The Benefits and Drawbacks of Anonymity
It’s been awhile since I’ve addressed the anonymity issue and I’ve been meaning to return to it. Regular readers (and anyone who reads the “About” or “Frequently Asked Questions” pages) know that I blog anonymously. On the About page, I’ve given you a reason for that:
I choose to blog anonymously because this blog isn’t about me. It is about Carbondale, SIUC, Jackson County, and the surrounding area. I’m interested in writing about local government, business, and civil society. I’m not interested in writing about myself.
By writing anonymously, I keep the focus on whatever I’m writing about. The focus is on ideas and issues instead of on me. I’m not running for any office. I have no desire to be a public figure. I do enjoy talking (or writing) about local issues, and the blog gives me the opportunity to do that. Adding my name to the posts doesn’t make my opinions any better or any worse.
What I didn’t tell you on the About page is that I had two other reasons for blogging anonymously.
I’ve already given you reason number one. Here’s reason number two: when I started the blog, I didn’t know if I’d like blogging. I didn’t know if I’d keep it up. I decided that if I only wrote a couple of posts and then got tired of it, it would be better if I didn’t have my name on it. After all, many of my views aren’t exactly the dominant views in Carbondale, and people can be petty and vindictive about this stuff – especially in a small town. It seemed prudent to keep it anonymous – at least at the beginning.
My third reason for blogging anonymously is that I work for a large Carbondale employer. You could probably guess who that employer might be. I have sometimes been critical of my employer (though at other times I’ve been supportive). People have been fired for criticizing their employers in blog posts. I’m not aware of my employer firing anyone for that, but it could happen. I felt that if I kept the blog anonymous, I would be free to make fair criticisms of my employer’s policies and performance without endangering my job.
All three of these strike me as valid reasons to maintain anonymity. But although there are benefits to anonymity, there are also some limitations. Suppose I wanted to do an interview with a public official – maybe the mayor or the executive director of the Park District. Sure, I could conduct an interview over the phone or through email. But how likely is it that a public official will consent to an interview with an anonymous blogger? Doesn’t seem too likely to me.
There are also problems with two of my original three reasons for blogging anonymously. The first reason is to keep the focus on issues and ideas instead of on me. But I write the posts. And they’ve never been straight news. They’ve always been about what’s going on and what I think of it. In that sense, while they haven’t been about me personally, they’re about my views.
My second reason for blogging anonymously was that I wasn’t sure how long the blog would last. But it’s lasted over a year, although I took a long hiatus right at the one year mark. The risk that I’d write a few posts and then lose interest seems to have passed. Of course, I always toy with the idea of giving up the blog. It takes a lot of my time and I do have other priorities. But even if I drop the blog, I could still take credit (or blame) for the posts I’ve already written.
That still leaves my third reason – concern for my job – and it’s as valid as ever and reason enough to remain anonymous. True, I don’t write as frequently about my employer as I thought I would when I started the blog and as I did at the beginning. But those old posts are still out there, and I could always choose to write more on that topic. So even if reasons one and two are no longer relevant, I still have reason three.
I’ll add to that a fourth reason. I sort of like anonymity. WordPress, my blogging software, gives me all kinds of stats. Among them are the search terms people use to find the site. Something I’ve noticed is that I get clicks because someone has searched something like “carbondale observer identity” or some variation on that. I get a kick out of that.
I think I’ve been responsible in my anonymity. I haven’t been a bomb thrower. I haven’t questioned anyone’s character. I have never brought up anyone’s personal life. I have sometimes criticized the behavior or policy positions of public officials, but I have never criticized them personally. In a democracy, I think criticizing the behavior or policy positions of public officials is fair game for anyone, anonymous or not.
I’ve tried to hold every word on this blog to the same standard I’d use if my name were on it, and I think I’ve done a good job at that. I always had it in the back of my mind that I might one day want to put my name on the blog. And I’ve always been aware that even if I didn’t want to put my name on it, there is always the possibility that someone with a lot of computer savvy could find out my name. I decided at the start that I wouldn’t write anything that I’d be ashamed of if either of these possibilities happened.
Here’s a fact the casual reader may or may not know. My anonymity has never been complete. There are a number of people who do know who I am, and some of them have known almost since the beginning. I’ve chosen to reveal that information to those people for my own reasons. As far as I know, the folks who know my name have kept it to themselves. I appreciate that. And of course I’m aware that it’s possible that more people know who I am than I think. The point I’m making is that my identity has never been a perfect secret and, as a result, I’ve always had some accountability to others.
I’ve made two decisions. The first is that I will eventually put my name on the blog. The second is that I won’t do it today. When I do decide to end my anonymity, I won’t make a big deal out of it. I won’t do it in a special post. One day I’ll just change the About and Frequently Asked Questions pages. I may or may not change the “posted by” name from Carbondale Observer to my own name, but I probably will. It will be several months before I make that change, but eventually I will make it.
Finally, if you’re wondering why I chose to bring this up right now, I can give you an easy answer for that. I’ve recently received some criticism of my choice to blog anonymously – both by email and in comments. I’ve responded individually to those folks who’ve made the criticisms, but I assume that for each person who takes the time to write a comment or an email there are a few others who feel the same way but don’t bother. This post is an answer to all of them. I know it’s a long one and I thank you for your patience.
Comments are welcome.