The Metaphysics of Pseudonymity

I’m glad to see Ed Whelan apologize for having outed pseudonymous blogger “Publius,” though obviously the correct way to handle this kind of situation is to not do the outing in the first place. Once the deed is done, it’s hard to take back.

For some larger thoughts on the ethics of the issue, I’d recommend what Julian Sanchez has to say. But a separate point I would make is that the whole notion that you might want to “unmask” a pseudonymous internet persona with a longstanding and stable presence on the web strikes me as partaking of certain slightly odd presuppositions. The thinking seems to be that some almost magical power is held by knowing the real name of a blogger. This seems to me to be about on a par with the stories (are they even true?) you sometimes hear about tribes who think that you can steal someone’s soul by taking a photograph, or that if you learn the true names of animals you can command them to do your bidding.

I mean, it’s not as if the fact that my name is “Matthew Yglesias” is a particularly interesting or important fact about me (indeed, it’s not even on my birth certificate, though it is my real legal name since I was a few days old). Arguably, various biographical facts about me are relevant. I’ve written that I’m from New York City, that I went to Dalton and Harvard, that my dad’s a writer, etc. But I could be lying about that stuff consistent with using my accurate name. And plenty of people who do blog under their real names are not as forthcoming with biographical information. But the point is that if the idea is that someone is actively misrepresenting themselves on the Internet—blogging about climate change without ever mentioning that you work in the PR department for a coal company—that’s clearly a problem. But the problem is the misrepresentation rather than the pseudonym. And, indeed, this trick can be pulled off just as easily with full name and biographical details. After all, you know all about me, but you have no idea who CAPAF’s donors are, and the same applies to just about everyone you read who works at a DC-based non-profit.

And of course it’s a fallacy to assume a perfect identity between any Internet persona and its author(s). A whole bunch of different writers collaborate on producing Think Progress and they write in what I think is a pretty uniform voice. But like the writers behind The Economist, they’re actually all beautiful unique snowflakes who are often quite different from the TP persona. And by the same token, Matthew Yglesias “in real life” is not the same as the character I play on the Internet. On the other hand, I’m not sure it’s quite right to say that the in-the-flesh MY is “real” and the on-the-Internet one is somehow “fake.” This blog has existed for over seven years now, and it’s almost certainly the case that more people “know” the persona than know me. And I think that should hold all the more strongly for any prominent pseudonymous bloggers. The well-known, stable character is a person with integrity, influence, a personality, a reputation, social connections, etc., the same as anyone else. To be sure, they may be artifice in terms of the presentation of the character. But our various “in real life” self-presentations (to a boss, to a first date, to family, to friends, to people we run into at a high school reunion) involve artifice as well.