April 22, 2003


Via Matthew Yglesias (who now has comments, along with a new photo), Amitai Etzioni decrees that "anonymity is anti-Communitarian." Anonymity, Etzioni writes, "makes for much poorer conversations, meager relationships and impoverished communities. People are free to disregard the feelings of others, to deceive, and to prevent the formation of the true connections that result from gradually getting to know more and more about a person." And "above all," he adds, "they are able to avoid assuming responsibility for what they are saying."

Since I'm not a communitarian (though I hasten to add, not a libertarian either, and probably closer to the communitarian end of the spectrum on many issues) I'm not overly concerned about the anti-Communitarian charge. Still, the notion that those who use aliases "don't dare to show their true colors" does hit a nerve. The fact is, I don't feel entirely comfortable using a pseudonym for this site. There is a certain kind of anonymous internet character that I think of as the AnonyMouse: the person who is often, I suspect, rather timid and nonconfrontational in real life but who uses the internet's cloak of anonymity to flame and bait and provoke while hiding from responsibility. Well, ok, I really don't see myself as timid and certainly not as non-confrontational in real life, and I don't believe I'm a flame-and-bait type on the internet (though I do love a good argument). Still, I worry that there is an AnonyMouse quality to the decision to go anonymous.

But if I don't feel entirely comfortable using a pseudonym, I would feel even less comfortable using my real name (which I briefly considered doing, before deciding against it, or perhaps, before mousing out). I gave a rather tongue-in-cheek explanation for my anonymity when I first started this blog. I suppose the very fact that I felt the need to address this issue is a measure of my anxiety over it. This is not about the expression of political dissent, obviously, but about the expression of a kind of dissent concerning the academy. A far less serious business than politics, admittedly, perhaps even a rather silly business altogether. But serious enough for me at the moment. Since I don't enjoy academic freedom or job security, I don't feel safe making certain kinds of statements. I see my options as either adopting a pseudonym or remaining silent on the very issues that are the main focus of this blog.

This concern over anonymity intersects with the issue of blogging and truth (and/or perhaps blogging and authenticity), which is the subject of an interesting discussion over at Liz Lawley's. As I see it, I tell the truth on this blog (the truth as I see it, needless to say), but not the whole truth. I sometimes talk about my personal life, for example, but there's only so far I will go in that direction, even under cover of a pseudomym. I have my limits, most of us do (the people who don't have limits are the ones who really worry me). I believe (though I could be wrong about this) most of the people who read my stuff would agree they are encountering a more or less coherent identity: I'm not trying on different masks, self-consciously experimenting with a dizzying array of contingent identities, or doing anything at all theoretically glamorous or sexy. Grant the decentring of the subject, the death of the author (which I actually won't grant, but that's another topic), and so on and so forth, the person who writes the entries on this blog is as unitary a subject as a person can be, and that person is me using a pseudonym.

In a related vein, Henry Farrell picks up on the criticism of anonymity to propose a rather different model than that of Etzioni's communitarian society (er, communitarian community? or is that redundant?): that of the eighteenth-century coffeehouse as a sphere of sociablility. I find this very attractive as an idea/ideal of the kind of Habermasian public sphere that the blogosphere might provide.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at April 22, 2003 02:21 AM

I just found your blog through Henry Farrell and am off to read his thoughts on this subject next. Your writing is lucid and witty and I am certain you are a fine lecturer. Perhaps with tenure we may some day know who you are! I had some rather grouchy things to say about anonymous academic bloggers (linked through the URL above) and I am not yet finished grouching. That said, my grouchiness comes in large part because I faced the same decision you did and wonder what my choice might mean for my future employment prospects. Have I ****** myself? My calculation is that I will make more friends and allies than I will lose, that "big mouth" is my lot in life and I may as well name it and claim it and, finally, that alea jacta est so I might as well enjoy this precarious freedom.

Posted by: Nicholas Packwood at April 22, 2003 01:52 PM

As long as there are sectors of society that are essential to society at largebut closed to external review--like academia--there's a need for and a value in anonymity. People who find themselves on the inside of such sectors and who find problems have to have a way to report on them without fear of reprisal.

Posted by: Curtiss Leung at April 22, 2003 03:31 PM

Which is to say: keep up the good work! And don't let the AnonyMice get you down.

Posted by: Curtiss Leung at April 22, 2003 03:36 PM

Thanks very much for your comment. I've read your observations on anonymity: very interesting and not so very grouchy. I'm going to write a longer reply when I get a chance.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 22, 2003 03:36 PM

One of our candidates today did his job talk on a similar issue, providing an interesting statistical picture of the breakdown of those who find community online. He provided some interesting evidence that it was those who were not finding community in the real world. Ok, I know, not exactly a huge shock there. However, many had suggested that the net either (a) attracted those who were already community-oriented, or (b) forced out real community and replaced it with something fake.

He found, instead, that those who reported their ties to the virtual community were particularly strong were also more likely to be young, non-white, and disconnected to their local physical community. He also said this crossed class lines, talking about discussions he had had with those who had been raised in a middle-class household but were now working-class. The net allowed him to participate in some form of middle-class community, despite his disconnect from it in the "real world."

He called these folks the "Anonymizers." Those who used the anonymity of the net to pursue their communitarian goals; just the opposite of Etzioni's perspective.

Posted by: Alex at April 23, 2003 12:04 AM

So maybe I'm not an AnonyMouse but rather an Anonymizer? God help me...!

I think it's fair to assume that just about anyone who takes the time and trouble to keep a blog is looking for some sort of online community that he or she is not finding in the real world. This doesn't necessarily mean that the blogger lacks any sort real-life community, of course. The blogger may inhabit a rich social world that takes care of needs/interests A and B, but still go online for need/interest C. I think the phenomenon of academic blogging, for example, speaks to the lack of real-world intellectual sociability that many faculty (adjunct, tenure-track and tenured alike) often complain of.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 23, 2003 12:17 AM

Just a comment for Mr. Packwood: the calculation that you will make more friends than enemies by outspoken comments is true, but that will not protect you. It only takes one person on a committee or a dean's office (or just the vague reputation of being a "troublemaker") to keep one from getting a job or a promotion. The best protection is to have no public opinions whatsoever on anything that has anything to do with the academy. Wring your hands in obscure jargon about something that everyone can easily denounce, and you'll be relatively safe. The most successful academics are corporate shills posing as radicals.

Posted by: Thomas Hart Benton at April 27, 2003 03:58 PM

"Wring your hands in obscure jargon about something that everyone can easily denounce, and you'll be relatively safe."
Too true. This is what's known as a political "intervention" in today's academy.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 27, 2003 04:23 PM

To be fair, this problem is hardly unique to the academy.

*whistles innocently* Who, me? Silenced? Nah.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at May 1, 2003 09:35 PM

Without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.

Posted by: Reyes Oscar at March 17, 2004 04:32 AM