does not have, he or she can write under a pseudonym.
It’s a social contract, that we not disclose the identities of those who do not want to be exposed. People who violate that contract threaten a very delicate system, and they ultimately threaten society as a whole, because they close the conduits of information.