Pseudonymity and its discontents

Long before I started my blog I had a foretaste of the limits of privacy in the digital age. In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks I got into a long and complex discussion of religion and politics with some of my relatives, conducted by e-mail, since we were in based in several different countries. In the midst of these came a slightly unexpected contribution: a forwarded response by an Afghan friend of one relative to some of my (doubtless ignorant) comments on his country. I had not specifically said that my messages were to be regarded as private, but I had not expected an audience beyond my own family. But in a world of e-mails and websites, what is easier or more obvious than to share items thought to be of wider interest with friends?

So when I started my blog, I knew I couldn’t rely on obscurity alone to protect my privacy: any corner of the internet might be discovered. And I expected (and even welcomed) some of my family reading the blog (while secretly being relieved that some of my more reactionary relatives were not then using the internet). My blog was not intended to be confessional, but it was inevitably personal, since once of the things I wanted to talk about was the intersection of my family life and my academic career.

For the sake of my daughter’s privacy, I therefore decided that the blog should be pseudonymous. When I started it, she couldn’t read; she can now, but isn’t currently interested in what I write. But in a few years time she may want to see what I’ve written about her. I hope it won’t embarrass her too much, though if she really objects I may have to make some cuts. But at least I can reassure her that none of her friends can easily google her name or mine and find out daft tales of her past.

The secondary reason for being pseudonymous was that I was looking for work and didn’t want employers googling me. I’ve seen suggestions (I suspect by people who already have relatively secure jobs) that this is somehow underhand, and that people ought to have the courage to admit their views. But when decisions on hiring are often made on intangible features, such as how someone would ‘fit’ in a department or organisation, it seems unreasonable to prejudice my chances if an interviewer happens to think that Storm is a good name for a child.

My decision contrasts with some of my friends, who have tried to use their blogs to showcase their research and enhance their employability. Occasionally, I have mentioned my blog in applications, where it’s seemed particularly relevant, but I’ve found that restrictive. It’s left me feeling that I can only put up posts that are serious and strictly relevant to medieval history, and that I have to stop posting about how to explain gay marriage to small children or what Barack Obama can tell us about Gregory of Tours. (I have, nevertheless, actually been commissioned to write articles and chapters on the basis of my blog, even by people who didn’t know me by name).

When I chose to adopt a pseudonym, I also decided that pseudonymity could not absolve me from being responsible for my words. I should not write anything that I would be ashamed to own in public. In particular, I have tried hard to avoid criticising my varied employers (although I think one post sneaked through) and also to temper my criticism of other scholars (apart from those important enough to take it, like Judith Butler). There are still a few authors who’ve objected to my comments on their (and I’m glad you can’t libel the dead), but I hope that most people don’t feel they’ve been unfairly attacked. Since I haven’t had much teaching to do, I haven’t really been faced with the dilemma of whether or not to blog about my students.

I knew from the start that it would inevitably be possible for people to work out who I was, unless I censored myself extremely to prevent this. In fact, a number of my friends deduced my identity rapidly (they are, after all, professionally used to picking up clues to the authorship of anonymous texts). In particular, I couldn’t write about my research, or the conferences I spoke at, without revealing important details. My field is just too specialist: if you google Carolingian masculinity you will normally find both blog posts and articles by me on the first couple of pages.

I am now ripping the thin veil of my pseudonymity further, by including a link in my profile to my professional webpage. Partly, this is because I have now heard that CUP want to publish my book, so in a while I will want to urge you to go out and buy it. But before that, I will shortly be blogging a bit more about some of the intersections between my professional role as a librarian in an academic library and my own research, as part of the training course 23 Things Cambridge.

I will still stick to ‘magistra’ as my screen name and on comments, and since I would prefer that googling my name doesn’t find this blog, I’d ask anyone linking to it just to use my pseudonym. But if anyone reading has ever vaguely wondered who I was, but not felt up to the close textual analysis required to discover this, they now have a simple alternative.


3 thoughts on “Pseudonymity and its discontents

  1. Congratulations on your book. I’m looking forward to hearing more about that.

    I hope the decloaking goes smoothly. I know our situations are quite different, but I’ve had nothing but good from being Openly Me. I wish the same for you.


  2. I have to admit that I never did any cunning textual analysis, I just recognised your stance in the photograph. Granted, I was selecting from a limited pool of people who could talk about things Carolingian but I might easily not have known such a person. I think I’ve mentioned this before but in case not, I should say again that that picture is not so anonymous to anyone who’s met you.

    That said, I’m looking forward to the upcoming posts, even if I may as part of the whole Cambridge institution be at risk from them…


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