Tag Archives: anonymity

Honesty and the Online Persona

After last week’s very personal piece, most of the comments I received were not on the blog. Instead, most comments came back to me via Twitter, many on direct messages, so that they can only (in theory!) be seen between me and the other party.

Two of these intrigued me greatly. One was from someone who occasionally corresponds via social media, but who I first met in real life. The second is someone who I have only ever corresponded with via social media but who I have not met face-to-face.

The first of these responses stated that they there slightly surprised and wouldn’t have guessed that what I wrote was what I thought, given what they knew of me from our earlier interactions, both online and face-to-face. The latter, however, said that it came as no surprise and that it reminded them much of a post I wrote a couple of years ago on love and marriage, especially in terms of the tone of self-deprecation used.

This renewed my thinking about the honesty of the digital life. Does the image we project into the virtual world differ significantly from the rest of our lives? To think about this instantly calls into question what it means to be honest. To take an example, you will note that I don’t really talk about my work here. I certainly don’t disclose the name of my employer, my colleagues or the location of my office. That’s because I try to keep work separate from the rest of my life. I may tweet from time to time that it’s been a busy time at work, but not much beyond that. Yet between Monday to Friday, that’s where I am for the majority of my waking hours. Does this separation of different parts of my life mean that I lack honesty?

I would contend that it doesn’t. You may disagree; if so, feel free to do so in the comments. Honesty, to me, does not mean blurting out every thought. There are some things that it really isn’t helpful to say and there are some that we have to take to the grave with us. There can be kindness in silence, though it does create a dilemma if someone asks you to explain something when you know that to do so fully and frankly could be very hurtful to them. What would you do in that situation? Would you speak the brutal truth, or dodge around the issue? I’ve tried both approaches in the past and I wouldn’t say either have worked well. To use a recent analogy, was it necessary for news editors to show the graphic detail behind the Woolwich murder? I regret having seen the early broadcasts which were unedited; I think the news could have been reported adequately without seeing the bloodstained hands or the body in the road. So it is, I feel, about full disclosure of our lives. There is good reason not to include everything but this does not in any way inhibit my opinion about someone’s honesty.

I wrote a little about anonymity some time ago though I confess I did employ the term ‘anonymity’ on occasions when ‘pseudonymity’ (is that a real word?) might be more appropriate. If my English is not quite tip-top, I hope that’s clear enough. After all, it will not have escaped your notice that this blog is pseudonymous, though my identity is hardly a closely guarded secret. Just as most know that the Church Sofa is called Andy and that Cranmer is a failed Conservative politician called Adrian, I think most of you know my real name. I only choose not to put it on here because of the work issue alluded to above. Also, the pseudonym I use, Sipech, is far more unusual than my actual name (I am also fairly consistent in using the mouse avatar – see here for more info); so, using it consistently across platforms, my digital footprint is easier to trace. It’s not quite unique, I know there are a few other web users who use it, including the annoying Twitter user who took @sipech before I joined; I would have liked to have a shorter handle than @TheAlethiophile. I couldn’t even have @Alethiophile as that was pinched by someone called Tom who barely uses the account, which irks me somewhat.

Over the bank holiday weekend, I witnessed a little spat on Twitter (the most useful and productive form of discussion, I’m sure you’ll agree) between Cranmer and Mehdi Hasan where Mehdi criticised Cranmer for not blogging in his own name and for referring to himself in the 3rd person. While the latter annoys me, it still strikes me as odd that a pseudonym could be offensive. Surely the value of what someone writes is to be found in what they write, not necessarily in knowing the name of the writer. If not, you run the risk of falling foul of the argument from authority.

I may choose to edit what I put online, whether it be because it is too personal, it concerns work (including issues of confidentiality and insider trading) or if it may be offensive to some people. So if you think I’m an inoffensive little mouse, then know this: my tongue is well-bitten at times. Indeed, one of the reasons I prefer online interactions is the non-immediacy of them. If I take 2 minutes to think about what I might reply to someone in 140 characters, that’s acceptable on line. But in a face to face conversation, such a protracted silence is bound to be uncomfortable for both parties. Even then, I have a backspace key and can edit before I hit ‘publish’. That doesn’t mean I don’t regret anything I publish online; I still make mistakes, but fewer than I otherwise might. The tongue can be very vicious and I can be prone to a sharp response, particularly given a heated discussion. If the tongue is an organ of fire, then online interactions (or indeed, old fashioned letter writing) provide a little protection which can go a long way to preventing harm and hurt.

So those are my thoughts, what are yours?

  • Would you rather someone be brutally honest with you or would you prefer they conceal some truths out of kindness?
  • Is a pseudonym, nomatter how consistently used, an obstacle to believing what someone says, or even from forming a kind of friendship with them?
  • Does your online persona match your offline personality? If not, which is closer to the ‘real’ you.

A christian ethic of blogging

Of late, I have been reading Justification by Tom Wright. I have now finished it and my review will be published before long on this site. However, near the beginning, one little passage jumped out at me and I could not help but be drawn into engagement with it. It reads thus:

“Go to the blogsites, if you dare. It really is high time we developed a Christian ethic of blogging. Bad temper is bad temper even in the apparent privacy of your own hard drive, and harsh and unjust words, when released into the wild, rampage around and do real damage. As for the practice of saying mean and untrue things while hiding behind a pseudonym – well, if I get a letter like that it goes straight into the bin. But the cyberspace equivalents of road-rage don’t happen by accident. People who type vicious, angry, slanderous and inaccurate accusations do so because they feel their
worldview to be under attack.”

I like the idea of a christian ethic of blogging. Though I wonder how it might differ from a christian ethic of any other form of communication. As a fairly regular blogger with an online presence on Twitter and Facebook also, how we communicate our faith to one another and to those who are not christians is a topic of great interest to me.

I agree with Wright that we ought to remain courteous and gracious in all our dealings with one another, whether that be conducted face-to-face, via handwritten letters, writing books or composing blog posts and commenting thereon. Though it strikes me that these are all just different forms of communication; so maybe we could generalise to a christian ethic of communication. Though I think this was outlined quite well by James in what has become known as chapter 3 in his letter to the dispersion.

What really struck me about this snippet was the phrase, “hiding behind a pseudonym”. I have written a little on web anonymity before but it may be worth restating some things. I blog under a pseudonym to keep my normal life and my working life separate. I’m not sure how many of my employers, past or present, would like what I write. I do not claim to speak as a representative of anyone other than myself, which would be compromised if I openly blogged in my own name. Aside from that, there is nothing duplicitous in what I write. I would hope that any readers here have found me to be open and honest.

What I aim for is what I think of as credible anonymity. To avoid such fallacies as the argument from authority or the argument from no authority, I think it is important to assess a person’s words on what they actually say rather than any secondary information which may be dug up by researching their real name. After all, what is a name if not a label by which someone is known. To be simultaneously credible and anonymous, one ought to maintain a self-consistency. I wouldn’t claim I always attain this, though it is something I aim for, and I hope you might recognise this.

The trouble with anonymity is that there are those who use it, as Wright points out, as a mask to hide behind while abuse is hurled out from behind it. Yet to characterise all such anonymous bloggers as such would be (though Wright doesn’t quite go that far) a terrible slur. Of course, people don’t like being told that they’re wrong, especially when the accusation is false. That doesn’t just happen to famous authors, bloggers do that to one another.

In my opinion, it is only by setting an example of being both anonymous and credible, with others following en masse, that attitudes towards anonymity may be helped. I don’t think it will ever be free from suspicion, as the likes of LulzSec and the “Anonymous” collective continue to use the web for purposes perceived (not always unjustly) as nefarious.

I also, wonder if, given that this blog is anonymous, Prof Wright would even read this piece, all other considerations aside…

On web anonymity

It may not have escaped your notice that this blog is semi-anonymous. The username I tend to go by, Sipech, is actually related to my real name, though I choose to not reveal it in full. Those that know me “in real life” may be aware of the blog, and I estimate that about 25% of those of you who are reading this have met me. But for the rest of you, does it matter that you can’t put associate my writings with a name or with a face?

This led me to think: are web users who choose to retain their anonymity less credible than those who don’t?

Prompted by this, I asked an open question on Twitter. Interestingly, all the responses I got were from users who, like me, opted to retain their anonymity. I don’t keep mine a particularly closely guarded secret. I’ve entered into email correspondence with some people, and my email address bears with it my real name. Part of the reason I choose to use a pseudonym is to distance my work life from my blog.

On the one hand, someone who opts for anonymity may be perceived as hiding something in some way. On the other hand, though, I don’t see what is materially gained from knowing an individual’s identity in some way. There are exceptions, where a blogger may have specialist knowledge or access to information that the public in general wouldn’t have. In such a circumstance, the writer may meet with some scepticism (and rightly so, I believe) if it may be thought that they are making things up. There have been some notorious cases of bloggers who have faked their identity or where they have been ‘unmasked’ for various reasons.

What about those who choose to reveal their true identity? Do they (or you) think there is something to be gained by doing so, or is it an issue to which little thought is applied?

One experiment I had in mind would be for a well-known blogger to create a second blog and write anonymously. The content need not be significantly different. I think it would be interesting to see if the same content under an anonymous label would garner the same level of attention.

Of course, there are a number of other factors to consider in such an experiment, like how long it took for a particular blogger to gain a significant following. So it’s not an experiment that could be done a few weeks. Several months to a year may be a more reasonable estimate.

I don’t know the answer to these questions. I’m just throwing them out there. What do you think?