Thursday, June 5, 2008

Conversations, anonymity and pseudonymity

A central feature of normal human conversations is the re-identification of individuals. It would not be a normal human conversation if a bunch of blindfolded people sat around wearing headphones and microphones, with the speech from the microphones being fed into a voice disguiser which reduced all the voices to one, and with no one identifying herself. A normal conversation requires constancy of interlocutors. The re-identification of individuals is what makes dialectical accountability possible. Moreover, through conversation, one ideally becomes friends. But friendship requires individuation.

Consequently, I am disallowing anonymous comments on this blog as of immediately. I might reconsider given good reason.

I should note that I have benefited significantly in the past from anonymous comments, and I hoping that persons now commenting anonymously will post under their real names or, at least, under a nom de plume.

I do, in fact, also believe pseudonymity is something unfortunate. Our actions and words express us: it is unfortunate if we do not openly stand behind them. I think there is a strong presumption against pseudonymity (cf. this post of mine). If you feel that the alternative to participating pseudonymously is not participating at all, I ask that you examine carefully why it is that you are unwilling to stand publicly behind one's views. This examination might yield one of three conclusions: (a) one should speak publicly in one's own name; (b) one should be silent; or (c) genuine prudence forces one into psuedonymity. I fully understand that, for instance, persons living in totalitarian regimes, graduate students and untenured faculty, etc. can have very good prudential reasons for participating only pseudonymously in discussion, and so I am not banning pseudonymous participation.

In fact, I strongly advise graduate students and untenured faculty to post only pseudonymously, unless they have good reason to believe the prudential concerns do not apply to them. (I should also note that if one is in a category where one's life or liberty depends on not being identified, it might be wiser not to post even pseudonymously unless you use appropriate independent encryption-based services to access the Internet, since there may still be ways of being tracked down.)

Whether one falls in a category where pseudonymity is justified is a judgment one must leave to the individual prudence of the phronimos.

Nonetheless, I do ask that if you use a pseudonym, you try to stick to one pseudonym. This will make possible the re-identification of conversation partners. I can, however, understand that you might on rare occasions switch to a new pseudonym (e.g., if one's cover has been blown, or one has lost access to an account).


Unknown said...

If you want to create a pseudonymous identity, you can register for a Google Account using a email address. The idea behind mailinator is that you don't need to register with them. You just choose any unique name (e.g., I just chose "zeta1234"). Any email sent to that name will then be available (no password needed--you just go to mailinator and put in that name and you get all the emails). And you can use your address to register for a Google Account, as long as you ensure that nothing really confidential is done there. I suggest as a minor security measure (this is all for pseudonymity, not security) making your address be different from your Google Account screen name. - Alexander Pruss (using a pseudonymous account)

Tim Lacy said...

Professor Pruss,

You wrote: "I strongly advise graduate students and untenured faculty to post only pseudonymously."

I'm not even sure this is necessary (i.e. always prudent). That generational cohort seems disinclined to blog, so the likelihood of being found out or remembered come hiring time is unlikely.

Besides, as an academic, one should never make public utterances, in any setting, that one is not willing to explain or stand behind.

I understand that the academic hiring world is paradoxically not rational, but let's not feed paranoia by granting too many exceptions in the mostly unnecessary world of pseudonymity. - TL

Tim Lacy said...

When I wrote "That generational cohort," I meant the older, Boomer generation. - TL

Anonymous said...

I entirely agree on anonymous comments - that removes any sense of identity from the individual. On the other hand, I'm perfectly fine with pseudonyms (obviously, since I use one), mostly because I think having a handle can actually contribute to a strong sense of personal identity. That has been the case for me; my given name is not one I am personally fond of, and my handle has been an outlet for self-identification.

There is also, I admit, an element of anxiety in making ideas associated with my name. I'm not a graduate student or untenured professor, but I am a teaching candidate (something I've never been shy about), and I don't want my personal blog to be the place where potential future employers go first when they Google my name. (I instead have a teaching/language blog where I am more open about my identity beyond my writing.) That doesn't mean I don't stand behind my writing, just that it's more appropriate in some cases for it only to be semi-public rather than wholly public for me. (There is also, I admit, some glamour in writing pseudonymously that I wouldn't get if I wrote under my own name.)

Anonymous said...

(I hope everyone will forgive my slight repetition in the previous comment...)

Anonymous said...

Almost everyone who posts comments on your blog already uses an pseudonym. This seems quite unnecessary.

Alexander R Pruss said...


A typical hiring or tenure committee will contain at least one younger person, and may contain an older person who is more into online stuff. It only takes one person to bring some post to the attention of everybody else.