Pseudonymity, privilege, and me

Note: This post also appears on #HOPEJAHRENSURECANWRITE as part of a group post entitled Real-Life Identity and The Internet with contributions from Hope Jahren, DNLee, Jeremy Yoder, and Terry McGlynn.

Hope Jahren asked me to share my thoughts about my choice to write online under my real name. Actually, she didn’t ask so much as bribe me with papaya seeds and nail polish, but I would have done it anyways because I think it’s important. This post is about why I think it’s important.

I’ve been blogging off and on (more off, lately) since 2007 at the HMS Beagle Project Blog and a few other places, and tweeting since 2008. I have always used my real name, except for the first year or so, when I called myself ‘Nunatak’ because I didn’t know what I was doing and the pseudonym made me feel less scared about clicking ‘publish’. I was Nunatak for less than a year. Just for fun I went back and re-read my coming-out post. *yawns* It is so not revelatory, I’m not even going to link to it.

To briefly unpack why clicking ‘publish’ scared me then (as it still sometimes does), it was a combination of worrying what my postdoc employer might think and the fact that this was my first real encounter with the immediacy of online publishing. I take that immediacy for granted now, but it sure was creepy those first few times. Importantly, I was not scared because I felt vulnerable speaking truth (or LOL) to power as a young woman scientist, but that’s only because I was not planning to speak truth to power, not because I wouldn’t have felt vulnerable if I were. On reflection, I did, increasingly, speak truth to power, but it was gradual, and I was already non-pseudonymous, so I just went with it.

But this post isn’t about why I flirted with pseudonymity five years ago; it’s about the impact of not being pseudonymous since then, and how that speaks to the larger ongoing discussion of online pseudonymity.

For me, as a scientist and science communicator, the choice I made in 2008 to be myself – Karen James – online has turned out to be a net positive. I say ‘net‘ because there have been some negatives. I’ve noticed that the negatives fall into two categories. First, there’s your typical Sagan-effect stuff. For example, once, after being interviewed on BBC Radio 4 about Charles Darwin, a colleague called me a ‘media tart’. It may have been a joke, but if so, it was only funny because there were people out there who would actually think that. I’ve been on the receiving end of a fair number of these sorts of ‘jokes’ about my online activities, but they have always seemed less about platform and more about communicating outside of the ivory tower or not conforming to some sort of ‘serious scientist’ stereotype.

Second, there’s the I’m-better-than-blogs-and-Twitter-so-I’m-better-than-you stuff, also known as throwing shade. I’ve seen lips curl into a snarl around the word ‘Twitter’, and eyes roll following any mention of blogs or blogging. Science is a serious endeavor, yo, and blogging and tweeting are totes not serious, obviously, or, worse, are attempts to rise up through the scientific hierarchy prematurely (which is more of a problem in Europe than in the US, in my experience). My boss at a previous job once told me in an annual performance review, ‘you promote yourself too much’; he was referring to my blogging. I couldn’t help wondering if he would have said that to a male colleague, but I digress.

But what do these negatives have to do with the choice I made to use my name as opposed to a pseudonym? When you use your name, anyone – even people you don’t think pay any attention to social media – can look you up, and associate any negative opinions they may have about what you write or do specifically, or just being active online generally, with your name. That might sound paranoid, but I’ve found there are a lot of lurkers out there, that is, people who check in on me and read my stuff, but don’t engage. I know this because people I had no idea were reading my writing online have said things to me like, ‘what happened to your helmet?’ (referring to the time I changed my Twitter avatar from a picture of me wearing a ski helmet to one of me not wearing it), or, ‘am I the person you were referring to in that tweet about being frustrated with [issue X]?’

Why does it matter? It matters because these people who now have a negative opinion of you might be on your hiring or tenure committees, or reviewers on your grant proposals or manuscripts, or even… you know… an editor at Nature. *coughs*

One of the most unsettling tests of my online identity is happening right now. Recently I became the unofficial curator of a social media movement called Ripples Of Doubt. The Twitter hashtag #ripplesofdoubt was, for a little while, a safe space for women and men to share how sexual harassment ripples out into their professional and personal lives and communities. It provided support and solidarity, and demonstrated both the frequency and surprisingly wide range of impacts of sexual harassment in science and science communication.

Unfortunately a troll invaded the hashtag and began using it to intimidate genuine contributors. Though I’ve blocked the troll, they subtweet me, sometimes referring to me by my name or collecting my tweets into one of their creepy Storify stories. This is a worry in relation to my non-pseudonymity because, if it should escalate, I won’t have that additional layer of privacy to protect me.

‘Worry’ is a key word here. So far, nothing terrible has happened to me as a result of choosing to be Karen James online, but I worry that it could. For example, on Friday I co-signed an open letter to Nature editor Philip Campbell by Acclimatrix at the excellent pseudonymous blog Tenure, She Wrote. I signed it with my real name, because I can (more on this below), and because I believe that adds a certain weight of conviction and support to the post, but I also worry a little bit that there could be negative consequences. What if I submit a manuscript to Nature and the editor holds a grudge? And there are even more worrisome worries – worries about my physical and psychological safety should I become a troll’s target, or make a really stupid mistake, or become embroiled in something extremely controversial.

Still, for me, on balance, the positive has outweighed the negative. In 2010, I was selected to serve as a scientist guide to four UK students and their teachers on a trip to the Galapagos Islands. Both the opportunity and the project that resulted required me to be Karen James online. Without a connection between my online and real life personas, I  doubt I would have collaborated with NASA, received a phone call from space, or applied to become an astronaut. My job description as a staff scientist at MDIBL includes 30% effort in outreach. This fact speaks to two benefits: 1) that my past outreach activities were admired by my new employer and presumably helped me get my job, and 2) that I get to do outreach as part of my job. Snoopydance. In November, following the advent of #ripplesofdoubt, I was invited to write about it for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae website. That piece is now on my CV.

And so there you have it: the not-particularly-exciting story of my non-pseudonymity. What does it add to the ongoing discussion about pseudonymity?

Here’s what: too often blog posts like this one end with, ‘and that, my friends, is why you should be yourself online!’ Not this post. If choosing to write online under your own name is a net advantage, as it has been for me, then choosing not to may be a net disadvantage. And the thing is, not everyone has a choice. It is a combination of luck and privilege – including but not limited to white privilege, heterosexual privilege, and class privilege – that has permitted me the choice to be Karen James online. It is not strength of character, commitment to transparency, courage, or any other sort of superior crap certain foes of pseudonymity might suggest.

And that, my friends, is why you should be yourself online, if you can, and if you want, but it’s also why you should be vigilant and fight against those things – human and otherwise – that take the choice away from others.

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9 thoughts on “Pseudonymity, privilege, and me

  1. Matt Schroeder

    Good for you, Karen! I love what you write, post, and share, and from a marketing perspective, you’re building a brand that other people respect. That authenticity is so important to making your contributions relatable to poor idiot schlubs like me who will have to find their doctorate degree in a box of Cracker Jacks. Keep it up! You have fans.

  2. dumbledad

    One extra point, using a pseudonym, especially over a long period of time, is not quite pseudonymity in the sense that it is often (deliberately) easy to re-associate the pseudonym with the poster’s real name. It may (I hope) allow one to remove a certain weight that comes with one’s professional name. Of course that is only useful when the posts are not central to one’s work.

  3. Karen James Post author

    I wish I’d known about the cracker jack option 17 years ago. Seriously, though, thanks, Matt. I’m delighted that you read and enjoy.

  4. Karen James Post author

    I tend to define pseudonymity as the stable use of the same fictitious name over a long period of time, and anonymity as the use of a fictitious name just once or a few times.

  5. Elizabeth Moon

    I began my online presence before LiveJournal, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter, at a time when there was both some capacity for anonymity (on Usenet, for instance, screen names were common) and discussion boards and groups where–even if a screen name was used–most participants knew each other. The groups were invitational. Since I was online primarily for business-related communication with my editors, my agent, etc., I used my real name; my website used my real name because it was on my books…and the choice to use my real name on the books, rather than a pseudonym, when many women writing SF used initials or a pseud, predated concerns about internet trolls. I wanted my name on my books and since I was able to get published under an obviously female name, I did so. For several years, though I was online, I was interacting mostly with people I knew, people I had met in person. Our perceptions of each other were based on face-time plus emails and posts. Venturing into Usenet, I was interacting mostly with strangers, but in topic-based groups where we had a common interest.

    I did not anticipate the full reality of what that means for privacy–and for the way individuals are perceived and judged online–until several years later, when high-speed internet and real social media became available. The comfortable distance between a writer and the public disappeared almost overnight. The cozy culture of closed bulletin boards, working groups, etc…with access to Usenet but no requirement to go there…was swallowed up–it’s still there, but it’s not the commonest internet experience. Writers are urged to have a public presence, to engage with readers, to act like celebritues in that way, even though we aren’t actors/performers Some of us have, and protect, online pseuds, and are careful not to share anything that might upset or cost a book sale. No politics, no opinions. Others let it all hang out. Others still try to find a semi-safe path in between. I think each person should do what satisfies the individual need for privacy, while being aware that some error by someone else may destroy the disguise.

    Appearing online without a masking pseud definitely has costs, and revealing more of oneself increases those costs. There are always people ready and eager to share information, both trivial and important, to increase their own standing–and any information can be ammunition to some side of some argument. But for me, the psychological costs of concealment were greater than the psychological costs of going barefaced. As a female, I had experienced being silenced. Publishing in print and online has been liberating even as it’s also been scary (threats, etc.) and sometimes painful. It is my finger to the bullies of childhood and adolescence and early adulthood, etc. I am still here, and you have not shut me up.

    This is not to say it’s the right way for everyone. I hope someday it is *possible* for everyone to speak in her/his own voice and name without fear…but even then, let each do what seems best.

  6. dumbledad

    Karen, I understand your definition but I think it equates two forms of pseudonimity which it is useful to analyse separately. For some a pseudonym is used (over a long period of time, as you say) that preserves anonymity. The pseudonym has vested social capital, but it is social capital deliberately held separate from the poster’s real name. For others a pseudonym (again used over a long period of time) is easily mapped back to the poster’s real name (through ‘about’ pages and profile descriptions).

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