Thursday, March 29, 2007

Further Cursory Thoughts on Pseudonymity

I'm too busy writing and vacationing (it is possible to do both) to write a few labor-intensive emails or write the metabloggiest post on pseudonymity. But I have been thinking about it all week, in the context of the Auto Admit/XOXOth controversy, and Ann Bartow's posts on blogging and misogyny here and here. And so here are a few cursory but verbose thoughts.

Although I'm a pseudonymous blogger, I'm by no means entirely anonymous. I have come out here and there to several bloggers, blawggers, and blog-readers. Only once did I self-initiate contact with a blogger, and that was only because he was a friend of a friend. Mostly, I write in a vacuum, and get a few friendly (or unfriendly, if I blog on feminism) emails a month. Most of the people who write me are graduate students, lawyers, aspiring academics, or fully established academics. They write me out of sympathy, to offer mentoring and support, or to remark on a post. I really enjoy these exchanges. I usually correspond for a few weeks or months pseudonymously, and then when I think I've gotten a feel for them, and if I want to continue writing further and more openly under my own name, I initiate the honor-code agreement that my correspondent not reveal my not-so-secret identity. I don't fear much beyond googability, and I'd like to preserve the idiosyncratic, personal voice with which I write this blog. And I think I've largely succeeded.

I've made some good real life friends through this blog, some surprisingly useful professional contacts (inadvertant, trust me, I'm terrible at schmoozing), and I've really enjoyed my epistolary friendships. Moreover, I've enjoyed meeting these blog buddies and epistolary friends during my travels. It's gone as far as me being a houseguest and to the point of exchanging birthday and Christmas gifts. Blogs form imaginary communities (almost Walter Benjamin-like), but sometimes they can crossover into the real world.

This week I met three law professors (and tomorrow a lawyer)--two were early fans and sponsors of the blog from when it was only a few months old, yet our brief exchanges were entirely blog related and not very personal--and so I only recently revealed my real-life identity to them, in order to make the personal meet up not awkward (can you imagine going around calling yourself "Belle" if that is not really your name?). One professor I only recently got into touch with, but for whatever reason our email exchanges were not merely about the law--they were about fiction, music, life--etc. etc. And I'd like to think that we are friends, and our 8 hour meeting did attest to the fact that one can build friendships from nothing. I don't pretend that this blog thing is very much rooted in interpersonal reality--I write down my thoughts with attempts at wit and flavor, people read, sometimes they respond, and sometimes there's a continuing off-blog exchange. It's not exactly coup de foudre. There is no immediate personal connection. More like coup de...drizzle, a clinging wetness that eventually permeates your skin, breaking through that fourth wall that is the computer screen that exists between the blogger and her reader.

So if the blog world can intersect the real world, if writing and reading can lead to meeting and talking, and if this all has been mostly to good effect, why do I still hide behind the veil of pseudonymity?

For all the reasons I expressed here and here. The greater my readership, the more I'm worried about "googability." I want a big readership, and I want to write these weird, meditative posts that have garnered me my readership, but I don't want to be evaluated professionally for it. It's the typical having my cake and eating it too conundrum. At this stage in my career, I'd like the freedom to explore and express my ideas on various topics, and to write that insider's account of the academy--but I don't think I would so freely under my own name. Moreover, I am very well aware of the misogynist troll and hate mail problem, and I'd rather not deal with that. And because I have more readers (whom I love, and thank you) and the potential for trolls, I now fiercely guard the real-life mundane and private details--and this way, I can write abstractly about the weird stuff.

I don't mind writing about my weird and strict Asian upbringing. I think that's a useful account to disabuse people of the myth that all law academic aspirants are white, upper-class, and Ivy League credentialed, born to be tenure-track. I fought tooth and nail to get here, and I'm proud that I'm here in spite of so many adverse circumstances. I don't mind writing very obliquely about my past personal life--I was once in love, I was once engaged, and I offer no details about the gentleman or what our relationship was like. To do so would breach not only his privacy, but mine. But I will meditate on what it felt like to be in love so young, that you let someone you love borrow books you can't remember the titles of except five years later, randomly, at Barnes and Noble, and you want to cry all over again that you were so young and in love and foolish enough to let him borrow "All The King's Men." That to me, is fine and harms no one.

What I won't do, under the cover of pseudonymity, is the following:

1. Ad hominem attacks.

I don't do character assassination. I will remark critically on what someone is blogging if I think it is in poor taste or offensive, but in a way that is reasonably critical of the message, but not personally the author. Such posts tend to discuss the matter in general and in the larger scope of the genre of blogging, but I try to avoid using pejorative epithets.

2. Write about my current personal life.

I use cumbersome-but-not-very-opaque pseudonyms for everything, but I won't blog about who I'm dating, or even whether I'm dating, or about people in my life in ways that are negative.

French Dandy Dude was a bit of a character in my travelogue of Big Metropolis, but I actually regret that now. While it is tempting, as a solo personal blogger, to use this forum as a demon airing mechanism, it shouldn't be. French Dandy Dude knows my feelings about this, as we've talked about it and our friendship has recovered in strength ten-fold. I think I needed to blog about it in order to articulate how I felt about the trip and then express to him what I needed to change in our friendship. We did talk about it, for hours. And our friendship did change, for the better. Probably the first true "just friends" male friend I have ever had, and that's a great achievement. And so thus I haven't blogged about him recently except in positive ways, and he really is one of my best friends. In fact, I will mention now that I'm looking forward to having his paella and shortbread for lunch upon my return. This is good, because thesis hell supresses my appetite and I hardly eat.

I bring this up because I want to make it clear that I intend to write generally and not specifically. I blogged a bit about law school drama (that it existed, but not the salacious details of the hellish drama it was), and my feelings about my law school's class campaign and very generally about the fundraising efforts of certain colleagues. But I've never named names, and I never revealed intimate details. These were my feelings and impressions, and certainly they are skewed. They are, after all, mine. The objective reality of the law school drama (and certainly I had a role in that, which is why I have no role in that now) and the class campaign might be different, and all of the participants have their own takes on it. These other impressions, or the objective reality (if such exists) don't negate the existence and don't suppress the expression of mine. I will continue to write such impressions (vaguely worded and avoiding individual ad hominem) if so I choose, but I shall certainly be careful to ensure that they don't divulge too much or give the impression of absolute objective truth (I highly doubt anything I write gives such an impression) to those few blog friends to whom I have revealed the personal details of my life. And I am sure the people I have reveale my identity and academic information to don't think that my take on academia or my home institutions is authoritative.

I think my readers are sophisticated and astute enough to realize that on a personal blog, my impressions and reflections are my own, and are not official statements about my school or the people there. And even if they leave with the same impression that I have (positive or negative)--well, that is is the nature of an impression. You have them, you communicate them, people take them and do with them what they will. If there is a contrary impression, then it should be articulated, but my impression should not be silenced as if it did not exist and could not be true. Here, I will go with that Holmesian "marketplace of ideas": counter speech with more speech. My comment threads are open, and though I reserve the right to edit my comments if they offend, I generally don't take down contrary posts. I am, in the end, intellectually honest enough to admit there are many sides to the same story. That is the nature of disagreement, and I hope it can be cordial. I generally go with "reasonable minds may disagree" if such is the case. However, I do ask that those who know personal details about me do not reveal them--that would be petty, and I would indeed edit those posts.

3. Use real names.

It is getting to the point of ridiculous, but I don't like to reveal where I am traveling or with whom I am meeting. It seems unfair to the people I meet to use their names, without revealing my name. And I generally don't like to reveal my geographic location, institutionally or while traveling. It just makes it too easy for people to guess, and I fear some random troll commenting and revealing my personal details.

4. Put up a picture.

I just don't think it's relevant. I have described myself enough (a short, petite, Asian woman) that I don't think much more is necessary. If you plumb the archives I mentioned various chic purchases and getting haircuts, but I don't do that anymore. I just can't be bothered, and I hate sounding trivial--communicating such things in real life sounds like small talk, but over the blog it just sounds stupid. I don't mind showing my epistolary friends (if they are potentially real friends) what I look like, and it's always fun asking those you meet if you look like what they thought you would look like. But it just doesn't seem pertinent here. I like the picture of the fake Belle. It's the spirit of the epistolary, romantic, olde school part of the Real Life Alter Ego. I just wish that there was another picture in a power suit for the other side.

5. Stop being my weird, quirky, idiosyncratic, off-beat voiced self.

Hey, it's a personal blog. Where else can you do this in the academy and still have people read you and write you and want to talk to you?