An object lesson in pseudonymity and internet privacy


That's all you get here, folks!

Dr. Isis is a brilliant physiologist at an R-1.  She is also a married woman with a toddler whom she refers to as Little Isis.  Some of her posts talk about Little Isis’s adorable antics, but mostly she writes about science, science blogging, and shoes.  Here’s a lovely tweet e-mail she received the other day:

I hope someone does to your baby what you do to your mice.

Isn’t that a great thing to read as you’re settling into work in the morning?  Oh, and by the way, you pathetically stupid trolls:  Isis doesn’t work with mice.

It seems to me that feminist bloggers, for their own safety and sanity (not to mention, the safety of their families), either have to choose to hide their real life professional identity, like GayProf, Notorious Girl, Ph.D., Squadratomagico, Dr. Crazy, Prof. Susurro, and Dr. Isis, or they have to obscure their personal lives (like your faithful women’s history blogger and Barbie aficionado, Historiann.)  Prof. Susurro had a nice post on blog etiquette yesterday.  If you truly aren’t a jerk and don’t want to be mistaken for one, you could do worse than to follow her advice.

The advantage to going the completely pseudonymous route is that you can dish more about the world around you–you can, if you so choose, complain about your colleagues, your institution, your workplace directly, and you can (if you choose to) share more details about your personal life.  The disadvantage of this choice is that you can’t blog specifically about your intellectual work.  The advantages and disadvantages to being an “out” blogger like me, Tenured Radical, and Knitting Clio, are exactly the opposite:  you can write from a clear position of being informed by your particular research specialties, but you should probably draw different lines around how much of your workplace and personal life you share.  TR and KC share more about their personal lives than I do, and TR has dealt with a lot more personal nastiness in the comments as a result.

Needless to say, incidents like the one Dr. Isis reported just make me even clearer about the rightness of my choice not to say that much about my personal life.  I recently told you that I am married to a man, but that’s as much as I feel safe in revealing on the blog.  You’ll never find a photograph of me here, and I’ve tried to keep them off line elsewhere.  So, it’s not that I’m being coy–those of you who have met me know what the deal is, and I trust you not to make reference to personal matters in the comments.  As I’ve learned, there are a lot of misogynist creeps who aren’t above threatening someone’s young children or using details about their personal lives in aggressive attacks in comments on their blogs, or on other blogs.  As Tenured Radical once wisely said to me, “the mere fact we have blogs and readers is a provocation to some men.”  I know a lot of you think I’m irrationally hostile to social networking technologies–but the ugly twitter e-mail from some animal rights nut that Dr. Isis received is an important reason why.  Isis might “friend” someone who turns out to be an animal rights absolutist, and then that guy finds out exactly where she lives and what her family looks like.  That’s not information that needs to be shared with random a-holes on the internets.

Of course we can’t know for sure in all cases, but in my experience the people who feel the need to push their way onto feminist blogs and/or make nasty, hostile, and demeaning comments present as men on-line.  But, it doesn’t really matter what the chromosomal makeup of trolls on feminist blogs really is–whether they’re male or female, they clearly feel free to say ugly, hostile, and demeaning things on feminist women’s blogs that they don’t on nonfeminist and/or men’s blogs.

0 thoughts on “An object lesson in pseudonymity and internet privacy

  1. This is an absolutely horrific story. FWIW, though, the nasty message came via e-mail. She tweeted her response. So I don’t think the social-networking caveat applies here.

    That said, I completely agree with your denunciation of such trolls.


  2. If I knew then what I know now, my blog would have been totally different (and I am not talking about using Catwoman comic book covers, either).

    It turns out that there are really great people in the blogsphere. But there are also really crazy people in the blogosphere who feel that the internet gives them options to act out their craziness without penalty.


  3. That response to Isis is so fucked up, I don’t even know where to begin! What is wrong with people?!

    Over at my place, I’ve had relatively few troll infestations, and I suspect it’s actually related to my pseudonymity. It’s easier for “squadrato magico” to seem unreal than someone with a real identity, someone who is “out,” as you, TR, and KC are. I think you’re making the right decision to be a bit cagey about your personal details — there are some scary people out there.


  4. GayProf: How would your blog be different, if you knew then what you know now?

    Squadrato: I’m glad to hear you’ve been reasonably unaffected by trolls. And, interesting point about the pseudonymity. I hadn’t considered that it might be more fun and satisfying to attack or harrass someone you know is a real person, compared to harassing a pseudonymous blogger who may or may not correlate with hir creator. That makes it even creepier and more disturbing!


  5. Scary! And I am so glad that my research doesn’t bring out the violent crazies or make me have to go through security every day to get into my lab! (my “lab” being the local coffee shop plus a book plus my brain, I guess. I still kinda wish I had fancy shiny machines sometimes though…)

    PS did you see she linked to “The 13 most Unintentionally Disturbing Children’s Toys”? I thought of you…


  6. Oh, I know Sisyphus–that “lab” was my dream too. I only became a “professor” because once upon a time I thought that “The Professor” on Gilligan’s Island was the coolest guy around. I had images of wearing a science coat and being surrounded by beakers of volatile chemicals and inventing cool things!

    But then, I met algebra too young and without glasses to see the blackboard clearly, and it put the zap on my math/science brain, and a great career was foiled at age 12.


  7. Re: attacks being more fun when the target is real… It seems to me that most trolls post anonymously (a recent diatribe over at TR’s place springs to mind; I also suspect sock-puppetry on the part of the commenter… but I digress). They post anonymously because they don’t want to be associated with what they say; perhaps the very notion of accountability freaks them out or pushes their buttons? The reactions, perhaps, are more “real”… someone posting anonymously -gets- that other people posting anonymously may not be who/what they say they are, so how would they know they were getting a real reaction?

    I’m still in deep consideration about the pseudonymousness of my own commenting and blogging. There are positives and negatives to each, and once the genie is out of the bag (cat out of the bottle? I’m tired…), there’s no stuffing it back in.


  8. While attacking Dr. Isis children was indefensible, I wish I was surprised/shocked by what was said. These comments are far more common than we want to think, mostly b/c people delete them without comment more often than they critique them. When it is a threat against oneself or one’s children, it is hard to know what to do: will talking antagonize them more? will remaining silent negate an important paper trail?

    I always think of my blog like this “I change the names to protect the innocent” and my experiences with trolls turned deadly or vindictive is pretty high, so I think it was a good and sometimes necessary choice.

    One thing I learned: if you use an identifiable name, real or imagined, it makes it easier for targeted trolling on your blog. When I named my first blog, tongue planted firmly in my cheek, it never occurred to me that people who rant about racism, women, or even anti-intellectuals who hate on academics or certain disciplines would come a runnin’ or that changing it would solve some of that.


  9. Digger: that’s a brilliant read of the provocations of “out” bloggers that trolls imagine. I know the recent thread at TR’s you’re thinking of, and yes, I too suspect that it’s the same guy who talks in different squeaky voices as he manipulates his sock puppets…I’ve got one of those too, but I just delete, delete, and delete. Frequently, it’s people who have been banned under their RL names or regular pseudonyms and e-mail adresses who think they’re being super-sneaky by using different names hiding behind fake IP addresses.


    Susurro, I hear you on the “targeted trolling.” As you say, it can happen whether you’re “out” or using a pseudonym–people get your number and they just won’t let go!


  10. Well, Bookbag–congragulations! I don’t think it’s an absolute necessity for *everyone* to remain anonymous. That’s a decision people need to make for themselves. But I think people–especially XX people–need to think about what they want to reveal about their personal and professional lives.

    Some pseudonymous bloggers have told me that they’re still quite circumspect with respect to what they blog about their work environments, and I think that caution is appropriate. I’ve noticed that male bloggers sometimes write freely about their family members, without considering that their family members probably don’t enjoy the same personal safety that they do as adult men.

    I just want people to consider some of the worst-case scenarios that could happen when you open an electronic portal onto your life and perhaps that of your family life, too.


  11. You can have it both ways with multiple blogs.

    Righteous Rants is for being mad when I want to be without appearing unprofessional to patients and colleagues. I can bust managed care’s chops without worrying about getting booted off panels. I can muse on the therapist’s experience without spilling my counter-transferential guts all over my reputation. Also I can, if I wish, get real radical without freaking out my practice partners or my more politically conservative patients. Best of all, I can use cuss-words.

    I have a personal one which is anonymous and mainly serves the function of (a) giving me an identity under which I can respond on a personal, “me, too”, level to others’ posts, and (b)a personal diary of sorts which serves as a nice vent for me. There are also a couple of pseudonymous small special-interest/hobby blogs. Patients don’t need to know anything personal about the therapist, so these are pseudonymous more to protect them from boundary breaches than to protect me from the general public.

    Finally, I have one under my real name, at which readership is mostly limited to colleagues, students, and patients. There, I stick pretty close to the persona I present at the office–which is to say, it’s never personal. This is the only one that connects to Twitter or Facebook. The Facebook connection is one-way: I cross-post blog entries to Facebook, but do not have a Facebook badge on the blog. Tweets go to the blog, so I never Tweet anything personal.

    Isis recommends that anonymous blogs each have their own blogger accounts and e-mail addresses, used ONLY for that identity. This not only makes it harder for people to track you down, but also helps prevent cross-contamination between identities.

    I would never “friend” anyone I only “knew” through my pseudonymous blogs because, obviously, that would blow my anonymity. Nor would I ever friend someone who was just a commenter: S/he’d need a well-established track record of hir own blog and I’d need to have interacted with her/him there under my own name for months, at least. After which, they’d have to be Facebook friends and Twitter contacts for a good while longer before I’d ever consider meeting in person.

    Ironically, the only one of my blogs which has attracted an Anonymous troll is the one in my name, and he is someone I know professionally. At work, he is always polite to my face but makes snarky comments about me behind my back. He tries to put other people up to calling me out. If he is at all typical of the Anonymous subspecies of troll, then we might theorize that trollism is primarily about hostility and cowardice more than it is about particular political or religious views.

    I only publish my troll’s comments when he actually addresses the topic (a rare event, but it does happen) in an appropriate manner (even rarer). Red herrings, straw men, and similar intellectually dishonest tactics get deleted. And I only reply when we have some point of near-agreement (rarer still!) that I can use as a springboard, because of course a fight is what these jerks want. In other words, I try to be careful to reinforce behaviors I want repeated, and not to reinforce unwanted behaviors.


  12. I saw the comments about Dr. Isis over at scienceblogs. Like others, sadly unsurprised.

    I’ve only had a few real trolling attempts on my blogs, mostly coming from my more political posts regarding abortion rights or feminism. Those subjects get some trolls all hot and bothered.

    I mostly get threats that these commenters will “out” me to my university. Trolls of the world? My dean and chair both know about all of my blogging identities and are cool with that. Still, if someone threatened my family, I’d be talking to the police and post-haste because there are, sadly, far too many crazies in this world to take that lightly.


  13. Jancie–that’s a great point, and one that anonymous/pseudonymous bloggers should consider. Notorious, Ph.D. told me this summer that while she is pseudonymous, she writes her blog *as though* she’s “out,” which means that she’s very circumspect about dishing about her immediate work environment and job frustrations. I think that’s a very good policy for pseudonymous/anonymous bloggers to consider. Just because you start out that way doesn’t mean that the genie will stay in the bottle–see Tenured Radical for the reasons how and why she switched from pseudonymity to being an “out” blogger.

    I have to say I love the concept of being “outed” as a feminist or abortion-rights supporter. As if those are such essentially corrupt and/or scandalous political philosophies! Isn’t it sad, Janice, to reflect on our lives and to realize how very, pathetically little it takes to make us seem really out there as feminist women?

    Dr. Righteous, thanks for your comment and explanation of the two-blogs concept. Yes, training commenters on a blog is much like training dogs or children: reward the good behavior, don’t reward or reinforce the bad behavior. Every time I ban some jerk, I get more comments because the lurkers appreciate a little police action when someone is making the space unsafe (or is just being obnoxious.) My commenters come here for a conversation, not to be attacked or insulted by some a-hole.


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  15. Great post, Historiann, and it’s horrifying what happened to Dr. Isis. I think that some of us pseudonymous bloggers use both the methods you cite: not dishing too much about work AND hiding IRL identities as best we can.


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  17. I used to blog ALOT and had many readers for awhile on Yahoo, but all the weird comments, personal attacks (which weren’t really that many on the blog), and people who seem to mistake ‘on-line vs reality’ were just too much. Two years later I still have people who post to my Facebook page anytme I update and it is always some thing weird. How did these people function before the internet?

    Read a rant & rave section of almost any craigslist city and it will show clearly how many truly sick individuals we have running loose.


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