Let’s talk pseudonymity and anonymity.
To borrow a cliche, some of my best friends are pseudonymous. Really, truly. Scicurious, Bug Girl, Dana, Enmelishment–all fun people on- and off-line (I’m extrapolating for Dana since I haven’t met her yet, but she has promised me margaritas).
In most of these cases, I know their secret identity but I interact most with the pseudonym. I don’t even think about their “real” names unless I’m talking to them in the context in which they use them. I don’t want to. Those names get tucked away where they won’t accidentally pop out at inconvenient times. I’m a bit protective that way.
I’m even more protective of the “real” names of people I haven’t always gotten along with perfectly. I attended ScienceOnline in 2010 and managed to avoid reading Isis‘s name tag, and not because we weren’t in the same places. When I accidentally found out DrugMonkey‘s secret identity, I told him and offered up a small piece of leverage in return. It was silly, but I did it anyway.
I habitually protect pseudonymity. Except…
Several weeks ago, I posted a link to a woman talking about how she’d been harassed using Twitter by someone who claimed to want to talk about her work, then switched to wanting to talk about sex once the conversation was private. athyco noticed that one of my commenters, named Bryan, had the same identicon as the Bryan who decided this woman’s post was the perfect place to ask her out.
Because he used his real email address on the comment, I identified him as Bryan Pesta, who has generally used his full name commenting on my posts before. Given that he’s a professor, with a degree of authority over students, I felt quite justified in leaving comments in both places that attached his full name and university affiliation to his behavior and asked whether that was how he treated his students. Anybody looking for his name with the relevant key words (say, someone checking to see whether he has a reputation for this sort of thing) will find it very easily.
So I’m not entirely consistent. What do I see as the differences?
Pseudonymity is important, as is anonymity at times. Other people can tell you why better than I can, but they allow people to fight oppressive authority with (usually) less risk to themselves. They allow people to serve while avoiding the petty prejudices of the day. They allow people to speak their mind without worrying that the authority of their positions will make their opinions somehow unanswerable. And sometimes, they just let people be a version of themselves that is a little closer to the person they want to be. All worthy goals.
The problem is that pseudonymity can also turn many of those goals on their heads. The news media has been criticized for allowing anonymous sources “in the administration” to turn a press that is supposed to be adversarial into a tool of power. You’ve seen the drive-by comments that are nothing more than the spouting of prejudice. And, well, not everyone’s true self plays well with others, particularly when it comes to those same prejudices.
Pseudonymity and anonymity shift the balance of power in favor of those who are using it. When the balance of power is against them, this is a good thing. When the balance of power is already in their favor, pseudonymity and anonymity reinforce their advantages. Context matters.
Why do I mention all this as part of an “Elevatorgate” challenge? Because pseudonymity and anonymity are nothing like bullet-proof. I have the “secret identities” of three of the people who have been smearing me, Rebecca, and several others whom they view as being against them. And with that knowledge comes a decision. Or three.
One of those decisions is easy. I know who “pornalysis” is. I’ve met him, in fact. He’s local to me, but that’s all you’re going to find out from me about who he is unless I think someone’s safety depends on it. This is partly because he’s the only MRA I’ve seen actually engage in activism–for racial minorities rather than men who feel abused. It’s partly because he is actually a victim of a system that has real difficulty recognizing the abuse he’s received as abuse because the abuser was female. It’s partly because he’s displayed a very weird trust by talking shit about me knowing I knew who he was. It’s partly because I know someone who has access to protected information about him, and while pornalysis has provided me with information himself, I’m not willing for their to be any confusion about the source.
I also know who Munkhaus is. He’s an idiot about profile pictures, so when he engages in arguments under his real name in one form of social media and tries to protect his identity on Twitter, it’s as stupid as the comments he leaves everywhere on this topic. Stupid is about all Munkhaus is, though. He can’t follow an argument from comment to comment, even if he is insulting people in every comment. He’s a troll without much to lose, which means that the power he gains by keeping his name off his comments means very little. In my estimation, he’s too small to make outing him worthwhile.
The same cannot necessarily be said of Franc Hoggle, who runs the Grey Lining blog. He used to post somewhat sporadically about a variety of topics. Since July, his rate of posting has increased, and he’s been blogging (almost?) exclusively about Rebecca, PZ, Ophelia, Greg, and me. His blog has become a stream of anger aimed at us, sometimes combined with sex. He’s been whipping up the flames on the hate campaign, as well as producing months of his own hatred.
Now a meatspace acquaintance of his has found out what he’s been up and was not made any happier by the revelation. In fact, this person took Hoggle’s real name and gave it to Ophelia, one of the people Hoggle’s been particularly ugly in attacking. We’ve been discussing what to do with it. The location checks out with comments he’s left on Pharyngula, where he’s banned but morphing to leave Munkhaus-style comments. It’s also checks out with regionalisms on his blog. We’re confident of having the right guy. We just have to decide what to do about it.
The uses of pseudonymity have come up in the discussion, of course, and there is an argument to be made that the power is on the side of those of us making the decision. I’m the smallest of the bloggers Hoggle is attacking, and the traffic from him and his friends is a tiny trickle among my overall traffic flow. PZ is a behemoth. We’re all well-connected and respected.
Hoggle doesn’t even have a reputation he’s hiding behind that pseudonym. He’s nobody in particular. Aside from avoiding the ban at Pharyngula, he’s not gaining much by cheating. Connecting Hoggle’s real identity to his blog and his comments doesn’t change much for us.
On the other hand, the five of us (and any other target big enough to catch his attention whom I’ve missed) are in the position we are because other people have decided we speak at least somewhat for them. “Elevatorgate” blew up, not because some people attacked Rebecca, but because they attacked so many other women with the same complaints by proxy when they did. And while we may feel somewhat victimized by what has happened, those people who trust us to lend a voice to their concerns have even less protection than we do. Atheist women had been complaining about being hit on inappropriately at events long before Rebecca, but Rebecca’s comment was heard where theirs hadn’t been.
While the balance of power may be in our favor in dealing with the pseudonymous/anonymous Hoggle, it isn’t necessarily for anyone who deals with his secret identity. I know something about how he behaves when he thinks he can get away with it that they don’t. I know how obsessive he can be. I know how weirdly he can interpret things to put himself in the right. I know how angry he is about feminism. And I know that he’s capable of combining that anger with sexual release. What I don’t know is how that translates into his real life. I still know more than any woman from whom he’s hiding his blog.
So the challenge is this: Knowing what I know, having the information I do, give me a good reason why I’m not morally obligated to attach his real name to this kind of behavior as publicly as I can.