Where everybody knows your name
Posted on June 27, 2009
This is something I’ve been meaning to talk about for a while, but as others have already kick-started the discussion, I’m going to do something I rarely do and actually blog about something that everyone else is blogging about. (By which I mean, is it just me or does anyone else get fed up with seeing basically the same article being regurgitated all over the blogosphere? And also, is it just me, or do other people find it weird that so many bloggers respond to other people’s work on their own blogs rather than taking part in the discussion thread on the original piece……and yes, I realise I’m about to do exactly that myself, but it’s easier to respond in one place here than to comment on every other blog that’s now discussing this subject)
And now I’ve just realised I’ve written a whole paragraph without even giving a clue as to what I’m actually wittering on about!
Ahem. It’s the debate about anonymity, and what if any are the differences between those of us who blog using our real names, and those who blog using pseudonyms.
First off I’ve got to say I found the title of Heart’s piece slightly offensive, in that Real Life Activism V Anonymous Internet Writing implies that those who write anonymously can’t also be real life activists, an assertion which from my own experience, and from my real-life knowledge of plenty of anonymous Internet writers is quite patently untrue. I think the title and the piece that follows also sets up a false hierarchy among bloggers, implying that those of us who use our real names are somehow better or more worthy or braver than those who write anonymously, whereas I’d contend that the risks we’re taking may be different, but ultimately we’re all taking risks of some sort, and one doesn’t necessarily trump the other.
For anyone who doesn’t know my backstory, up until July 2007 I was an anonymous commenter on the Internet, contributing mainly to the Guardian’s Comment is Free (aka CiF) site and using the pseudonym Mswoman, which I still use for my below the line contributions. Then one day I received an email from the editor of the site, saying she’d been impressed with my writing/comments, and asking if I’d like to submit an article. So I did. CiF liked it, and from there my long-dreamed of career as a writer was launched.
But there was just one hitch.
In order to publish my piece, the deal was that I gave up my anonymous identity, and wrote for CiF under my real name. Oh yes, and provide them with a photo of myself.
Looking back, if I’d had a bit more nous about me I’d have made a name up. Obviously CiF didn’t want me using an off-the-wall pseudonym like Mswoman, but I could have probably got away with a pen name, even a small change like substituting Ellis for Elliott for instance. But to be honest the possibility of doing that didn’t even cross my mind at the time. I did think long and hard about whether I was prepared to give up my anonymity, and came close to deciding it wasn’t worth the hassle; that the Guardian were unlikely to ask me for more pieces, and that if that was the case I was giving away Mswoman’s identity for nothing. But in the end the excitement of being published by a major site like CiF overrode all those considerations, and I acquiesced.
But it is something that still bothers me from time to time. So for example when I started this blog last year I began by posting on it as Mswoman, but then I decided that that was pointless because everyone already knew who I was from CiF, so I switched back to using my real name.
But do I think I face more risks now that I’m not anonymous? Or do I think that blogging under my real name means I’m a braver person than someone who uses a screen handle?
No, not particularly.
As anyone who’s been following the story about the shameful exposure by the Times of the blogger NightJack will be aware, anonymous bloggers run the risk of having their identities exposed anyway. It happened to Zoe Margolis, and it’s happened to others: there are some nasty spiteful people out there, and if someone is determined enough to find out who you are they will. Bloggers all give little clues away in their writing, like where they live, the kinds of jobs they do and so on, and it doesn’t take much for someone with a grudge and some time on their hands to piece all of that together. And when and if that does happen, as in NightJack’s case, there can be huge implications for that person’s career and sometimes even their personal life.
It’s a risk that I, and others who already blog under their real names, don’t have to worry about. And I think we’re lucky, because that’s one worry I’d hate to have hanging over me.
The big downside for me about having to use my real name is concerns about protecting my family. A couple of weeks ago on CiF, a commenter who had been looking at this site opined that I was obviously an unnatural uncaring bint (or words to that effect), because I never mention my kids. Well actually I do, although not often I’ll grant you. But if I don’t blog much about them there’s a reason for that: the same reason that you will never find any mention from me online of my children’s names. Which is that I signed up for this gig: they didn’t. I chose to put myself out there for anyone and everyone to hurl abuse at or whatever; my children did not. And I respect their right to privacy, and their right to live their own lives without Internet or real life trolls associating them with me and giving them crap for it.
And yes, blogging and writing under my real name has put some restrictions on me: I have to think really carefully about some of the things I’m prepared to reveal about my own life experiences for example, not because I want to “curry favour” with anyone, but because there are some conversations I haven’t had yet with the people who matter to me, and I would rather have those conversations before revealing all on the Internet: some of that might take time.
And there are certain places, or at least events, that I can no longer turn up to on my own and know with absolute certainty that I’ll be safe at. Certain public meetings for example, or demonstrations. Nowadays I either go along to these things with a group of friends, or I just don’t go at all, whereas before I could blend comfortably into the walls or the crowd, safe in the knowledge that people either didn’t have a clue or they didn’t give a flying fuck who I was.
The scariest thing that’s happened since being “out”?
This was actually just before CiF and just before writing-on-the-Internet-using-my-real-name.
I did an interview for the BBC about abortion. I was filmed sitting in my back garden talking about the abortion I’d had, and about the need for better services for women seeking abortions. I missed it when it was aired, but I understand it went out on News 24 during a lunchtime bulletin.
Anyway, a couple of weeks later I was coming out of my workplace when I was stopped by a guy with a big old wooden crucifix dangling from his neck:
“I saw you on the BBC” he said
“You were talking about abortion”
And then he gave me a lecture about how god was watching me and knew everything about me.
I didn’t argue with him, I didn’t tell him to fuck off and mind his own business: I was on my own and scared shitless to be frank. But I did ask him one question that was bugging me: “Did you just recognise me as I came out the door, or did you recognise me when you saw me on the news and know that I worked here?”
He said he recognised me as soon as he saw me on the telly.
And the question I didn’t ask, because I probably couldn’t have dealt with the answer was: “So did you come here today specifically to wait for me, or was it just coincidence that our paths crossed?”
Instead I thanked him (yes thanked him!) for his concerns about my spiritual well being, and hightailed it out of there as fast as I could.
But incidents like that can happen to anyone who’s prepared to stand up and speak out about the things they believe in, and I don’t think it matters what name they’re using when they do it.
As Ren points out, the risk of being recognised and of having to deal with hostility or worse from complete strangers is just as real for those who write using established net handles as it for those of us using our real names. I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to reveal their identity online: I understand perfectly the reasons why some people can’t or don’t want to reveal who they are, and I certainly don’t think that I’m a better person or a more righteous blogger just because I no longer write under cover.