Legitimate Pseudonymity

There’s been a recent brouhaha in the political blogosphere about whether or not it’s ethical to publish under a pseudonym. And a lot of the debate seems to me to have missed an important point.

There’s a difference between random, anonymous pot-shot behavior and creating a secondary persona. It could very well be that a writer has good reason to create a second self to be the vehicle for expression. The key to this facet of identity is reputation.

In order to gain any traction in the marketplace of ideas, one must cultivate a consistent persona, over time. In effect, the writer has to create a separate identity — but it’s an identity just the same. Its reputation stands on its behavior and its words. If the author is invested at all in that identity, then its reputation is very important to the author, just like their “real” identity and reputation.

The Internet is full of examples where regular people have joined a discussion board, or started an anonymous blog or Live Journal and, before they know it, they have friendships and connections that are important to them in that parallel world of writing, sharing and discussion. Whether those people know the writer’s real name or not becomes beside the point. (Sherry Turkle and others have been exploring these ideas about identity online for many years now.)

What publishing has provided us, definitely since the printing press and especially since the Internet, is the ability to express ideas as *ideas* with very little worry about real-life baggage, anxieties, expectations and relationships getting in the way. It’s a marketplace where the ideas and their articulation can stand on their own.

Of course, history shows a long tradition of pseudonyms. Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton wrote under pseudonyms in order to make their points (Franklin as “Mrs Silence Dogood” and later — as an open secret — “Poor Richard”) and Hamilton as “Publius” (which happens to be the pseudonym adopted by the blogger at the center of the disagreement mentioned above). Other writers modified or changed their names so as to improve their chances of publication or being taken seriously. Marian Evans was able to publish brutally, psychologically frank fiction, partly because she published under the name George Eliot. And Samuel Clemens famously wrote under the name Mark Twain, as a way to reinvent his whole identity. While all of these don’t fit a precise pattern, the point is that publishing has always had generally accepted innovations involving the writer’s identity.

None of this is to say that anonymity doesn’t come with a downside. It certainly does. But lumping all anonymous or pseudonym-written writers into the same category doesn’t help.

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  • http://comhradh.phillygoth.net comhradh

    I had an online pseudonym for over 10 years before I dropped it. The real fun was the people that knew me in real life as my screen name and were surprised when I dropped it in favor of my real name.

    And then I picked up another one that is obviously a pseudonym.