On a Blogger's Responsibility to Anonymous Commenters

Oct 20 2008 Published by under Blogging

As I mentioned before, Abel Pharmboy has been gearing up for a blog-conference session on pseudonymity in blogging with what is now a series of posts. Well worth reading but in particular he is looking for reader and blogger input. So it would be nice if you would go leave a thought or two at Terra Sigillata.

Terra Sigillata
The Pseudonymity Laboratory: Do you trust me?
The Pseudonymity Laboratory: Up from the Comments
The Pseudonymity Laboratory: PhysioProf Provides Slide Number One
The Pseudonymity Laboratory: Does Formal Certification Increase Credibility?

SciBlog10Mcomm-DM100.jpgWe had a little bit of an echo conversation over here following my post and one from PhysioProf. The latter thread in particular touched on a topic I thought required additional comment from me. Not on the pseudonymity itself; I think I've probably mentioned my views a time or two already. I am more interested in the role of the blogger in maintaining the pseudonymity or anonymity of their readers, commenters and even fellow bloggers. In part I wish to both warn readers who may labor under certain misapprehensions and make a bit of a DM Blog policy statement.
It is my view that those that have access to the administration tools of blogs have a specific set of community standards to uphold when it comes to anonymity and pseudonymity.


StephanieZ opined:

IP information can but usually doesn't allow a commenter to be identified without the blogger having a pretty good guess on identity to start with. It can provide information on location, and it can allow a blogger to identify sock puppetry with some degree of accuracy

River Tam concured:

Identifying IP addresses with individual commenters is not exactly trivial - especially as one's traffic increases. Even if someone is not using an anonymizer I think you have to really want that info to figure out who someone is that way.

With all respect, I think that Stephanie Z and River Tam are underselling the degree to which the human brain can associate temporally, spatially and topically disconnected, half-complete information into a coherent picture. It is quite true that in most cases the casual blogger cannot start with a simple IP address and tell you who has been typing on that computer or clicking on that mouse. I disagree, however, with the tone that is being struck here.
First, some information for the casual reader of this blog in the nature of disclosure that I think it is important for you to realize. Each visit to the blog is identified with the IP address of the computer you are using. Site metering software such as, well, sitemeter.com makes it relatively easy for a blogger to review visits essentially in real time. I will note that just because you do not see the sitemeter icon on the page does not mean that metering is not being accomplished with non-displaying code. There are at least two such on this blog, for example.
Do I review all the visits exhaustively? No. But for a traffic load such as ours, even a once per day glance over the last 100 or so visits is very likely to highlight particular domains as the home of at least one regular reader. "But, but...there are 40,000 people at my University!" you say. True. But suppose you comment?
The second bit of information to be clear on is that each comment is associated with the IP address in the administration software and prominently in the email notification (WordPress and MoveableType being my experiences) if one has that turned on. So if you comment all of a sudden the IP information storm has been stilled. The blogger may ignore the IP, sure, but be clear: that information is quite readily available. And it takes no great effort on some blogging systems to search the entire blog for comments made from the same IP address, from the same blogger name or supplied email address. We're talking a couple of clicks to sort out all the comments made by you, DearReader. It is indeed trivial.
The third part of the equation has to do with the substantive content of a blogger's or commenter's online activities. Small hints have a way of leaking out. Gender, approximate age range, scientific sub-discipline, job category, ethnic identity, etc. This is where we get to the point where assuming that someone knows you already, it becomes overwhelmingly obvious that you are actually "BloggertasticEleventyMan".
Finally, we come to Google. My readership is perhaps disproportionately (or not) likely to lay down professional tracks on the Intertoobz, thanks to academic institutions near-total web use. Chances are high that if you are faculty, postdoc or graduate student you are listed somewhere on your departmental website. A departmental website that features several versions of your particular -ology. And guess what? University domain + academic specialty + job/student category + random personal details = positive ID.
It does not take very much determination or time to track someone down, especially given the extra bits of information available to the blog administrator.
Which brings me to our responsibility. It is my view that anonymity/pseudonymity are a culturally accepted feature of the online discussion community. That it is considered slightly boorish to take specific notice of the real-life identity of someone who obviously wishes to remain pseudonymous. A bit cloddish to Google-fu someone's identity. Positively out of line to intentionally divulge identifying information. Particularly when that information is available to one only because of being a blog host but really, no matter how one has come by it.

13 responses so far

  • Beaker says:

    Which brings me to our responsibility. It is my view that anonymity/pseudonymity are a culturally accepted feature of the online discussion community. That it is considered slightly boorish to take specific notice of the real-life identity of someone who obviously wishes to remain pseudonymous. A bit cloddish to Google-fu someone's identity. Positively out of line to intentionally divulge identifying information.
    Nicely put, DM. Anybody who posts on the internet should be under no illusions that they can maintain anonymity. Sadly, the same is true for anybody who uses a cell phone. Despite this fact, I'm happy that the general manners outlined above are usually followed voluntarily. There have been cases where the "outing" of political bloggers has led to them losing their jobs, or worse.
    In the end, thankfully, it makes little difference most of the time. The famous blogger Atrios can be identified with 30 seconds of Googling. It might take 2 minutes to figure out Digby. I don't know how much rabid Googling it would take to figure out Bitch, PhD or even Comrade PP, but I don't give a fuck. That's not the point of it all. Those who think they have triumphed by figuring out a blogger are both pathetic and petty. Similarly, those bloggers who obsess about anonymity (or not) are equally petty.

  • Anon says:

    I post under two different names; this (duh) and one other, which any blogger would be able to guess from my email, which is the same for each. I am under no illusions that my anonymity under this name is protected by anything but the whim of the bloggers--indeed, on two occasions they have emailed me, perhaps (or perhaps not) as an "I know who you are" message.
    What I do not know about computers, the internet, and blogging could fill several good-sized encyclopedia sets, but I figure I am safest to assume that if I write it, somebody can trace it back to me if they really want to. So I try my best not to say anything that could keep me from being elected president, or pope, or dogcatcher somewhere. I can't control whether some blogger outs me; all I can control is whether that would be embarrassing.

  • Beaker says:

    So I try my best not to say anything that could keep me from being elected president, or pope, or dogcatcher somewhere.
    Comrade PP has blown his bid for the presidency, but he could still become the next Julia Child.

  • Stephanie Z says:

    Hmm. What I was trying to do was put into perspective how much work a commenter is trusting a blogger not to do. I certainly wasn't suggesting there was no trust involved, which is why I mentioned anonymizers. I'd much rather see someone feed me no information or "bad" information behind the scenes than not feel free to comment.

  • You know, I was going to begin my comment by saying "Julia Child, my ass" but I actually think it might not be an inappropriate comparison. The've both got man hands...
    And I think that you are completely right on here, DM.
    In the end, thankfully, it makes little difference most of the time. The famous blogger Atrios can be identified with 30 seconds of Googling. It might take 2 minutes to figure out Digby. I don't know how much rabid Googling it would take to figure out Bitch, PhD or even Comrade PP, but I don't give a fuck. That's not the point of it all. Those who think they have triumphed by figuring out a blogger are both pathetic and petty. Similarly, those bloggers who obsess about anonymity (or not) are equally petty.
    I don't know about petty here, beaker. But I do think that people want to have "access" to bloggers like PP or Bitch PhD (or you know, me, not that I am comparing myself with these icons). I am amazed at the number of students, for example, who read Dr. Isis seeking advice or insight that I can offer them in a frank way because of my pseudonymity. I don't obsess about it, but I do value it. I think that if, as you offer by invoking Atrios, if my name when Googled became associated with my blog pseudonym instead of my latest paper (my blog gets way more views)I would feel the need to censor my writing to a much greater degree. After all, I want people to associate the real me (as opposed to Dr. Isis)in a trivial Google search with my work on that big organ in the middle of your chest...not the effect of reading about Dr. Isis's chest on your organ.

  • Yagotta B. Kidding says:

    I normally post under my given name, but I'm putting this up to make a point: a pseudonym is a brand. There is a critical difference between pseudonymity and anonymity, both for bloggers and commenters.
    I post different things as YBK than I do with the name in the phone book. (Snarkier, for one, and since my proper persona is pretty snarky that might be a clue.)
    Can people figure out who YBK is? Of course. As much as they could Anson Macdonald or Paul French. That's OK -- anyone who really wants to is welcome.
    Rather more to the point, though, since I'm somewhat well-known in my field, is that a search for My Given Name doesn't turn up the rather less inhibited YBK. Not because I wouldn't want a prospective employer to see YBK posts, but because I do from time to time represent my employer publicly and that role should not "leak" across to YBK or vice versa.
    Perhaps it should be the other way 'round: employers could issue pseudonyms to us for use in our roles as employees, so that our personal activities don't leak into our professional ones. That's not the way it works, though, so we use our personal names for work and pseudonyms for personal use.

  • Beaker says:

    I didn't mean to imply that there aren't good reasons for pseudonymity. There are many: personal ( privacy and security), professional, and rhetorical.
    But as YBK said, pseudonymity is not anonymity. And I can think of no legitimate reason to justify non-pseudonymous bloggers bitching about those who are.
    Isis, you too have lost your chance at the presidency, since Americans will never vote for a polytheist.

  • River Tam says:

    Perhaps my original comment so kindly referenced by DrugMonkey should be altered to read something along the lines that it is too much effort for me to sort through all the IP addresses and figure out who is who, since it is apparently not too much effort for others. I'll let the general public decide whether that means I am lazy or don't care who a pseudonymous blogger "really" is.
    Being relatively new to the blogging scene, I am realizing that I had not yet developed my philosophy about why I was blogging under a pseudonym (an unsettling feeling for me to realize I don't have a reason for what I do). Is there more to pseudonymous blogging than wanting to protect our "real identity" - an identity to which things can stick permanently and cause us problems in work/home, etc? I simply hadn't thought about it and I have found the various arguments for pseudonymous blogging very interesting. In particular, I find YBK's argument that a pseudonym is a brand to be a very intriguing and interesting concept...
    Anyway, I'm still working through my philosophy on pseudonymous blogging, but finding the discussion very educational...

  • Arlenna says:

    I agree with YBK that pseudonymity allows for some personalizing of our identities when discussing aspects of our professional life. I don't think it is a good idea for anyone to assume that they can say whatever they want on the internet without any trail to themselves--both because of the reality of traceability and because I believe that you should be ready to take responsibility for what you say anytime, anywhere.
    I don't mind at all if people figure out who I am, even though I plan to stay with my pseudonym for blogging. Like Dr. Isis, I would rather people find my research work by searching my real name through Google, than my discussions about Marc Jacobs handbags (research is more likely to get me tenure than the quality of my handbag). But I'm extremely happy that people find my blog when searching for K99 advice, and if those people wanted to learn who the writer really was for more specific information, they could track me down and I would be happy to try to help them.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    StephanieZ @4: What I was trying to do was put into perspective how much work a commenter is trusting a blogger not to do. ... I'd much rather see someone feed me no information or "bad" information behind the scenes than not feel free to comment.
    I think we're on the same page, I was just trying to point out that it does not require much "work". You last point compels me to mention for those who haven't figured it out yet that the email field can be filled with a bogus string such as dev@null.net and I encourage you to do so if you have any objections to leaving a real email around Sb.
    River Tam @ #8: I am realizing that I had not yet developed my philosophy about why I was blogging under a pseudonym ... I simply hadn't thought about it and I have found the various arguments for pseudonymous blogging very interesting.
    This is essentially the answer for long-time blog readers who are wondering* about the cyclical emergence of these discussions. It took me quite awhile of blogging time before I thought through many of these issues, what I wanted to do with blogging, balance of real-me versus DM, etc. I know this is a hobby like indulgence but since there are potential real-life ramifications, it is a good idea for burgeoning bloggers to think on this stuff.
    *in the eyerolling way
    Arlenna @#9: I believe that you should be ready to take responsibility for what you say anytime, anywhere.
    What I object to with this sort of statement and the usual anti-pseud rhetoric is the assumption that people don't want to "take responsibility" for what they say. In some senses this is a simple statement of fact but the situation is far, far more complicated. Take the case of bloggers who have to be undercover because their place of employment would object on knee-jerk or poorly justified grounds. or medical bloggers who, even if they are very scrupulous about anonymizing patient vignettes, would skeeve out their patients. or even the more mundane like our buddy Sol who thinks it inconceivable that some scientists might swear like sailors in the lab or even in the classroom (it happens) or confuse a blog with a formal scientific presentation (the line is arguable, true).

  • S. Rivlin says:

    After all, I want people to associate the real me (as opposed to Dr. Isis) in a trivial Google search with my work on that big organ in the middle of your chest...not the effect of reading about Dr. Isis's chest on your organ.
    Aren't you a bit presumptuous in the latter part of your statement, Isis?

  • Arlenna says:

    But DM, that wasn't 'anti-pseud' at all. Notice me sticking with my pseud. 'Taking responsibility for what you say' just means be ready for people to be mad at you if you say objectionable stuff, be ready for controversy if you create it, because it is unrealistic and a bit hypocritical to hope to claim it wasn't "you" who said it (whether that means the REAL you or the PSEUDO you). If anything, my comment is 'anti-rude-anon' and pro-psued, since pseudonymity DOES maintain that sense of accountability of the speaker as long as they are interested in creating and maintaining a pseudo-reputation.

  • leigh says:

    i'm fairly new at this whole blogging thing, so i'm not up on the technology that people use to find out who their commenters are. the likelihood of me actually knowing anyone here is nonexistent, and i'd prefer to know people as they address themselves on the blogs if that is their intention.
    i prefer a pseud because i share some real life things that maybe don't need to be associated with me professionally. (ie, though i have yet to find a need to bitch about an interaction with the boss, it happens and i just write about what happens to me in grad school.) i will be conducting a job search soon enough and i don't need something completely trivial on my blog to interfere with an opportunity.

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