Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

What’s in a name?

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?

13 Responses to “What’s in a name?”

  1. bankelele says:

    I prize the anonymity a pseudonym offers as blogging about banks and shares to buy to buy is a private matter that am sure my employer (if they even know what a blog was would not be happy about).

    On a personal level, I am worried about the power of google search and hope that having a pseudonym would put up a wall between my life and my blog

  2. Abdurahman says:

    Great post. I get asked the same question about credibility and it isn’t always easy to answer because some people are not really asking but making a statement (i.e. we journalists have credibility and not an anon blogger). Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Adam says:

    Great post!

    I wanted to quibble slighltly with your use of the word trust. I’m not deciding if I want to loan these folks money. I’m deciding if I should read their words and believe them. It’s a smaller thing than trusting them.

    Adam

  4. Jean Jordaan says:

    Here’s a possibly related project: http://www.martus.org/

    “Martus is a secure information management tool that allows you to create a searchable and encrypted database and back this data up remotely to your choice of publicly available servers.”

    It seems to me you contradict yourself in your guide:

    First you write: “you might want to encourage other friends to use Tor – this creates what cryptographers call ‘cover traffic’. You also might want to use Tor to read various websites, not just to post to your blog.”

    But then you write: “Just please don’t use these techniques unless you really need to.”

    I think you should encourage the opposite: everyone should use the techniques routinely. That way if you want to stand by your words, you can sign them with your private key, and not allow Big Brother to jump to conclusions about the trails you leave unconsciously. You also help to create an environment where privacy is something normal, not suspect.

  5. I think anonymity is on its way out unless it is a whistleblower blog, e.g. someone in the tobacco industry. When people add their name to their comments, they take responsibility and don’t just talk crap.

  6. Michael Sullivan says:

    I used to use various pseudonyms (Epoch and aetherson, mostly), now I usually use my real name, as here.

    For some of us, real names provide more anonymity than pseudonyms. I think I’m the only person to have ever used the pseudonym “aetherson,” and one of a fairly small number of people to use the pseudonym “Epoch.”

    There are a LOT of Michael Sullivans out there.

  7. quinn says:

    i think it’s not, or at least not for me, a matter of ‘can i trust this person?’ it’s ‘can i hold this person to account? can i possibly track them down if i need clarification, or for them to tell their side of the story if something goes wrong? can i convey their accountability to them in our relationship?’ it’s even about wanting the relationship to exceed the public relationship- almost (but not quite) having them prove they trust you. (admittedly, that’s not anonymity broken for publication) for me, name is only one aspect of anonymity, especially when i want someone to break it for me. other identifying bits of background are involved- it’s very hard to explain the context of a perspective without saying “Mohammed Hassan attended Stanford in the 1980s before returning home to Egypt.” of course, for that to matter, that person has to be very key to the piece. otherwise yeah, you don’t really need a name.

    I have worked with anonymous sources, and been very happy with the reporting i’ve done. but it has to be proportional- if someone is telling me about something very big, and they don’t use their name because they have this one friend that would get totally mad if they know who wrote that blog- that’s not going to fly. i am asking them to take a risk, but they are asking me to take a risk as well, which goes into the math. i was thinking of a few examples of where it was well worthwhile, but then realized i can’t really go into them. :)

  8. Mark says:

    I have come to understand the value of being able to publish anonymously from the disappointment of not being able to publish all I would like to have written on my own, identifiable blog.

    In Darfur, we were cautioned not to write anything because the Government of Sudan had denied a Spanish Red Cross worker a renewal of her humanitarian visa (hard enough to get in any case) after reading her blog. We could write very little about the fascinating inner workings of our India-Pakistan children’s peace project, because we were already infiltrated by the ISI, and ultimately were banned from travel in Pakistan.

    I would have loved to have had a place to have posted anonymously at those times, and others.

    MBJ
    http://memestreamblog.wordpress.com

  9. Solanasaurus says:

    Since starting work for Global Voices I’ve been surprised at how often this question keeps popping up. I find it really bizarre – as though people are just coming to terms with the fact that you really shouldn’t trust what anybody says 100%. Even “real” journalists and newspapers! For all the rumors and scams that are floating around on the internet – if it can help people become more critical of the sources that are supposedly “authorities” too, that’s a good thing. FYI – Solanasaurus is Solana Larsen. I promise.

  10. maritim says:

    I think the only way to judge a blogger’s ability is by his post, the fact that he/she posts anonymously to me is secondary. Good content wins every other time.

    That said there are situations were the blogger is not sure of his safety as a result of his/her blog, where free speech is alien, here to distrust a blogger because their anonymity would be unfair to say the least.

  11. quixote says:

    I get the sense that people who object to anonymity in blogs are looking for a quick way to believe or disbelieve what they’re reading. Like maritim says, they could also read and analyze the content, but that takes a bit of thought.

    The issue reminds me a lot of the use of SAT scores in college admissions. It’s an easy way to tell the secretary to winnow down the pile without having to actually read a whole set of them.

    That said, I don’t disagree at all with quinn about needing to know who a source is. Depending on context, sourcing may be critical. But that’s a different issue from public anonymity. Reporters don’t divulge sources, necessarily. The people downgrading anonymous bloggers are making a different point entirely. To me, it looks like a point about their mental laziness rather than the blogger.

  12. Ethan:

    Great post! I was particularly amused when I got to your comment form at the bottom of the article where it says “Name (required)” :-) . I guess maybe you should change it to “Identity Token (that may no longer be especially useful)” :-)

    - Shawn

  13. Nicely said Ethan, being able to blog about politics anonymously has helped us blog our hearts out with honesty. In some different cases like the Fake Steve Jobs blog, it’s another story with different circumstances.

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