by Jeremy Young | 2/15/2009 11:13:00 PM
The history blogosphere has seen some sporadic debate over anonymous blogging over the past couple of years. At some point before I joined the history blogosphere, HNN banned anonymous commenting without special permission of the editor -- something that was probably necessary given the inadequacies of their software platform and the high rate of trollish commenters. Since then, discussions of anonymity have taken place surrounding two originally anonymous history bloggers: professional statistics blogger PhDinHistory, who now contributes at PH as well and who has dropped his anonymity, and the gossip blogger Ambrose Hofstadter Bierce III, who more or less ceased blogging in response to criticism of his anonymity. Critiques of anonymity have come from Tim Lacy and Dan Cohen, while Ralph Luker has been a staunch defender of anonymous blogging. Also make sure to read the formerly-anonymous Claire Potter's more nuanced take.

As a formerly-anonymous blogger myself, I'm a very strong supporter of anonymous bloggers, and I seem to remember penning a defense of PhDinHistory at the time (though if I did, that post is now lost in the ether). There are limits even to what I consider the proper uses of anonymity -- for instance, I object to "Mr. Y"'s use of anonymity apparently for the sole purpose of tarnishing the reputation of Stanley Kutler while remaining himself shielded from criticism. But by and large, I think anonymity encourages the widest possible participation in the historical conversation while redirecting readers' focus on the ideas of the post rather than the identity of the poster.

With that in mind, I'd like to direct readers to what I think is the best defense of pseudonymous blogging I've ever read: What's in a Name: The Virtues of Pseudonyms. It's written by formerly-pseudonymous Daily Kos blogger Dana Houle, whom I don't particularly like and who's had nothing but bad things to say about me for the past year and a half or so -- which just goes to show you how much I like the piece. I can't even begin to summarize the brilliance of his arguments, but suffice it to say he's got some choice words not just about the values of pseudonymity but about the utter worthlessness of "real names" in warding off hoaxes. Note especially his great discussions of Binyamin Wilkomirski, Alan Sokal, Jeff Gannon, and the astounding story of Forrest Carter, which I hadn't heard previously. Another example he could have used is that of S. Walter Poulshock.

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15 Comments:


Blogger AndrewMc on 2/16/2009 7:20 AM:

Yes, this is a beautiful piece, and a must-read for anyone who participates in the blogosphere.

I wasn't aware that Dana had it in for you.

 

Blogger Ahistoricality on 2/16/2009 8:06 AM:

Some of us just want to keep our penchant for online quizzes away from our students eyes....

Seriously, though, you know I don't read dK without provocation: for you, I did, and while it was a decent piece, I don't see anything actually new in it, nor all that subtle. People have committed fraud under their own names, and some people with pseudonyms have written some good stuff.... and?

 

Blogger Jeremy Young on 2/16/2009 8:39 AM:

Andrew, I spent the first of half of 2007 engaged in all-out war with the reigning band of "troll hunters". As DH is one of the worst of those, he and I didn't see eye to eye. He and MissLaura HR'd my tip jar on my last "concern troll" diary. I realized at that point that I was about a diary or two away from being banned, and I could either go out in a blaze of glory, or I could walk away and preserve my ability to post there. I walked away. One of the hardest things I've ever done, actually. But it's paid off in the long run, as I've had several reasons to post there since.

Ahist, it's "new" for a couple reasons. First, because the most eloquent defense of pseudonymity in the history blogosphere has heretofore been that single paragraph of Ralph Luker's I linked to above. While Ralph's piece was impressive and courageous, the preponderance of blogging historians have come out against pseudonymity, so I wanted to add a bit of heft to the other side of the scale. Second, I'd finish your sentence by saying, "...and without pseudonyms we'd lose some of the good stuff while retaining most of the fraud." Real names are no guarantee against fraud, as DH elegantly demonstrates; all they do is narrow the universe of individuals who can contribute to the discussion.

These arguments may not be new to us, but they may be new to Dan, Tim, Joe Gabriel, and half a dozen others who write as if they've never heard these arguments.

 

Anonymous Anonymous on 2/16/2009 10:21 AM:

The #1 reason why pseudonymity should be strongly encouraged is so that ideas that most historians shy away from even considering, much less discussing, will be more likely to be raised in the marketplace of ideas.

A good example of which is the most important historical event in the past seven and one half years.

 

Blogger Ahistoricality on 2/16/2009 10:44 AM:

Andrew Sullivan has been discussing this recently -- reading him is one of the legacies of the election, for me -- and he pointed to this, the strongest point of which, I think, is that people who are anonymous don't write just to fill space.

By the way, if you alter the URL of an HNN post slightly (replace "entries" with "comments") you can see the comments along with the post.

I still have to quibble, though: dKos is not "in the history blogosphere" in any meaningful sense of the word. The post does take a good historical perspective on political and cultural discourse but it tells us very little about history blogging as such.

 

Anonymous Maarja on 2/16/2009 10:46 AM:

Thank you, Jeremy, for posting this thoughtful piece and for mentioning Ralph Luker and DH at DK. I've followed with a great deal of interest what Dr. Luker has said in the past in some of his thoughtful postings about anonymity. As you've pointed out previously, Dr. Luker always is worth reading. However, I had not known about or read the DK piece until now.

There are circumstances under which it can be extremely difficult and limiting to post or write under one's own name. I appreciate the fact that you and Andrew are sensitive to that. I recently wrote an article for the HNN main page in which I laid out some of the challenges that the National Archives has faced in opening the Nixon tapes. I wrote under my own name and pointed largely to what third parties have said and written. Nevertheless, I have no idea whether anyone will try to do me professional harm even for so careful and sourced a presentation. (I expound on some of the reasons why some issues remain murky in a comment I posted this morning at
http://thenewnixon.org/2009/02/15/awaiting-the-last-nixon-tapes/comment-page-1/#comment-22054
)

Would it be better just to have current National Archives' officials and researchers such as Stanley Kutler discuss such matters? I think not. But some issues can be extremely difficult to discuss when writing under one's own name. Even if I chose to blog about them under a pseudonym, which I do not want to do, many people would figure out who was writing. My experiences are too unique (I am one of only two people who was authorized by the government to sign off approval on decisions to open or restrict segments of the Nixon tapes between 1981 and 1988.) If I discussed them anonymously, many readers would figure out who I was. A federal lawyers -- a former member of the JAG corps -- once discussed my testimony in the Kutler litigation with his wife, who asked if I didn't fear for my life. I laughed that off. But given the difficult situations in which government employees sometimes find themselves, I totally understand why, as DH points out, there are circumstances why you would not want a poster to reveal too much about him or herself! We all have to do risk assessments and figure out how to handle fear. I'm the last person to tell anyone what they should do, each issue is too different for me to be prescriptive on such matters. I appreciate your wise approach to this here at PH.

All my best today (President's Day!!) and always,

Maarja

 

Blogger Jeremy Young on 2/16/2009 11:00 AM:

Ahist, you're absolutely right. I'm bringing DH's post into the history blogosphere by linking to it from this site -- not claiming it was there already. Also, that's an awesome trick with the HNN comments! I'll use that in future.

Maarja, I actually started this post as an open thread with the intent to link to your excellent HNN piece -- but the anonymity section got too big, so I made it its own standalone post.

Anonymous, you're absolutely right. Historians should have an open mind about topics such as the 9/11 attacks and the Kennedy assassinations. At this site, we have a frontpager, and former admin, who is a published author of conspiracy theories on the Kennedy assassinations.

Do you NOT UNDERSTAND that just because I or Andrew find you annoying that it doesn't translate to a rejection of your ideas? It's like I say "Do you want a bagel for breakfast?" and you say, "9/11 was an inside job." Then I say, "I'm going for a walk, I'll be back in a half hour," and you say, "9/11 was an inside job." Then I say, "I'm going to the store, want anything?" and you say, "9/11 was an inside job." If I eventually stop listening to you, it's not because I disagree with your ideas, it's because you're so goddamn ANNOYING in your presentation of them. Please, PLEASE step back and think about that a minute.

You will find few history sites on the Net more amenable to hearing you out than this one. Put your ideas in open threads, and we'll discuss them rationally. Just don't keep posting them on EVERY GODDAMN THREAD in the most ANNOYING way possible and then get mad at US for tuning you out.

Geesh.

 

Blogger Ahistoricality on 2/16/2009 12:15 PM:

Jeremy,

I don't think the that the Dana Houle piece actually addresses the issues historians face with regard to anonymity all that effectively.

There have been plenty of discussions of anonymity and pseudonymity in academia previously, in which historians have participated. this meme from three years ago, for example. Then there was the Ivan Tribble thing, which got as much attention among history bloggers as anywhere else.

 

Blogger Ahistoricality on 2/16/2009 12:25 PM:

P.S., on Tribble, see also Manan Ahmed and Ralph Luker's roundup. Tribble is, if nothing else, a case study in the value of pseudonymity!

 

Blogger Jeremy Young on 2/16/2009 1:10 PM:

So what you're really getting at is that there HAS been a lot of discussion of the issue in the history blogosphere, before I started reading it.

Heh. Point taken. Perhaps Dana's piece isn't so useful after all.

 

Blogger Ahistoricality on 2/16/2009 1:19 PM:

Of course, three years is a generational gap in blogospheric terms: nothing wrong with having the discussion again to see if the sense of the community has shifted after all this time!

I feel old.

 

Anonymous Anonymous on 2/16/2009 7:02 PM:

That's quite a rant, Jeremy Young, especially your use of the juvenile-ish rhetorical device of "it's like".

I'm sure that most of your followers here are keen to explore the possibility that they've bought into a massive lie about the most important historical event of the past 10 years.

Good to hear you say that "we'll discuss them rationally". Official Conspiracy Theories such as the one which posits that 19 young Arabs and a sickly cave dweller somehow defeated the entire U.S. national defense is one which I look forward to hearing a rational explanation and defense of.

 

Blogger Ahistoricality on 2/16/2009 8:16 PM:

somehow defeated the entire U.S. national defense

There's your first error. They did do squat to our national defense, except for a bit of damage at the Pentagon: military organizations are designed to correct for losses, though. If, by "defeated" you mean "slipped past" then it's not a terribly high bar. Millions of people do it every year, some of them with tons of dangerous and entertaining chemical substances.

 

Blogger idiosynchronic on 2/16/2009 9:23 PM:

I'm so totally out of this loop - but in short summary I'm with aHist. You won't take my anonymity away unless my hands are dead and cold.

 

Anonymous Anonymous on 11/21/2009 9:45 AM:

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