The Scourge of Online Anonymity
There is a long, rich literary history of writers using pseudonyms. This Economist article describes three reasons writers have chosen to writer under an assumed name:
Many people write under an assumed name. Indeed all the columnists for The Economist—Bagehot, Lexington, Schumpeter and the like—write under inherited pseudonyms. For novelists this practice has long been widespread. In the 19th century Mary Ann Evans took on the name George Eliot in order to separate her novels, such as “Adam Bede” and “Middlemarch”, from flowery female-novelist stereotypes. In America around the same time Samuel Langhorne Clemens published fiction under the name Mark Twain (pictured above, with Eliot and Ms Rowling). Novelists who want to write crime fiction on the side have long masked their identities. John Banville, an Irish novelist who won the Man Booker prize in 2005, writes crime novels as Benjamin Black. Julian Barnes, another Man Booker-winning author, writes thrillers as Dan Kavanagh. And crime writers themselves may also take on different personas. When Agatha Christie, one of the masters of the dagger-and-cyanide genre, wanted to write romantic fiction, she did so as Mary Westmacott. Patricia Highsmith, the author of “The Talented Mr Ripley”, a gruesome thriller of swapped identities, published “The Price of Salt”, a lesbian romance, under the name Claire Morgan.
Three main reasons spurred these writers to take the name of someone else. A pseudonym gives them the liberty to write things they might not otherwise feel able to. It gives them an opportunity to be taken seriously, something especially important to female authors in a world of Victorian male critics, or to dabble in a genre that, despite the work of great crime writers like Raymond Chandler, is still not really considered to be proper literature. Most of all, a pen-name distances established authors from their previous work.
Anonymity online, specifically the anonymous comments on articles and blog posts, is a different creature, and I can understand why Don Pogreba would gravitate toward the conclusion that “…anonymity is an overall negative for online discourse” in a post titled The Psychology of Online Comments.
But if you read the whole post, it turns out that it’s not necessarily anonymity that Don has a problem with, but the cumulative negative tone anonymous commenters contribute to, something to do with a phenomenon called the disinhibition effect. After a quote, Don then says this:
While I have considered moving to the Facebook platform to make comments more likely to be associated with real identities, the most important issue seems to be one of climate, not one of anonymity or individual rude behavior. If the climate of the comments section is hostile, it will encourage more hostile comments—and I am simply tired of dealing with them. I’m also tired of getting drawn into fights that are a profound waste of my time—and embarrassing to be involved in.
It will be interesting to see how Don goes about changing the climate of his comment threads. Already two comments from Mark Tokarski have been removed, but perennial insult artist, Larry Kralj, who referred to John Walsh as a Nazi in this comment thread, still gets free reign.
I addressed Larry Kralj’s ravings at the Cowgirl in this post back in July, and it’s pretty entertaining to reread Don’s comments in that comment thread. Actually, the whole comment thread is worth reading.
I write as “lizard” and publish poems as “William Skink” because it gives me the liberty to write about stuff I wouldn’t necessarily write otherwise, topics like conspiracy culture and illegal drug use. I do take Don’s point that with anonymity comes a greater degree of responsibility, and that’s something I’m going to do my best to remember.
I’m also going to remember that criticizing those in power comes with risks, as one of my fellow contributors can attest to. People in power don’t like being held accountable for their actions, which means, for some people, anonymity provides protection against retribution.
Anyway, thank you to everyone who continues reading this little Montana blog. Without readers, the time I dedicate to keeping this space current and, I would hope, interesting, would be a waste.