It’s starting to come up yearly, or so. Maybe a little less often. It’s like a weather pattern, the blogging El Nino, briefly stirring up, and then going away, somewhat predictable, but just rare enough that you forget.
But here it is again, someone telling the world that they don’t understand why people use pseuds. That pseuds limit impact. I understand the concerns, but every time someone blogging under their real name says they “don’t understand” why anyone would use a pseudonym…I always tend to hear a vague note of patronizing. That pseuds are slightly disreputable. That there is something vaguely embarrassing about them, and if we were all adults, we’d all blog under our real names and be civil all the time.Today it’s from Terry at Small Pond Science, a site that I usually like quite a lot. I really appreciate the perspective of someone from a smaller college, as opposed to the ones I usually see on large research institutions. It’s interesting to see similarities and differences and I admire his dedication to teaching and students.
But I have to disagree with his views on pseuds. And as a former Pseud myself, who is now a “real adult blogger” under my own name, I still believe that pseuds can make a big impact, and that pseudonyms are an incredibly important voice in the science blogsphere.
Terry argues, using the example of the public artist Banksy:
I think there is a ceiling to how much difference Banksy can make in the world, because of his pseudonymity. I don’t think the social impact of something like Picasso’s Guernica could be matched by any single work by Banksy because the origin of the message matters along with the artist itself.
I have to say I disagree with this claim. The impact of many pieces of art is quite independent from who it was who made them. For example, we don’t actually 100% KNOW that it was Shakespeare who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. It does not lessen the impact of them one jot, they have been and remain valuable art, entertainment, and social commentary.
If you want to talk about visual art, consider one of my favorite pieces: a little metal chicken, about a foot high, 14th century, in the Barnes museum in Philadelphia. No one knows who made it. It’s in a sea of famous arts by famous artists, piles of Renoirs, Reubens, Degas, Picasso. But ask people who have been to the Barnes museum if they remember the metal chicken. The vast majority I have spoken to know instantly what I’ve talking about.
No one knows who made it, it’s an anonymous piece of art. It could have been an artist, it could have been a monk or a farmer. The fact that no one knows who made it gives it an even bigger impact than it might have otherwise. It’s not just some metal chicken. It could be anything. I like to think that a farmer maybe made the chicken, painstakingly, as a gift to his child, who cherished it for the love it represented. I’d like to think of the look on that farmer’s face knowing his little chicken is in a famous museum, and thousands of people come by every day to see it. And now, here it is, in a museum. It has lost none of its impact. It’s a lovely little metal chicken, and everyone who sees it remembers it.
I feel the same way about pseudonymous bloggers. I strongly disagree that pseudonyms cannot make big effects for change. In fact, in some cases, you can get a bigger effect for change by being a pseudonym than you can under your real name. Consider: a woman who agitates for equal treatment at her university might get somewhere. But she might also receive labels of being a whiner, or of not spending as much time on research as her peers because she is spending time (that they see) agitating for equal treatment.
Now consider if that woman has a pseudonymous blog. Nothing prevents her from agitating at her university, and probably she still does. But as a blogger with personal stories to tell, she gains a following. Inspires other people to do the same. Writes pieces that are used by others to perfect their arguments and agitate that their own universities. Helps to mentor other women in science who might be unable to find mentors at their university. The pseudonym makes her the every woman, approachable, a voice that others easily identify with (in fact, Terry gets at this himself when he speaks of the artist Banksy’s work. “Since we don’t know who Banksy is, it’s easier for me to imagine that he is speaking for many of us.”). In this case, that ability to create a sense of identity is part of what spreads the impact of the pseudonymous blogger. Was her impact limited? I would argue the opposite. And this can be incredibly important for people who are minorities in their fields.
I was also somewhat irritated when Terry brought out the old canard about how pseudonyms can write whatever they want, the implication being that this leaves a door open to be badly behaved. Obviously, some pseuds ARE badly behaved. But many are not. Many need to use a pseudonym to speak their minds.
If you wanted some examples as to why one might want to do this, here are a few. There are some people who think that blogging is social media is not a useful thing to do, that it takes away from time when you could be writing grants or papers, that it is self-promotional. People might get the wrong idea and think you are looking for alternative careers, and not take you seriously. People might get the RIGHT idea, and think you are looking for alternative careers, and change the way they deal with you on a professional basis.
Terry asks “Why do these pseudonymous authors are seeking from having the blog? Without using your name, then what is your motivation for having the blog, on a personal, interpersonal, and societal scales?”
Well, what if you want to write, but are early in your career, and cannot take the risk of people in your department labeling you for the reasons I listed above? What if your field is not open to social media? What if you need mentors, what to create a network? Maybe there are not many people like you, with similar experiences, at your university, and you’d like to find some? Perhaps you want to develop a valuable set of writing skills? There are many reasons to start a blog, and certainly, not all of them need a real name behind them.
In addition, it is ridiculous to believe that writing under your real name will lead to good behavior, or that writing under a pseudonym leads to bad. I can think of a few people who’s real names did not save them from making complete asses of themselves. If you’re going to be a jerk on the internet, you’ll be one under whatever name. And as many people have noted, a pseudonym is thin protection at the very best. It won’t stop determined people from finding you. But it can allow you to express yourself, to build a network, to build skills.
There are many reasons to be a pseudonym, and many of them are quite “real”. I may not be a pseudonym any more, but I will always believe in the value of a penname.
NOTE: Bug_Girl (who’s name, to me, will always and forever be Bug_Girl, has a post about pseuds as well. It’s very powerful and an important read. Also, trigger warning for violence and abuse.