Anonymity

life

After all the kerfuffle here, and my careful attempt to describe what I work on without revealing my name, I thought it might be a good idea to talk a bit about more about why I chose to remain anonymous, and to discuss the issue of privacy for bloggers.

I need to go back to when I first started blogging, back in October of 2002. I was feeling stifled by academic writing, and I wanted to stretch my wings a bit — write about all the other things I'm interested in, without having to be mind-numbingly pedantic over every single word. The trouble was that I had no idea whether I could actually write about other things. Would anyone like it? Would it be as deeply embarrassing to me a few years later as my teenage diaries are to me now? As a kind of insurance policy, I decided to remain anonymous. If I crashed and burned spectacularly, no lasting harm would be done. Besides, the anonymity would provide me with psychological freedom — I could give myself permission to fail, without worrying about the consequences. I never saw anonymity as a way to say things I wouldn't be able to get away with if I wrote under my own name — this is important.

I certainly don't always get it right, but to my great surprise and delight, I found that I could write reasonably well, and other people even seemed to enjoy what I had to say. But then anonymity became important for another reason. I had created a little virtual haven for myself where I could let my hair down (metaphorically — my real hair is very short and totally un-let-downable) to a limited extent, and I wanted to continue to keep that haven separate from my work environment, or it would cease to have its original function. I don't think I expected to get any visitors in the beginning, but as I got more traffic and was linked to more often, there was an increasing risk that someone work-related would find it. It wouldn't be a disaster if that happened. In fact, it has happened already, to a limited extent, and the sky hasn't fallen. As I said above, I don't use this blog to say overly controversial things — just to express myself more naturally — so there's nothing here that I would be particularly ashamed of in a professional context. It's more that I value my privacy, and I don't want everyone to know everything.

This brings me on to another point; total privacy is impossible. Even if you are really careful, it's impossible to remain completely anonymous online (or in any context, probably). You can only make it awkward for people to find out your name. Actually, I think this is a good thing. I'm scrupulously careful to make sure that I don't write about anything that might constitute a conflict of interests, and I would rather not write about something exciting than conceal the fact that I have some involvement in it, or I know someone who does. However, the fact that you can find out my name if you really want to means that you can check up on me.

Another factor in my anonymity decision was that I genuinely have no desire to be famous in any way. I know that this is completely contrary to the current zeitgeist, but it's true. I feel happy if I know I've done a good job, and if other people like what I do too that's great, but I'm baffled by the urge people have to be known. If I could, I would like to be anonymous at work too, but academia doesn't work that way. Your worth as a scientist is measured (in part) by the number of academic papers which cite your work, so anonymity isn't an option. In fact, I kept my maiden name for the same reason — female academics risk splitting their citation count in two if they publish under both their maiden name and their married name.

There's one final benefit of my nom de plume (or nom d'html, perhaps); I can pretend to be some kind of super-heroine with a double life, or an international spy.