Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Questionable Power of Anonymity

Late last week, the editors of Tenure, She Wrote posted an open letter to Nature editor Philip Campbell.  They were protesting the revelation of a female-scientist blogger's identity by one of Nature's senior editors, Henry Gee, who outed her in retaliation for her complaints over the years about his problematic behavior.

On the one hand, this feels very high school.  On the other, this is serious business.  As the TSW editors explain, women in academe have some good reasons for blogging anonymously: they risk retaliation by talking about institutional bias, by speaking out about bullying and sexism that is still pervasive--particularly in some fields--in what most people think are the most liberal institutions on the planet.  I have seen both the bullying and the retaliation; I've seen women destroyed by their unwillingness to stay silent.  To deny that sexism exists, and continues to be a problem, is naive at best; to not say anything is to be complicit in its perpetuation.

But this raises an important issue about the power to make change from an anonymous platform.  Writes one of the commenters,
'Dr. Isis' is a reprehensible coward. A public outing was well-deserved, given that “Dr. Isis” feels it’s fine to harass and bully others behind a cloak of anonymity, yet never had to deal with the acountability [sic] that comes with genuine identity.
Many of the critical comments were in the same vein: that someone who offers (sometimes harsh) criticism should not be allowed to do so without expecting to be the object of that criticism at some point, and that problems with institutions can't be addressed unless people are willing to stand up and be identified.

via flickr user exfordy through Creative Commons license
As someone who started blogging anonymously, for a variety of reasons, and who now writes under her own name, I can understand both sides of the argument.  I have friends in the ALI (Adoption Loss Infertility, for those of you not "in the know") blogging community who write under a pseudonym. Infertility is something that is difficult to talk about openly.  People--even our own family members--judge, pity, offer baseless advice.  They think that problems aren't real, or that they stand on higher moral ground.  They invade the bodies that can already hold us hostage.  These responses are devastating.  I wrote anonymously because it was no one's business but mine.  And yet, just as with so many other things, infertility and loss are things that we need to talk about, not just because we need to find people who can support us, but because more people need to understand the diaspora of experience, as it informs not only the way we care for one another, but also the decisions we make about everything from the rights of women over our own bodies to questions about health policy, insurance coverage, gay marriage, and more.  I also wrote under a pseudonym while I was experiencing sexism and bullying at my former place of employment; I had already understood that no one was going to offer support there, I was afraid of the reprisal for speaking out, and I didn't have anywhere else to go.  In both cases, I found that sharing my experience helped me and others to feel less alone.

But I also think that it's easier to criticize things and people and institutions when we hide behind anonymity or pseudonymity.  It's a lot more risky to stand up for our beliefs in a public space, and sign our names on open letters, to point our own flesh-and-blood fingers at the naked emperors that we know everyone sees.  And there's something about the risk that--to me--gives the critique more power.  We believe so strongly in what we say that we are willing to put our careers, or our reputations, on the line.  Perhaps some of us can take that risk more easily than others, and we act according to what we know we can lose.

I sometimes wonder, though, whether anonymous blogging creates more opportunities for or undercuts our attempts to create change.  Giving more people a platform to speak, leveling the playing field so that everyone who can post something on a free website can have a say, is an important step towards equality.  But how far can it go when the authors are still ghosts in the machine?

What do you think?
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  1. I think the Dr. Isis thing is only a small piece of a pattern and practice of sexism from Nature magazine. As such, whether or not Dr. Isis "deserved" outing is a red herring.

    I also think that for women, it is dangerous to go online using real names. Perhaps a bit easier when one's audience is primarily female, but the internet is a dangerous place with people who stalk and threaten. Very real women have had very negative consequences for daring to use their real names to speak out... look at Serious Pony (whose SS# and address were broadcast and children threatened, who had to change her name, just because she was a woman in tech), or that recent NYTimes article on women journalists (threatened with rape and violence because they wrote articles under their real names).

    It only takes one crazy to provide a very real danger.

  2. I think that if a topic is worthy of discussion and that if using a real name poses a threat to the person writing it, physical threat, threat of reputation, etc. then anonymity makes sense. In a way, even the named bloggers get to be "anonymous" because in this world, for the exception of those who know us in real life, we can project the "us" that we want the world to see. I have a story for you. Stay tuned.

  3. The news about the "Nature" magazine thing is new to me, and I know absolutely nothing about what happened or why, so comment has nothing to do with that.

    I blog anonymously so that I (most likely) don't have to be worried about being "accountable" in my real life for what I blog about, if I should not want to be so. Of course I am not blogging to criticize anyone or anything (except maybe in the sense of blowing off steam, but rarely even then) nor am I blogging to "create change" per se, unless it is in my own life. If I was blogging for a political reason, then perhaps I would consider using real name, as I tend to agree that people should stand behind what they say.

    Nobody should be harassed or abused on the internet, or anywhere else, but of course the internet is made up of people, and people do nasty and stupid things at times and always well - caution is justified.

  4. I'm opening up on my blog about our loss and now secondary infertility. All of my friends and family read my blog, but I only use my first name for safety reasons. I love having my friends know what I'm going through, and I love supporting other bloggers who are experiencing the same things!
    -Your newest follower-

  5. I'm opening up on my blog about our loss and now secondary infertility. All of my friends and family read my blog, but I only use my first name for safety reasons. I love having my friends know what I'm going through, and I love supporting other bloggers who are experiencing the same things!
    -Your newest follower-

  6. The Henry Gee thing at Nature was fascinating, like a train wreck that I couldn't look away from.

    First off, Gee saying that Dr. Isis bullied him is like me saying that the negative course evals I get are bullying. Get real. If you are the editor of such a prominent journal, you hold all the power in the relationship. You don't get to cry "bully!" when someone criticizes you. That comes with the crown. Maybe the criticism hurts, as negative course evals totally do, but what Dr. Isis did is so far from bullying that Gee just came across as a pathetic whining fool with that one.

    And blogging anonymously? I blog anonymously because I like to be able to share some really person stuff. For the one or two people out there who share these things in common with me, I think it is great to read such openness on other blogs and feel less alone, connected even if just through anonymous blogs. But I don't share these things with the random person down the hall. If I used my real name, that's what I'd be doing. I do know some of the people who's blogs I follow IRL, but they don't know who I am. I am freer to share, but in doing so anonymously I lose credit for anything clever I might put out there. I think it is a fair trade -- the ability to be extremely honest and open in exchange for not getting to claim ownership for whatever thoughts/ideas/phrases may have intellectual value.


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