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Pseudonymity and Accountability

June 8th, 2009 · 3 Comments

I’m somewhat heartened to see a near-unanimous chorus of disapproval, across ideological lines, for Ed Whelan’s petulant, adolescent “outing” of the (formerly) pseudonymous blogger Publius.  Though he complains about “smears” and “misrepresentations” and “irresponsibility,” Whelan’s real beef seems to have been that Publius—now revealed as associate law prof John Blevins—said some unkind things about him.  Now,  the benefits of respecting pseudonymity have been well summarized by Jon Adler:

So while I don’t know how much the threat of exposure would have influenced my own blogging on this site, the more acceptable it is to expose the identities of pseudonymous bloggers, the more potentially valuable voices the blogosphere will lose. Whatever is to be gained by chastening the intemperate pseudonymous blogger is outweighed by what is likely to be lost. I also think it is important to distinguish between anonymous and pseudonymous blogging. While complete anonymity may enable someone to evade any accountability for intemperate or unwise remarks, the creation and maintenance of a pseudonym can have a disciplining effect on blogger behavior, and thus should be encouraged as an alternative to purely anonymous blogging and posting. Reputation effects and the desire to maintain readership can impose significant discipline. A pseudonym operates like a brand name, and the value of the brand is, at least in part, a function of how the pseudonymous blogger acts over time.

The countervailing virtue of exposure is supposed to be to hold people “accoutable” for their “intemperate” speech. But… why? For whatever reasons, there are people who won’t blog at all if they must do so under their own names—or if their names are apt to be disclosed whenever someone with a skin as rice-paper thin as Ed Whelan’s throws a tantrum. What compensatory benefit do we get in exchange for this loss when bloggers are outed? Supposedly we get “accountability.”

Now, when someone talks about accountability for public officials, powerful corporations, or journalists, I have a clear sense of what they mean, and of the benefit of deterring misconduct. When it comes to someone on a blog saying mean things, I’m very much less clear what the value is supposed to be. As far as I can tell, nobody benefits one whit from this, except possibly Ed Whelan, who will no longer be forced at gunpoint to read the mean things someone on the Interet says about him. It’s not as though silencing one blogger who Whelan regarded as “intemperate” somehow raises the level of discourse on the Internet, where there are no shortage of people willing to be thoroughly stupid and vicious with their own names attached. Anonymity may debase the tone of blog comments, but bloggers themselves are a somewhat different story because they’re competing for eyeballs. If people have a taste for a sharp tongue, they’ll gravitate toward that however many pseudonymous writers you pull off the market. The supply of venom is infinite.  Harder to come by is insightful analysis—and I suspect that, rather than the odd insult—was why Publius had enough readers that Whelan felt compelled to respond to him. So the rationalization that this somehow “raises the tone” just won’t fly.

Yes, nastiness is bad, but unless it rises to the level of libel or incitement to harassment, which nobody’s alleging Publius’ writing did, it’s not the sort of thing we normally regard it as appropriate to punish people for.  And by and large, people are pseudonymous because—as Blevins did—they think their political opinions might either be a professional liability or otherwise harmful to their friends or family.  Pseudonymous bloggers on the right who make a habit of saying mean things about radical Islam appear to understand that well enough. (Obviously one can’t know in advance how valid the reasons are, which seems to further mitigate in favor of restraint.)  Through that lens, it seems like “accountability” here means nothing more than a small man’s desire for a debate opponent to suffer personal consequences for his sharp words. Nobody thinks it would be appropriate to inflict those consequences by digging into your opponent’s sexual proclivities or financial troubles, and I’m not sure why we should regard this any differently. Or at any rate, if those are the rules, I hope there’s nothing in Whelan’s personal life he wouldn’t want blaring from the front page of Daily Kos.

Addendum: For what it’s worth, this is precisely the same response I had to the loathesome practice of publicizing personal data about supporters of Proposition 8, some of whom did indeed experience professional repercussions. Those who are pointing out that it’s hypocritical to denounce Whelan while cheering that sort of behavior have a point. I’m not at all sympathetic, however, to the argument that Publius is fair game because “the left” has endorsed this kind of outing in different contexts—which seems like a strikingly collectivist way of viewing the situation.

Tags: Sociology



3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dan Summers // Jun 9, 2009 at 11:26 am

    Just so. Outing is an ugly and intellectually lazy thing to do, and is equally vile when practiced by vitriolic partisans on either the right or the left. Whelan’s justifications are tissue-thin, and cover the plain fact that he merely wished to inflict damage on someone who bothered him.

    The use of pseudonyms is as old as rhetoric, and has served to promote a freedom of speech that we hold dear if we value the free exchange of ideas. I am almost grateful (though I’m not sure Publius is) to Whelan for his puerile display of pique, since it at least has brought this conversation to the fore, and has highlighted why pseudonymity is an integral part of Internet media.

  • 2 Barry // Jun 15, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    I’d enlarge on the ‘accountability’ point. NRO is famous for two things (1) A sharp partisan bias, and (2) an incredibly low level of knowledge and analysis. In fact, this affair started when a right-wing lawblogger showed that Whelan didn’t know what he was talking about (although Whelen is supposed to be a lawyer, and is writing as if he knew the law).

    However, the writers at NRO haven’t suffered any noticeable damage to their careers by writing there, and almost certainly won’t – the system works that way. Once one is in the professional media, accountability is for peons (note that TNR has been an example of scum rising to the top for a quarter century now).

    If psedonymity is banned, the world belongs those willing to be public wh*res. Respectable people dare not enter their opinions.

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