Thursday, July 2, 2009

How to approach a blogger without getting bitten

The topic of blogger identity (in all its myriad of potential meanings) is a constant hot button issue, for obvious reason. Every now and again someone will run into massive real life issues based on their blogging activity, as our friend DGT did most recently, and the shock wave will be felt throughout the blogosphere in various ways. It should not be surprising that those of us who blog under a pseudonym can be protective of our identities, even if we go out of the way to ensure we don't reveal much that might get us into any trouble. Nevertheless, there are readers who feel they will somehow be enriched by knowing the blogger's identity, even if it really has no bearing on what they reading. I can promise you that you know far more about me by reading the blog than you will ever learn from my CV or by browsing my publications. Perhaps for some, the ability to find my lab website or verify my track record gives some credence to my opinions, but you will only find that I don't claim to be anything I am not.

On three occasions I have been contacted by people who had "discovered" my identity - twice by an email from people who know me personally that recognized something on the blog, and once by an anonymous comment left on the blog yesterday morning on an earlier post. Though yesterday's commenter was complimentary of the blog and suggested that they had no intention of "outing me", there remains an element of discomfort in reading that an anonymous stranger spent time digging through potential candidates to figure out who I might be, while content to remain anonymous themselves. It is one thing to have a friend write and say "This has to be you", and yet another for an anonymous entity hailing from a city where you have never been to be searching you out. Perhaps there is an alternate version of Science Scouts out there, where merit badges are earned with each blogger identity determined.

Whereas I do not take special effort to conceal my identity, I also try and limit any details that might make it easy for someone to figure it out. Anyone who reads this or most blogs for long enough will probably gather enough information over time to narrow their search, but the question remains, what is gained in doing so? For those who find the search some sort of internet scavenger hunt and who feel the need to inform the blogger of their success, I would suggest doing so in a manner that is not entirely anonymous. We don't come to your house at night to whisper "I know who you are" through your window and it would be nice if we could expect the same. Though I am not particularly bothered by a few readers being able to find my lab website, the reason I blog under a pseudonym is because I try to be open about what I am going through to give those who are interested a feel for the trials and tribulations of this job. Can I do that honestly while getting "I found you!" notes slipped under my door? I'm not entirely sure. I guess it comes with the territory in our "US Weekly culture" that seems unable to separate the public from the private.


  1. Yeah, I dunno. I haven't gotten any comments, emails or friends saying they have figured me out. That doesn't mean there haven't been any super sleuths, just that they don't tell me, I guess. I don't really mind if people figure it out, but it would get creepy if anyone was stalkerish about it.

    On the flipside, I always wonder a little who all you guys and gals are, mostly because if we all ended up at the same conference I would TOTALLY want to have beers with you. But not to the point of deliberately searching around on the internet trying to determine your identities. I'd rather spend my time reading your blog posts and working on my grants. It seems like being an internet detective would take a lot of time.

  2. How creepy! Well, neverunderestimate assholes. jc

  3. Yeah, that is creepy. What's their point in emailing you? Well I can think of a lot of reasons, but none of them good, all of them weird.

    I'll admit to at times being curious about pseudonymous bloggers' real identities, but I would never bother to try and go searching around. I just remind myself that the only truly relevant thing is the argument the blogger has made. If some part of the argument fails because I don't know their identity, then their argument fails (and I would ask them for clarification). I wouldn't Google stalk them so I could 'fill' in what is lacking!

  4. In this cae, I don't think the commentor meant to be creepy, etc. My point was that it is important to look at it from the blogger's side as well. My hope is that what I write is enough of an identity, but I realize that people can let curiosity get the better of them. At the same time, it's nice to be afforded some separation.

    In cases of mutual trust, I have no problem with letting people know who I am or what I work on, but it is obviously different when it comes to an anonymous individual.

  5. When I first started blogging, I had a commenter do that. It was what prompted me to use a completely new email address, and not say to much about locations etc. Its funny, because I would never think of looking for that information.

  6. Excellent post, PLS. As far as sleuths go, I'm still not even sure who figured me out at work. There's obviously more lurkers on blogs than there are commenters, and I think we sometimes forget (or at least I do) that the vast majority of our readership is under the surface.

  7. The Science Papparazi Gets Bitten

    As the anonymous poster who is being discussed, I feel it necessary to respond to claims of being creepy or assholish. I think there are two aspects of the creep factor. The first is why would someone go out of his/her way to track down a blogger. In my case, it was not something I set out to do when I started reading this blog but it really did become a fun sort of internet scavenger hunt. My longtime readership, a couple of posts that were eerily similar to what I was experiencing, and some sheer coincidences piqued my interests and got the better of me. The second is the anonymity factor which is the aspect to which PLS took offense. I agree that things are one-sided when posts are anonymous (although my IP address and operating system are visible) but I thought it would be more intrusive if I sent an actual email. How odd would it be to have a complete stranger email, particularly when that person knows all sorts of things about you? What would you even say? The awkward conversation would inevitably (and rightfully) crash and burn or fade away like that Spanish penpal you had when you were 10.

    This gets to the intent of blogs. People write anonymously to have the freedom to write freely without fear of reprisals. Among many things, people read blogs for the humor, to gain knowledge from people undergoing similar experiences, and for the sense of community. I don't read the blogs of Proustian scholars nor those of pizza delivery people. I read those of people in the sciences. There is a certain sense of confirmation in seeing that other people are in the same boat, running into the same problems, and then getting to find out what their emotions and solutions have been. I believe this is precisely why posts on the Chronicle of Higher Education are so popular. However, because all sorts of different academics are thrown in there, the comments aren't always so relevant.

    I can now somewhat understand things from the blogger's perspective. Readers sometimes know intimate details about a blogger's life. We are intrigued about the trials and tribulations of others' experiences because we are/have/will undergo many of the same but this leads us to the case where readers know a hell of a lot more about the blogger than vice versa. The readers will feel a connection with a blogger but that feeling is not mutual. But that's the rules of the game.

    Discovering a blogger's identity is not as fun as I envisioned and in many ways I wish I hadn't found out. The other side of it, as Arlenna pointed out, is that it would be way cool to have beers at a conference with many of the bloggers out there. What a travesty to not be able to hand out with some really cool folks. Alas, that's not going to happen and that's just something we'll have to deal with in not knowing one anothers' identities.

  8. You had a Spanish penpal when you were ten? Sweet.

    My only point is that I have no problem being contacted by people. On lot's of occassions I have gotten emails about the blog (some good, some bad, some really angry) and I enjoy conversing with people when I know where they are coming from. I have let people know who I am once I have gotten to know them a bit, because I'm not hiding, just taking some steps to allow me to be honest in how I present what I am going through. At the same time, it's quite clear how transparent pseudoanonymity can be and that makes many bloggers jumpy when someone claims to have searched them out.

    Moral of the story: Feel free to email me (the address is on the right), I'm always up for conversation. There are a lot of people out there going through similar things and I would be happy to talk to anyone about what is happening in their neck of the woods. Anonymous "I know who you are" comments make me a bit squirmy.

  9. PLS: very nice post. Interesting problem.

    Once you have tenure, will you "out" yourself?

  10. I can barely plan for next week, let alone in ~6 years. However, I'm not sure that tenure has anything to do with why I blog with a pseud. I'm not posting things (for the most part) that would be offensive or noteworthy to anyone in my department. Like most, I would rather have the separation between my lab and the science I do, and the blog. While they inform one another, they need not be connected and my preference would be for each to stand on their own merit. I wouldn't really want to be at a conference and answering question about both, for instance.

  11. Went out of town for a bit, so this is a little late...but I find it satisfying to know that there are anonymous bloggers who will always remain anonymous to me...sort of a secret shadow society lurking in the midst.

  12. I figure if someone wants to use a pseudonym, then that means they want to be known by a pseudonym. Period. It's like a user name in a chat room or on a message board forum...people are content enough to interact in those environments, so I'm not sure why there is so much interest in "outing" bloggers.