I field a lot of questions from journalists and students about anonymous blogging. Roughly once a week, I end up answering the question, “Why should I believe what someone has to say if he won’t tell me his name?”
There’s a stock answer to this question at this point. “You judge the reputation of a blogger by network and by track record. Read back through that blogger’s posts and you’ll get a good sense for where she’s coming from and what her biases are. Look at who links to her and what they say about her, and you’ll find out what her credibility is with other bloggers.”
This answer satisfies some questioners and disappoints others. But when I give this answer, I’m restraining myself from responding with another question: “Why the heck do you want to know this person’s name?”
I don’t know about you, but knowing that a blogpost was written by someone named “Mohammed Hassan”, rather than by “Muslimpundit” tells me approximately nothing. In either case, I’m going to Google the name and try to figure out what the collective internet feels about this person (or persona, I suppose). Knowing someone’s real name can be less useful in this case than knowing an Internet persona – there’s a lot of Mohammed Hassans in Cairo, just as there are a lot of John Smiths in the US.
At least a dozen authors on Global Voices write under psuedonyms. I don’t actually know the real number. I assume that our editors write under their own names, because we write them paychecks and they cash them. But our authors are volunteers, and, frankly, I’ve never checked Tharum Bun’s ID to check that this is, in fact, his name. What would it tell me if his ID card read something else? I suspect there’s no good way to call the Cambodian authorities – whoever they might be – and find out whether Tharum Bun – or whatever his name might turn out to be – is trustworthy. (Tharum is tremendously trustworthy, and using his name as an example is a sign of my deep esteem and affection for him, not any distrust on my part. :-)
Some of our bloggers have good reasons to be unnamed. Some write from countries where free expression is a high risk activity. Some have legitimate concerns that family or friends might be harmed if their words offend the wrong person. And some simply created identities to write under for less serious reasons. Several of my (non-blogger) friends use names other than the names they were born with – one changed her first and last names during her college career, shedding aspects of a past she was uncomfortable with. Should I read this renaming as suspicious behavior, or as someone willing to step away from the past and become something new?
When people ask the question about the names of anonymous or psuedonymous bloggers, they’re asking something else: “Can I trust this person?” That’s a very different question. We’re not a newsgathering organization – our job is to tell you what bloggers are saying around the world, which can include rants as well as facts. It’s possible that the real question is, “Is this person actually where she says she is?” In other words, if someone says they’re blogging from Pakistan, you might want to know if they’re actually in New Jersey. But the name doesn’t help you answer this question. Watching that person’s behavior over time, and analyzing the network of people who point to them does.
My guess is that our discomfort with the unnamed is a reflection on how communities work. In a small community, knowing someone’s name makes it likely that you can hold the person accountable for their actions. If someone wrongs you, you can approach legal authorities and say, “Ethan Zuckerman did me wrong.” In larger communities, this is less likely to help – there may be multiple people with that name. And on the Internet, not only are there likely to be multiple people, but you’re likely to have a much harder time finding an appropriate authority to hear your grievance.
Or maybe asking for a name is a kind of shorthand. We want to know the community reputation of a person, and asking for a name is a way to retrieve that reputation for some subset of people for whom a Google search is representative. But retrieving that online reputation for a psuedonym is going to be useful for another subset of people.
Are we uncomfortable, on some deep level, that one person might be writing under multiple persona online? Or is this a linguistic legacy, a way of asking for an identity token that may no longer be especially useful? What should I be telling the people who ask me this question?