December 19, 2007

On Anonymity, the Internet, and Free Speech

I made the paper today. Yep, I was quoted in an article in today's Miami Herald. The quote was lifted from comments I made in response to a blog by Bob Norman over on the New Times website.

Here's what the Herald printed:
C.L. Jahn from the Man or Maniac? blog commented on Norman's site: ``If a blogger chooses to be anonymous, there's no point in trying to unmask them. . .''
Man, that sounds fatuous, doesn't it? I must be some kind of left-wing anarchist; let anyone do what they want anytime for any reason. Let the criminals remain cloaked! To hell with democracy, let's have a free-for-all.

I wouldn't be surprised if you thought that, especially if you also read this story by the Herald's ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos. In it, he discusses the problems of anonymity and freedom it gives some people to post hateful speech. The Herald allows readers to post responses to articles; often, the comments are nothing but a stream of invective carefully crafted to avoid using words that are blocked from posting. Most of those comments are truly anonymous; no way to know who's putting up the libel, or even if it's more than one person or the same drooling idiot over and over again.

But the Herald has edited my quote, at the cost of some accuracy. So here is the full sentence (with the part the Herald omitted in italics):
"If a blogger chooses to be anonymous, there's no point in trying to unmask them unless there's a clear indication that the blogger is using his position towards a destructive end, which Rick nor SOTP has done."
Not so fatuous now, huh?

I understand both the need and the desire for anonymity. While I believe that you have more credibility if you put your real name on the things you write, I know that not everyone is in a position to do that. I work in the arts, where many of my colleagues have created names that they work under in order to ensure that they have privacy in their private lives. No one questions this practice, but they certainly put this poor bastard through the ringer.

"For the record, I HATE anonymous bloggers. They, in my view, are chickensh-- people who don't stand behind their words,''
Miami New Times editor Chuck Strouse
Strong words from Chuck. Complete bullshit, too. Remember, the sequence of events included an "anonymous" blogger standing by his words. And he got bitch-slapped and threatened for his efforts. You know what I hate, Chuck? Editorial morons who can't keep their facts straight, that's what.

You know who was anonymous and yet widely respected and even beloved by the entire world? Ben Franklin. He invented the cast-iron stove, bifocal glasses, started the post service, suggested time zones, mapped out the Gulf Stream, figured out how to prove that Lightening was made of electricity, and helped to write the Declaration of Independence.

Benjamin Franklin also wrote an "almanac," a collection of calendar events, weather predictions, useful articles, jokes, and other things that interested the author; in short, Franklin was an 18th century blogger. He wrote it under the pseudonym "Poor Richard," and maintained a separate identity for years. Why didn't Franklin just put his name on it? Franklin was already a widely known scientist and respected philosopher; certainly people would have bought "Ben Franklin's Almanac."

Dr. Franklin had a reputation as a scientist; while his wit and humor were widely known, he was respected a serious professional. "Poor Richard's Almanac," while it had some useful content, was light-hearted and accessible to the earthier members of society. It was a tabloid, complete with cliff-hanger serializations, astrologies, and political cartoons. And so he published it for 26 years, anonymously. What a chickenshit that Ben Franklin was, huh? Thanks, Chuck. Your "insight" enlightens us all.

We really should clear up what anonymous really means; we all know what we THINK it means; but everyone one of us tends to get lazy (Chuck, quit ogling your secretary.)

From Merriam-Websters' online dictionary:
Main Entry: anon·y·mous
Function: adjective
Etymology:Late Latin anonymus, from Greek anōnymos, from a- + onyma name — more at name
1 : not named or identified
2 : of unknown authorship or origin
3 : lacking individuality, distinction, or recognizability

The thing is, as far as the blogger is concerned, there is no anonymity. We have an identity, and we can easily identify what he writes. While Richard Bachman, Poor Richard, and Rick all have OTHER identities, none of them are actually anonymous. We know them by their words, their associations, and their byline.

The point I was making in my comments to Bob was that we already know enough about Rick. Here's his blog. Here are the articles he wrote. Here are his comments in response to your comments. In the strictest sense, he wasn't anonymous at all.

What Rick was REALLY doing was working under a pseudonym. A "pen-name," or "handle."

Why do it? As I noted above, there's lots of precedent. Actors, writers, and yes, even respected journalists, often have an identity under which their work is known that is distinct from the identity found on their social security cards, drivers licenses and birth certificates. This is done not to defraud the public, but to protect the privacy of the actor, writer or journalist.

It also allows you to discuss sensitive topics without repercussion. And I don't mean simply saying "bad" or "mean" stuff about others. There are topics so private that we are embarrassed to discuss them; and right now you're thinking I mean sex. And you'd be right, and you'd also be wrong.

In society, we have all sorts of taboo subjects; sex, religion, teen pregnancy, capital punishment, polygamy, drugs, and how to hang the toilet paper on the dispenser. These are subjects that require examination from time to time. But there can be costs to that: family spats, personal vendettas, ostracization, and even murder.

It is for this reason we have anonymous balloting at the polls: even your spouse doesn't get to know how you voted. It's the only way we can keep the polls honest. There are places in the world where they hold elections: once a year, everyone comes into town and votes the tyrant back in power while the tyrant's goons watch you fill in the ballot.

Val Prieto ought to know something about that: he writes for Babalu, a blog dedicated to a Cuba free from the oppression of Fidel Castro. There is no free-press in Cuba, and certainly no free exchange of ideas. You can be arrested for speaking critically of the Castro regime, its policies, or even Marxist socialism itself.

Here's a clip from the Herald article:
One person who won't miss it is Val Prieto. His blog, Babalú, which focuses on politics and Cuban issues, has often been critical of Stuck on the Palmetto, and vice versa.

Prieto, whose full name appears on his site, said he thinks readers give more weight to blogs with identified writers.

''Anybody can say whatever they want if they're hiding behind a pseudonym,'' Prieto said in a phone interview.

Yes, they can. That is exactly the point.


  1. I'm fine with about all of this, but look -- "anonymity" per se wasn't the issue. It was WHY he was anonymous. And that opened the floodgates: evidently he feared he might get dooced, and also, revealing his identity might have impeached his credibility. Those are genuine issues.

    As far as I'm concerned, the second is irrelevant: what's important is what's said rather than the sayer. Not everybody shares that view.

    As for the first, one does what one must. The blog is bullshit compared to one's livlihood. Who would disagree with that?

    Bottom line: like it or not, agree or disagree, the blogosphere is reduced by SoTP's disappearance. I wish Rick and Alex nothing but the best, and hope they'll hang around at least in other bloggers' comments.

    As for you, C.L., keep it up. IMHO you're doing great.

  2. As it always does in a free speech issue, it comes down to "why does that matter?"

    The issue he was arguing had no bearing on his actual identity. It wasn't remotely relevant to the topic of the post that Bob was critiquing, it wasn't relevant to the argument Rick was offering, there was no reason for Bob to bring it up at all.

    NOW, if the discussion had BEEN about use of company time for personal business, we have a reason to discuss it. If the discussion had BEEN one where the author's identity needed to be established for reasons of credibility, THEN we'd have a reason to discuss it.

    Since his identity had no relevance to the discussion, Bob was out of line to tweak Rick. We knew ENOUGH about him for the purposes of discussion; we had a point of reference (Rick), and an archive of past statements (SotP).

    The thing about free speech is that WHY is not a factor; the US Supreme Court has ruled on this before. Unless the person is using their pseudonym for fraudulent purposes, a person has the right to use a pseudonym to exercise their rights under the first ammendment, or even to remain anonymous outright. It doesn't matter if you or I don't think he needs it; for free speech to work HE has to feel protected.

    It also noted that even though it's acceptable and legal, it can undermine credibility, and that is unavoidable. You're free to say what you want, but we can feel free to consider the source and ignore you.

    Rick had the right to post under a pseudonym. That does not protect him from discovery, but as a matter of courtesy, internet etiquette has recognized that some parties post under an assumed identity, and in international internet circles, that convention is honored. In usenet, I've seen people who've 'outed' long time participants end up vilified and shunned from the group.

    Consider how many books are written under a pen-name; or the number of actors or performers who use a stage name. Sometimes their true identities are known; occasionally there are legal fights when someone tries to protect their privacy.

    Rick wasn't out of line, and Bob was. Is it my opinion? Yes, but I can bring a lot of precedent to the table; it's a well-informed opinion, and not some misguided idol worship. Hell, most discussions between Rick and myself were very heated. He ain't my hero.

    But he did have my respect, and his blog filled a niche that is now all too empty.

  3. C.L, Your post is about the best I've seen anywhere on this topic!

    There are millions of different types of blogs out there. From blogs about babies to very personal blogs to blogs for just fun and serious professional blogs. If Al Gore wrote a blog specific to global warming, I would expect him to use his real name.

    However, most bloggers don't blog for their career or paycheck. Most blogs fall into the category of entertainment more than news.

    If anyone reads the "about" section of my blog, they will see the warning that they shouldn't believe everything they see on my blog. I've created this "Walter Mitty" persona. This alter ego. It is more fiction and entertainment than anything else.

    However, I work at an ultra, ultra liberal place of employment and my position involves meeting our "customers" from all over the nation, and it involves money. I have been quoted in the Miami Herald numerous times, and filmed by local television stations. So, if suddenly my alter ego became public, at the very, very least, I would be ordered to shut my blog. I could very easily be fired. And that would not just make me unemployed, it would ruin my career.

    Actually, I would get fired, since if they ordered me to shut down my blog I would tell them to go to hell. They have no right to tell me what to do or not to do on my free time, and I always write on my time, not theirs.

    So, anonymity is essential for my free speech.