Blogging and anonymity: Can you say what you like when you’re not being you?

Having always been an opinionated sod, I used to spend a lot of time writing to newspapers. This was back in the days when I’d read them in hard copy and didn’t have forums or comment streams to respond to. I’d always sign off using my real name, because that’s just what you do with letters. Usually my letters would get published and it would freak me out, a bit, but not too much. After all, my parents would usually hear “your daughter had something controversial to say about abortion in the Guardian” second-hand from someone they met in town and they’d never look into it further (since that would have involved actually buying the Guardian).

When reading online and adding comments became more popular, I carried on using my real name for a while, because it never crossed my mind not to. It was only when I became aware that complete strangers ended up having vicious verbal fights that I began to think twice. Still, I felt there was something quite noble about refusing to resort to a pseudonym. It meant you were standing by your ideas and taking responsibility for yourself in every medium.

One thing I ought to mention at this point is that in real life I have an unusual name. It’s not a particularly interesting one, but it’s one that I don’t think anyone else has. It’s the kind of name where, if you met me briefly and then heard my name mentioned again in a completely unexpected context, you wouldn’t think “oh, that’ll be a different [my name]”. You’d think “crikey, I’d never have thought [my name] would be into that, but it’s gotta be the same person” (i.e. Dave Gorman I’m not).

Several years ago I had a letter published in a national newspaper, alongside several others by different authors. They were all on the same controversial issue, taking broadly the same position, but each making different individual points. A blogger took exception to this, and decided to “take on” the correspondents in a post of his own. Alas, he found it impossible to google the others and get the dirt, since they all had nondescript names and he might have ended up accusing the wrong people. The only person upon whom you could launch a vaguely reliable attack was me – he actually admitted this in his post. Thus the whole thing ended up being about me alone, via a highly selective trawl through everything I’d ever written over the previous ten years (including things which, if he’d asked me, I wouldn’t even stand by myself – I’m happy to ‘fess up when I’ve been a twat. But he didn’t ask). There were things which disproved certain of the wilder claims he made about my political beliefs, but he missed those out. He included other stuff, though, such as the title of the thesis I was writing and why it was a shit title and musings as to why universities let tossers like me in anyhow. Those adding comments to his blog agreed: what a terrible student I must be! (the original letter had bugger all to do with any of this). Anyhow, I discovered the whole thing one evening, alone, drunk and idly seeing what would happen if I googled myself. See? That’s where off-your-face vanity gets you.

If he’d just criticised my letter – that one letter – that would have been fine. I already knew some people didn’t agree with it anyhow, since I’d written it in response to one such person. He could even have said I was a bigoted moron for thinking the way I did, because yes, I knew that would be some people’s interpretation. But that’s not what he did. He suggested my entire life was a total joke and he did it a) because he’s mean and b) because he could since I have a stupid name.

I don’t know if that post is still there. If I were to google myself again, I’d imagine it’d be many pages further along the search results than it used to be, what with me having done stuff myself and not being that interesting a target in the grand scheme of things. My partner found the post before me. He wrote a comment, but the blogger never responded. I considered responding myself, but the sniping about my thesis had upset me more than anything (it was back when I’d failed the first time around, although thankfully, the blogger was not aware of that. A tiny part of me was terrified he was right). I thought about returning to the blog once I had passed and once my book was published, just to go “ner! Where’s your book, sucker?” In the end I never did, because once I had achieved these things it seemed unimportant and petty. I didn’t want to look like I cared and, largely, I didn’t. But by god, if that experience taught me one thing, it was of the value of pseudonyms if you want to maintain some kind of life in online debating circles and you happen to have a name like mine.

The thing I wonder now, though, is whether using a pseudonym means you should restrict what you say about those who are still using their real names. I worry it creates an imbalance; you are hiding and they are not. I mean, if you are responding to them on a single topic and not googling their whole life stories to use as “evidence” against them, it’s probably okay, right? It still leaves me with a sense of unease.

I suppose on one level you could say that people who make money by putting their names to opinions are already advantaged compared to those of us who make money from other things. For instance, if I were to put my name to opinions akin to those of Richard Littlejohn, Carole Malone or Melanie Phillips, it would seriously affect my professional standing. But these people get paid thousands to write these things; being controversial enhances their professional status. It wouldn’t enhance mine (not that I dream of saying the things Richard Littlejohn comes out with; but even the things I say wouldn’t play well with everyone, and I know that). I don’t feel guilty about criticising these people; to me they’re fair game. It’s more problematic when it’s not the big fish. What do you do in a situation such as that? Where does the power lie?

Right now, I appear to have had something of a succès de scandale by attacking a book written by one of the smaller fish. As successes go, it’s very, very minor; daily hits on this blog are modest and this particular post seems to have gained more hits after the main body of the offending text was removed than before. Added to that people have been genuinely upset and it’s all way too much hassle. If this is success, I’d rather have failure (or, ideally, proper success, which would involve no one being upset and, as a bonus, me getting some money). But hey, to be fair to myself, I have at no point googled anyone and attempted to find out “the truth” about anything. I like to think it’s because I’m not a total cow, but perhaps I’m just not arsed enough to be that mean. And anyhow, no one involved has as stupid a name as me.

But that, anyhow, is the reason why I’m Glosswitch. Which again is a stupid name. So I’ve fucked up once more. Should’ve gone for yummymummy27890 or something similar. Ah well. Perhaps that’ll be the next me.


5 thoughts on “Blogging and anonymity: Can you say what you like when you’re not being you?

  1. As I know your real name I am totally off to google you now. My real maiden name was a school in south east Asia always found that before finding me, married name you find me. There are others but I am most googleable. Bugger, I love your glosswitch name. Would you be offended if I said it suits you?

    1. Nooooooo! I’ve been a right idiot in the past! Don’t do it! Although tbh I think most of it would be about the book. And possibly some articles I wrote when I was younger and an even more judgmental prat. All the other people you’ll get will be my immediate family (surname was concocted by my nan in the 1940s – I only found this out recently, used to think we were some amazing dying-out clan).

  2. Interesting. I’m not sure that using your real name is much more laudable or credible or whatever than using a pseudonym. After all, it’s not anonymity. I’ve been using this pseudonym (such as it is) for about a decade now and in terms of the places I use it, I could go on a rampage with much less consequence under my own name than with it. It might not cost me my job, but it would cost me quite a lot else.

    The mistake I seem to have made with it in terms of google+ or being taken seriously or whatever is that it’s not a pseudonym that doesn’t look like a pseudonym. Still. That’s probably a rant for another day.

    I like your blog btw.

      1. See Mary Beard’s attitude is the sort of thing that annoys me. I don’t think she realises the difference between people interacting in an online community, which she seems to be saying the commenters on her blog are, and those randomly commenting in a place where they have no ties to anyone else and no reason to back off. It’s the difference between annoying your neighbours in a village where you expect to live for generations and annoying your neighbours in a city where you have rented a place for a few months. Sort of thing.

        Anyway. I am with what the Guardian’s GrrlScientist wrote about the G+ ‘we only accept boring pseudonyms’ fiasco:

        Shame about the rest of the post!

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