Trusted Pseudonyms and the Blogger’s Code of Conduct

I’ve been behind on this whole “Blogger Code of Conduct” thing. I think I'm caught up now and would like to contribute a comment or two.

I read about the awful comments on Kathy Sierra’s blog that seem to have triggered this discussion about ethical blogging, and I’m aware that some people seem to think that even discussing a blogging code of ethics is overblown – I disagree. I don’t have a problem with a general agreement to be civil – or as Violet Blue succinctly puts it, “don’t be a douchebag”.

I am concerned about the wording on aliases, and pseudonymous and anonymous identities. From what I’ve read so far, it seems to me that Tim O’Reilly means one thing when he speaks about identity, and language in the Blogging Wikia means something else. I think this must be explored.

When the subject has arisen I’ve very clearly warned my friends and family that the Internet does not allow for true anonymity. I’ve said that with enough time and effort 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, and not 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”. The message cannot be judged by the identity of the poster; it must stand or fall on its own merits - and the message may be missed by the intended audience if the owner of said property decides to ‘censor’ the message by washing it off or covering it with paint.

A policy of refusing all anonymous comments in a posting area available to the general public is as silly as a policy that allows all anonymous comments. Neither dictatorships nor anarchies are nurturing of candid and open discussion.

And what about pseudonyms? Are they encouraged or discouraged? It is difficult to tell with the current wording of the Blogger's Code of Conduct.

Used properly a “Trusted Pseudonym” becomes a veil of privacy between an author and his or her audience – like my own pseudonym: Calladus.

My pseudonym is only pseudo-anonymous. A simple subpoena would easily reveal my identity, as would some determined 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.

But my pseudonym has a certain level of trust on the Internet. Although I'm not an “A List” blogger, a Google search of my pseudonym or my blog will demonstrate that I have a (small) reputation that I can be proud of.

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.

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. The Blogger’s Code of Conduct tries to address this problem by requiring that a valid email address or OpenID be attached to the pseudonym. I'm not sure this is enough protection - perhaps something like a PGP signature would be better if it were not so unwieldy to use in practice.

In Orson Scott Card's “Ender Series” the pseudonyms of Demosthenes and Locke were taken by Ender's sister and brother and used as trusted pseudonyms while they built political power. The use of pseudonyms disguised the fact that the authors were merely children - genius children, but children nonetheless whose age would discredit their otherwise valid opinions. In these books, pseudonyms were never in danger of being compromised.

Would that it were so easily accomplished in today's Internet.

I believe that the idea of a Blogger’s Code of Conduct is good, but ultimately flawed and meaningless as it is currently presented. A blog owner can pay lip-service to a code of ethics while ignoring it, or worse – spin it to suit him or herself. No matter – the final measure of any blog is a mixture of the author's attitude and the blog's reputation.

In my opinion, the greater flaw with the Blogger’s Code of Conduct lies in the difficulty of creating universally recognized, trusted pseudonyms.

Perhaps these flaws can be overcome. I'll keep my eye on the Wikia and see how the code evolves. Until then, I'll continue to be the benign dictator of my own blog, and will follow Violet Blue's Blogging Ethic: “Don't be a douchebag.”

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