(Revised from an earlier post)
Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, Richard Bachman, Dr. Seuss, George Orwell, Voltaire…
Pen names, also known as a “nom de plume” have an honored tradition in writing. An alias or pseudonymous identity allows a writer to establish and build a level of trust with readers while allowing the writer to meet various privacy goals. Certainly a writer may be trying to protect him or herself from readers who might take exception to his or her words, but there are other good reasons for taking a pseudonym.
Last year when the “Blogger Code of Conduct” was being discussed, anonymity was brought up as something that should be banned from blog comments. As a disclaimer, I do ban recurring anonymity in my own blog. But I have no problem with, and actually encourage the use of, pseudonyms.
When the subject of anonymity has arisen I’ve warned my friends and family that the Internet does not usually allow for true anonymity. I’ve advised that with enough time and effort that any post, email or instant message could eventually be traced to its point of origin. This isn’t the whole truth – there are ways to create true anonymity on the Internet – but all the methods that I know of are time-consuming and difficult to implement even for someone who is technologically savvy. None of these methods are worth my bother for my current needs.
Anonymity is a tool, and like any good tool it can be used or misused. An anonymous person could spray-paint vile, bigoted, misogynistic hate speech on the side of the town hall; or an anonymous person could paint damning evidence against “Those In Charge”. A truly anonymous message cannot be judged by the identity of the poster; it must stand or fall on its own merits. It has no track record of reliability.
I’ve come to think that real anonymity is of limited usefulness to both the writer and the audience. Allowing all anonymous comments in a public forum is illogical due to the possibility of abuse – sooner or later you get something that looks like a popular and controversial Internet News Group, with hoards of anonymous posters increasing the ambient noise and drowning out the signal. And I do believe that a policy of refusing all anonymous comments in a posting area available to the general public seems just as silly to me. I think that neither dictatorships nor anarchies are nurturing of candid and open discussion.
This is where a nom de plume shows its true value. Over time an audience will learn to trust a pseudonym based upon its previous track record – the quality of content. And if it is used properly a pseudonym becomes a veil of privacy between an author and his or her audience.
This is what I mean by a “trusted pseudonym”. The author trusts the pseudonym for protection, which in turn allows for the growth of trust between the author and his or her audience. Unlike a merely anonymous message that must be judged solely upon content, the author becomes part of the message and brings with it his or her own credibility – or lack thereof.
The level of anonymity attached to a pseudonym can be adjusted to suit the writer. My own pseudonym is only somewhat anonymous. A simple subpoena would easily reveal my identity, as would a little detective work. I don't require a deeper level of anonymity. If I were a political fugitive and in fear of my life or freedom, I would use a more secure method of writing.
There is a possibility that inflammatory text could be accredited to my pseudonym in an effort to defame me, and my denial of authorship might not be enough to save my reputation. An email address, blog, and easily identifiable writing style might go a long way toward disarming this sort of defamation, but I think a more secure method of identity would be a better idea. Perhaps something like a PGP signature would be better if it were not so unwieldy to use in practice.
Although there are some who might charge “cowardice” against those who use a pen name, I think that with just a little reflection it becomes apparent that privacy is a valued commodity and the use of pseudonyms allow writers to protect their privacy while becoming a trusted voice.