Taking Flight (Pseudonymous or Not)

I have finally caught up with the debate at ScienceOnline2011 on ‘The Perils of Blogging as a Woman under a Real Name’ through watching the video of the session, recently put online. This was the debate that kick-started a lot of discussion on a variety of blogs (including from one of the panel members Kate Clancy) particularly around the combined issues of marketing one’s blogs, pushing oneself forward and asking for retweets through Direct Messaging. This aspect of the discussion prompted my previous post on Unwritten Rules. But here, now that I have been able to follow the full debate, I’d like to revert to the topic of the debate title. I’d also like to encourage others, be they active bloggers or not, and particularly women, to watch the debate and see what chords it strikes.

Rather obviously my own blog is not pseudonymous. I did this deliberately when I set out because I felt it was important to make clear who I was so that people could choose whether they thought my experiences/anecdotes and general thoughts were relevant, convincing or helpful. That I had been knocking around the university system for a while is clearly pertinent to what I write regarding committees and ways of tackling issues scientists, particularly academic scientists, face.  Naively, perhaps, I did not think of the downside of identifying myself. Other people’s experiences, as discussed on the video, suggest consequences might include receiving inappropriate, even hateful comments on one’s blog or in emails (including about appearance or other personal matters) or worse what appeared to amount to stalking.  Nor did I think about consequences in my job, but then (lucky me) I am not trying to get my foot on the tenure ladder nor am I on tenure track itself.  Part of what I wanted to do – in as far as I knew what I was going to blog about when I set out on the enterprise 9 months ago – was to share experiences of progressing through the system, prompted in part by a more junior (female) colleague’s response to something I said in conversation:

You mean that happened to you too?!

In other words, to dispel the illusion that being a professor meant that everything had been plain sailing all the time.

It never occurred to me, as an engineer on the video feared, that this would turn me into a ‘soft skills chick’ who could be looked down on because I wrote on top of my day job.  That this is a possible danger was reinforced for me by an intriguing talk Sunetra Gupta gave in Cambridge a couple of days ago for the WiSETI Annual Lecture. Sunetra has succeeded as both a novelist and a zoologist, with different home pages for these two facets of her life.  But she stressed that, particularly earlier in her career, she had faced hostility from people who failed to understand how she could try to combine the two strands, and  had been advised not to mention the novel-writing when applying for jobs. Scientists seemed to feel that she couldn’t be a successful scientist if she wrote novels, whereas those who approached her from the literary end believed that she couldn’t be a good novelist if she did science all day. Her firm answer was that she had to do both because they were so important to her, but clearly these criticisms discomforted her.

To return to the blogging debate, I entirely understand why some bloggers, male or female, feel it necessary, or at least desirable, to hide their identities. It so happens that my fellow Occam’s Typewriter bloggers are not in this category; we are all identifiable even if I’m the only one unimaginative enough to call my blog by my name; only one of us uses a psuedonym. Since we encompass all stages of the academic career from PhD (Erika Cule) upwards, it isn’t anything as simple as seniority which defines whether or not individulas feel the need to use a pseudonym although, as my comment on tenure track suggests, it is probably easier to be upfront with one’s identity the higher up the ladder one is.

I made two conscious decisions when choosing to use my real name: not to bring my family into the blog, or discuss personal matters; and not to discuss anecdotes in such a way that individuals involved can be identified. I have no desire to enter a blame game when castigating a particular course of action, to name and shame anyone. That serves, in my view, no useful purpose. Other bloggers, male and female, approach these issues in many different ways, depending on their aspirations and motivations.

However, what watching the video taught me is that I have been fortunate. My naivety about identifying myself has paid off, or at least not proved to be a problem, but I did not appreciate what I was doing when I set out. Often, way beyond the specific field of blogging, naivety has advantages. It makes the future less frightening, perhaps enabling one to seize opportunities that if you knew more about you might be less willing to tackle.  There is a fine line between courage and foolhardiness when it comes to accepting a challenge.  I have always believed (though not always acted upon that belief) that it is the things one doesn’t do that one lives to regret, because one is then left with that lingering suspicion of missing out on something that might have been satisfying or enjoyable – or progressed one’s career. The indicators are that women are more often risk-averse, less adventurous than men, more fearful that if they attempt something new they may fall on their faces and make a fool of themselves – another point the blogging debate touched upon. But throughout our lives, if we play safe, we may never get beyond the ordinary. If we analyse each opportunity to death, do the sums (consciously or otherwise) so that the ‘play safe’ option always wins, then we are defeating ourselves.

As with entering the blogosphere, I suspect I have been far too unwary in many of the decisions I have made during my life. Sometimes I have lived to regret them, but remarkably infrequently.  Often I feel that it has been the trivial matters I have agonised over, whereas  I have made large leaps of faith without even noticing I was doing so at the time, which probably points to some fundamental failure of internal judgement. But too often individuals, not only women but perhaps more of them than men, don’t feel able to jump off the edge off the cliff believing that their parachute really will open and let them take flight serenely.  My advice would be that constantly shivering at the edge will itself be at least as likely, if not more so, to lead to bad outcomes – be it disappointment, resentment or stagnation – than taking the risk that seems so  terrifying. Writing a blog under your real name is perhaps a good place to start practicing flying!

 

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19 Responses to Taking Flight (Pseudonymous or Not)

  1. Frank says:

    Athene – I’m with you all the way on the power of naivety. I think the sensible restrictions you put in place (no names, no packdrill) help to reduce the likelihood of adverse consequences.

    Some topics are higher-risk than others of course. I am a little circumspect about mentioning my place of work (though not secretive) because of this. Yesterday I went to an interesting talk from the new Digital Media Manager at our head office and he advised us never to mention our place of work in any Tweets we send from personal Twitter accounts.

    As a librarian (we aren’t all on the academic ladder at OT!) I feel a strong impulse to openness and this, as much as naivety, perhaps prompts me to join you in jumping rather than shivering at the edge.

  2. some of us lost our careers because we write blogs, so those who write under a pseudonym are not necessarily reacting to a fictional scenario.

    • I’m really sorry to hear that, GrrlScientist. I don’t suppose you’d like to share any more about why what you wrote had such a direct effect on your employment? Sometimes I guess it may resemble whistleblowing, which is always a dangerous activity. As I said, I do understand why some people feel a need to remain anonymous (I certainly didn’t mean to imply that there was anything fictional about the potential situation): it must crucially depend on what points you’re trying to make on the blog. I suppose I was using blogging as a more general example of not being (too) risk averse, but there are always exceptions to prove any rule.

  3. I appreciate your post about the advantages of taking risks and for the shoutout to our ScienceOnline session.

    However, I think the example of blogging without a pseudonym is a poorly chosen one. There are real, valid reasons for using a pseudonym – as you mentioned in your post, harassment is a real concern for some bloggers, and there have been quite horrendous instances of stalking and threats against women bloggers in the tech world. Another quite obvious example is for scientists who do animal research and already face threats of violence against them and their families. I wouldn’t want to discourage those scientists from blogging at all because blogging under their own name was the “one true way” to blog and they didn’t want to put themselves at additional risk by becoming a public face for animal research. Doctors may want to blog pseudonymously to protect their patients (although they amalgamate/fictionalize them anyways in posts). Graduate students, post-docs, and early career faculty who use blogging as a way to get career advice might justifiably want pseudonyms to allow themselves to openly ask questions with less fear of being made to look a fool or risk reprisal from supervisors and colleagues. Some people may simply want to ensure that their real name brings up their research accomplishments on a Google search rather than any accolades or notoriety they’ve built from blogging. All of these are valid reasons and there are many more. I think we need to stop treating pseudonymous blogging as if it were some special case and acknowledge that is part of the time honored tradition of authors writing under a pen name.

    As I said, I applaud your encouragement of risk taking, and I think that was a take away theme for our session. But it is foolish and unproductive to assume or insinuate that pseudonymous bloggers do it because they are risk averse – perhaps they are just wise.

    • I’ll say again that I do understand there are instances when writing pseudonymously is the only way to go. I clearly didn’t nuance what I wrote sufficiently to indicate I meant, not that all bloggers should write under their own name, but if someone wants to practice being a little more daring they could find a blog within themselves to write that they were willing to put their name to. Explicitly, I meant start risk-taking with something small. Writing about animal rights, or drug testing etc is not ‘small’ and not a good place to start such an enterprise.

      I’m glad you understood and agree with the encouragement of risk taking. It would appear by trying to build on the really interesting video of your session to extend to ideas about risk taking I’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest; it was not my intention to equate pseudonymity so crudely with risk-aversion as you hint.

  4. Hi Athene,

    And perhaps I was a little harsh in my response. I’ve been around the science blogosphere part of the internet for more than 5 years now and sometimes I feel like we’re now retreading issues that I thought got talked out a long time ago. But I need to remember that not everyone has been participating in these discussions for as long as I.

    Yes, maybe more people “could find a blog within themselves to write that they were willing to put their name to.” When I joined my current blog and starting writing almost exclusively about geoscience research is when I started using my given name. But the blogging I was doing before, under a pseudonym, was much riskier and in many ways more valuable, than what I do now. So that’s where I’m coming from in this discussion.

  5. KateClancy says:

    I just want to echo grrl and Anne, though you have started to address their comments. Pseudonymous blogging is crucial to the science blogosphere. They are often the real risk-takers, because they speak personally in a way we can’t.

  6. Kate and Anne, all I can do is say again, what I said in my original post
    ” I entirely understand why some bloggers, male or female, feel it necessary, or at least desirable, to hide their identities. …”

    You have extrapolated that I meant all bloggers should use their real names, and it isn’t what I said. If you’ve followed my blog before you will know that one of my key aims is to encourage women starting out. This post was meant to be part of that, not an attack on those who – for many good reasons – blog pseudonymously. I hope that is now clear to everyone, and that we can move on.

  7. My feelings very like yours, but my position also similar. I’ve got a secure senior post and I’m not writing about topics that encourage serious trolls.
    I am dismayed to hear about the bad experiences of other commentators.
    Nevertheless, I think it’s good if we more senior (ok, older) women do poke our heads above the parapet and write under our own names, for the kinds of reasons you state and also to just show we do have a human side and aren’t all po-faced individuals who adopt an establishment view.
    So keep it up! I greatly enjoy your blog.

    • Many thanks, Dorothy, I agree showing we are humans (as I wrote about in a previous post) is hugely important to me and how I write. Hence I have found it rather disturbing to find I have caused angst in others in the comments above, by what I wrote in this post.

      I look forward to meeting you next month!

  8. There are definitely pros and cons, freedoms and restrictions, to both approaches. There are times when I’d love to be able to rant or vent about something career-related, but held off because I use my real name; however, I have been able to blog about my (former) research and brag about the very cool research my department’s doing (reflected glory FTW!), which a pseudonymous blogger obviously can’t do.

    I think it’s very important that both types of blogging are represented for all career types and stages, so as many points of view as possible are out there; but the path an individual blogger chooses should be guided by their unique situation and preferences.

  9. Mike says:

    Athene, that poor nail must have a pretty sore noggin right now. Some things need to be said pseudonymously to protect those saying them, others can carry more weight if the person saying them can be identified as belonging to the group they are speaking for or about. Others can carry more weight if the speaker belongs to another group.

  10. Tom Hartley says:

    After this post came to the attention of my University, I was asked to remove my affiliation from my blog. I’d love to be able to write freely about the things I care about, including University access, science engagement, equality of opportunity. All of these things can be controversial, and are easier for more senior staff, I suspect.

    • I suppose I should stress that I always try to be careful about the things I say about my university or other organisations I am involved with (and also in my tweets), for all kinds of reasons. As a member of University Council it would be grossly irresponsible for me not to think very hard about this. But, for what I want to write I don’t find this at all a problem. The nature of my posts is such that I can choose anecdotes and situations so that, as I said, I don’t identify individuals or castigate them or indeed organisations. The flavour in which I write is not to give specific advice (eg about Cambridge colleges for instance) so much as modes of thinking and doing things. I was going to say I choose my anecdotes carefully, but clearly on this one I have been too sweeping in what I wrote when trying to make a point about risk-taking, foolhardiness and courage. However, Frank’s comment, the first that was made, makes me think the message is there and can be correctly read. I said I had been naive when I probably didn’t think hard enough about using my own name for the blog, and clearly I have been naive also in writing something that some have interpreted as saying there isn’t a problem in always using your name (or in your case your affiliation).

      I can see why you would be frustrated by being asked to remove your affiliation, but I can also see why your University might want you to do so if they are trying to maintain a ‘party line’ which perhaps (I don’t know) you weren’t completely following. However, I assume no one has asked you to hide your name, or even to remove the post completely. However, if you wrote in generic terms about access, engagement and equality would that cause problems? Or only if you said my university does X and I don’t like it? That is tending more towards the whistle-blowing I alluded to previously.

      • Tom Hartley says:

        Athene, thanks for taking the time to reply to my comment. I should make clear that I have a great deal of sympathy for your main point about the value of blogging under your own name. I think you are spot-on about the (ironic) risks of being too risk-averse.

        I think that people like yourself are doing a great service by showing that serious scientists and respected academics can use blogs to forcefully express their views on the issues they know most about. This is an important part of academic freedom. More power to your elbow.

        I could see my University’s (Admissions Manager’s) point of view about my post on A-levels which was based on a Russell Group report, and referring to Universities in general, rather than my own in particular. They were worried it might be seen as an official policy of the University – they were so sensible about it, I was content to remove my affiliation. But it does mean that in other posts I can’t talk so freely about positive aspects of my experience as a lecturer and researcher. I still feel that the single most important way we can widen access to top universities is by providing better information to students before they choose their A-levels – the Russell Group were brave enough to grasp the nettle, but their report is a bit tricky to read, so I spelled it out even more clearly.

        Looking back, say, at your “Unwritten Rules” post it’s easy to imagine some administrator or official taking umbrage at your characterisation of an interview panel you sat on. But, I doubt they’d dare take you on, and quite right too.

        I think blogging is an area where more junior academics like myself need to “check that our actions are indeed not being unnecessarily constrained by our unfamiliarity with custom creating artificial boundaries”. And perhaps even push against the imagined boundaries, just to make sure. But I can understand the caution of some other commenters above, and I think pseudonymous blogs also have an important place.

        I think this means that I agree with you.

        • Tom, one advantage I have is that I have sat on so many interview panels it would be hard for someone not present to work out which one I was referring to! More seriously, I have absolutely not hidden the fact I write this blog from my university, rather the opposite because in some senses and for some posts, it does chime with my formal role as Gender Equality Champion. However, it is nevertheless all written in a purely personal capacity as I quite clearly state. Maybe someone will tell me that is not enough, as happened to you, but I do hope not because it would weaken what I could write.

          Glad we’re in agreement!

  11. Frank says:

    Athene, I read your post as an explanation of your own reasons for blogging under your own name, not an attempt to decry others’ decisions not to use their name. We each have our own experiences, feelings and calculations to balance.

    OTOH, there is unfortunately a tendency ‘out there’ to undervalue anonymous contributions. Rosie Redfield’s recent comment on a BioEssays article highlights this, tangentially.

  12. My current personal solution to the “pseudonymous or real name blog?” question is to have one of each… partly for historical reasons, partly for the kind of reasons Tom Hartley alludes to, and partly because the arena of my pseudonymous blog attracts a certain amount of vitriolic troll types. However, maintaining two blogs is certainly a bit of a chore, and I’m not sure I will keep it up indefinitely. The pseudonymous one has far more readers than my OT blog, BTW.

    I think senior people in academia do have more freedom to say what they like, if they want to. This is because, once they have a reputation and profile, in the final analysis their institutions probably need them more than they need their institutions. Of course, as Athene alludes to, most senior people are not shoot-from-the-lip types or instinctive polemicists (though my friend Prof David Colquhoun is an exception!), so they are less likely to write stuff that raises institutional antibodies.Younger people on the academic faculty, who feel much less secure, are far more likely to blog or comment pseudonymously – if they have time to blog at all, which most don’t.

    I have never broadcast my affiliation even on my named blog, and I don’t write directly about my own institution… which seems like basic common sense. In addition, I think it would bore most readers. In any case, events in, say, the Russell Group Universities are so similar from one institution to the next that one can easily blog in general terms about the kinds of issues that affect one’s working life.

  13. Steve Caplan says:

    Athene,

    I can certainly understand the rationale behind women or men writing blogs–or books–under a pseudonym. I am very happy that I don’t feel compelled to do so myself. This is probably more happenstance than anything else–my own recent and almost accidental exposure to, and addiction with blogging coming only after my own tenure. I don’t know whether I would have hidden my identity had all this occurred several years earlier on in my career, but I am certain that I would have been doubly cautious with any comments I made. So there is definitely something to say about tenure and academic freedom…