...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Day 3164: You Know My Name (It's Millennium)


Now here is an interesting and maybe worrying question.

Mr Jonathan Bonkers of Liberal England writes that he won't be replying to Decline of the Logos because "…I am not going to get into an argument with an anonymous blogger".

He puts this down to two things: first, he cannot take someone who does not reveal their name seriously and, second, he thinks that it is rude.

Now surely a point is TRUE or FALSE whether you know the person who made it or not.

But the thing is, Decline of the Logos is NOT anonymous; they are PSEUDONYMOUS.

The point of anonymity is that you are not bound to your opinions, you can "hit and run" and not be challenged for consistency or face much of a right of reply.

But a blog or diary written under a pseudonym is still entirely identifiable AS that person, it's just that they have chosen their own Nom de Plume.

There are several Liberal Democrat bloggers, really rather good and occasionally even award-winning bloggers, who choose to be identified by their own choice of name, rather than their Hard Labour I.D.iot Card Number: Don Liberali, Costigan Quist, The Voice on Lib Dem Voice, and, er, Millennium Elephant (holds up fluffy feet – I AM Spartacus!).

You cannot entirely get away from the idea that Mr Jonathan thinks we are ALL being rude and ridiculous.

Mr Simon Titter-ye-not goes even further in the comment to Mr Jonathan's post:

"One does sense that most anonymous bloggers are in fact rather sad young men sitting in their bedrooms playing fantasy politics."

Well, I'm glad that you can SENSE that, rather than having anything old-fashioned like evidence.

One anecdote – an "anonymous" lady blogger now suing Google for revealing her identity because she defamed and insulted people – one anecdote does not make for a rule.

To say that "some people use pseudonyms to attack other people, therefore ALL people who use pseudonyms should be dismissed as irrelevant" is a stupid generalisation.

There are LOTS of reasons why someone might choose to write under a name that they choose for themselves rather than the name they were given.

Nightjack, for example, was only able to talk about the inner workings of the police force so long as he remained anonymous.

Women writers – and you can look back to, say, George Elliot although more recently Dorothy Fontana found the ambiguity of being "DC" helped her in the male-dominated world of Hollywood television – might find a male pseudonym prevents people making backwards prejudgements about their writing or politics.

Choosing your own name is a POWERFUL action, and you shouldn't go around dismissing people for doing it.

Do Mr Cassius Clay's Heavyweight World Titles not count for anything after he chose to be Mr Muhammad Ali?

Does Mr Cat (formerly Steven Georgiou) Stevens' music cease to count after he chose to be Mr Yusuf Islam?

Did Mr David McDonald never star as Hamlet or Dr Woo because Equity rules meant he had to be Mr Dr David Tennant?

Should we not take Mr Prince Charles seriously as King if (as he has hinted) he chooses to reign as Mr King George VII? (Actually, that last one is a trick question.)

To say "I cannot find this person's real name on their blog so I will not take them seriously as I cannot take someone in a Donald Duck mask seriously," is a straw man – I cannot find anyone in a Donald Duck mask on Decline of the Logos site either, so you are deliberately making them seem MORE ridiculous to justify your dismissal.

Do you think that Muhammad Ali is ridiculous because he "wears a Donald Duck mask"? Does George Elliot "wear a Donald Duck mask"? Or what about Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – those are pseudonyms too remember.

The QUALITY of an argument depends upon the ARGUMENT, not on the quality of the person making it. In the Doctor Who story "City of Death", it turns out that the GENUINE Mona Lisa has "this is a fake" written across the canvass in felt tip. Or, as Dr Woo puts it:

"If you need to x-ray a painting to know if it's any good, you are rather missing the point."

On the Web we are identified by who we say we are; that identity extends to the collected body of our opinions and if people are kind enough to read us a lot then they should become aware of our personalities through their experience of our opinions. The name that we choose to represent ourselves under is less important than the associated collection of "what we know about this blogger's opinion".

We all have a kind of "sphere of knowledge" around our name, which is what people think of when they hear our name. It's like what I said the other day about Mr Daniel Hangman and Mr Enoch Powell and everything having CONTEXT. And it links in to what I said political Parties EMPOWERING voters.

If the madness takes you and you stand for Parliament, standing as "Mr Enoch Powell" (to pick a name out of the hat of randomness) or for that matter someone like "Ms Anne Widdy-one" or "Mr Red Ken Livingstone" then you are famous enough in your own right for your name to stand for the things about you and for people to know what that means. Enough people are aware of the "sphere of knowledge" around your name.

But if you are merely Mr Oliver Bufton, then standing as "Mr Oliver Bufton" says infinitely less about you than standing as "Mr Oliver Bufton, Conservatory".

That Conservatory label – or Hard Labour or Liberal Democrat label – gives people a handle on who you are, gives them a "sphere of knowledge" to make your name MEAN something to them.

And, like choosing a pseudonym for the Internet, choosing a Party label tells us something about them because it is a CHOICE.

In a world where most people are NOT famous celebrities like me, knowing people's CHOICES is what we NEED in order to decide if we agree or disagree, like them or not like them, subscribe to their RSS feed or mute them on the Blogregator. Knowing where their Daddy's umpteen-greats granddaddy lived or what his job was in the twelfth century does NOT seem particularly useful in this regard.

Knowing someone's "real" name is NOT what is important; what is important is what that name MEANS in terms of ideas and opinions; in the information age it is what that name makes you THINK about.

It doesn't MATTER whether that is the name we were given by someone else or one that we made up for ourselves.

Or to put it another way, as far as posting opinions on the Wibbly Wobbly Web goes, how are we able to tell that, say, "Jonathan Calder" is NOT a pseudonym used by Lord Bonkers?



Jonathan Calder said...

No, I don't say anonymous blogging is rude, I say it can be rude.

In particular, I complain about bloggers who employ the academic convention of referring to me by my surname whilst declining to reveal their own surnames.

Wouldn't it be more rewarding to engage with what I actually say?

Millennium Dome said...

Dear Mr Jonathan,

Sorry to be picky – or rather to be picky back at you – but I DIDN'T say what you said I said you said!

That is, I did not say that you said "anonymous blogging was rude".

I did say that you were not replying to Decline of the Logos because you thought that that instance was rude; and I did day that it was hard to get away from the IDEA that you might think others were being rude, because that is an INFERENCE from your posting.

But would it more rewarding to engage with what you actually say? Did I not?

You say it is rude that someone uses your surname without telling you theirs; I say that it is rude to dismiss someone's points on the flimsy grounds that they are "anonymous" – on the web, they are no more or less anonymous than you are. That was the ENTIRE point of my post.

But I notice that you yourself are making a picky point here rather than engaging with what I actually say.

That's not how CONVERSATION works, is it? You say something, I say something INSPIRED by that, you should be inspired to say something else. It's not an exercise in form-filling, now is it? Just LOOK at the gibberish I am reduced to above! This is the Mr Daniel Hangman approach to debate: "oooOOOooo, just because I said Enoch Powell was my hero doesn't mean that I said I found him heroic". Surely we can be a bit more GROWN UP about this sort of thing.

Even if I am only nine!

Gareth Aubrey said...

You're right that someone might blog pseudonymously for many reasons , the difficulty is that without any additional information you can't judge which reason a particular blogger has and that context can be very important in judging what a person has to say.

To give an example, here in Wales we've just been told that the top political blog in the country is Guerilla Welsh-Fare, which continues to claim that it is "independent" when it's pretty clear that it's run by Plaid Cymru staff in the National Assembly and is thus a quasi-official arm of their spin operation. But much as it's clear to me and to those in the blogosphere, many people will read it and not realise, meaning that Plaid gain an unreasonable advantage from their pseudonymity.

By contrast, I've always had a policy of putting people's real names against their blogs on my blogroll, but I'm happy to add pseudonymous bloggers under their pseudonyms if I know who they actually are and know why they need to be pseudonymous.

Millennium Dome said...

Mr Gareth, to an extent you are RIGHT: people MAY adopt pseudonyms to "escape" the "sphere of knowledge" that already exists around their "real world" identity. And this is why practices like sock puppeting and astroturfing are so BAD.

However, we SPOT sock puppets and astroturfers because they pop up out of nowhere and, because we don't know anything about them, then we are less likely to believe them: they lack "authority".

In order to GAIN any authority on the web you need to EARN a reputation by putting up many and consistent posts. But this very action should enable people to build up a new "sphere of knowledge" that once again defines you.

When you say of "Guerilla Welsh-Fare" that "it's pretty clear that it's run by Plaid Cymru staff" that is precisely the "sphere of knowledge" that I am talking about. Is it dishonest to disguise their real-world affiliation in this way? Perhaps. But it may also give them a greater freedom to think around subjects without being tied to a Party line. (Even if they mostly support that Party line.)

Whichever is the case, that AMBIGUITY is also something that you can factor into the "sphere of knowledge" when thinking about the reputation of a particular online person.

I think that there is a DIFFERENCE between passing yourself off as something you are not and using a name to define yourself that isn't the one you use in the "real world".

It's just a shame that it can be tricky to TELL the difference.

I suppose it comes down to a question of how RELEVANT the concealed information is to what you are talking about. Knowing that someone is a member of a particular Party when they claim to be commenting independently probably IS relevant.

But even using your real-world name, you probably don't tell every single person you meet what political Party you are a member of, or what your preferred television viewing is, or what your HIV status might be. The phrase "too much information" exists for a reason.

So it depends.

And it's not like people using their real names can never be deceitful either, is it?

Adam said...

This is what I get for not paying attention to the blogosphere when I'm snowed under at work. I've amended my 'About Me' page to include my actual name - which is Adam Bell. My 'About Me' page included a picture of myself before this, which is arguably better for identifying who someone is, but never mind.

I have to say, I would never not respond to someone's post because they used a pseudonym. The important thing is consistency - if someone uses different names across blogs, they're much more likely to be a knave. I find it difficult to believe that Jonathan would not have responded to Guido, even before he became famous.