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.
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?
We 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.
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
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.