Sunday, January 26, 2014

Mirror, Mirror Redux

Pseudonyms have so many interesting uses
Subsequent to inflicting some self-indulgent ruminations about online identity on you yesterday, my Long-Suffering and Unreasonably Patient Readers, I noticed that Freddie deBoer wrote another long post on the topic which inspired some additional reflections this morning. In it, he argues that the mediation and compression of all online social interaction via language does the opposite of what one might expect: it focuses interaction and mutual evaluation not on the content of a person’s output but rather on the interpreted personality or character of the author. The constant tension between a person’s own attempts to define their online persona and others’ attempts to redefine, pigeonhole, and undermine that persona in accord with their perceptions, biases, and agendas makes, in Freddie’s telling, for an emotionally fraught and exhausting experience. It certainly sounds exhausting to me.

I am not sure I agree with his emphasis. I know that I personally pay very little attention to the so-called personalities of writers I read online (and offline, for that matter). I am one of those appalling characters who doesn’t get around to reading the byline on most articles until after I’ve finished them. I’m not very interested in assigning or deconstructing online personae either. I don’t have strong fixed impressions of the character of, for example, Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, Will Wilkinson, Freddie deBoer, or C.J.F. Dillow. I just don’t care. (For what it’s worth, I guess I would characterize Freddie as passionate, progressive, prolix, and combative. Beyond that vague impression formed from the content of his writing he is a cipher to me.) I may be unusual in this, for all I know. I certainly get the impression that many people online seem committed to passionate love or hate “relationships” with people they read, and this frankly mystifies me. Apparently I am a pretty indiscriminate, uninformed, and incurious “consumer” of online social personae.1 Mea culpa, I suppose.

But as Your Reliably Unterse Interlocutor at this location I also produce an online persona. And here’s what occurred to me as I read Freddie’s screed: operating under a pseudonym obviates a lot of this kind of nonsense. As I have written before, using a pseudonym (as opposed to writing anonymously) allows one’s audience to ascribe all sorts of stable, persisting traits and beliefs to you, including personality, beliefs, character, and the like. It creates an online “self” of sorts, so in that sense it operates just like posting under one’s own name and identity would. But unlike posting as oneself, a pseudonym opens a space for expressing opinions and beliefs which one would not want to be associated with in real life. As you might expect, there are good reasons and bad reasons for that. I claim very good, honest reasons for myself, but at some point my readers have to decide whether to trust me or not. There is no intellectually honest shortcut to that other than reading what I write here. That is all you have to go on to decide whether I abuse the privacy I preserve with my mask or not.

Pseudonymity opens up another degree of freedom more directly pertinent to Freddie’s argument. This is the fact that, notwithstanding all my careful toil over the years to build and maintain the online persona known as The Epicurean Dealmaker, at the end of the day it just isn’t me. Therefore, in a very important sense, I (the man behind the curtain) am not that emotionally invested in the identity and perception of my creation in the wider world. If people don’t like (hate, despise, scorn, belittle) TED, I can shrug and tell myself, “So what? That isn’t me they’re attacking anyway. Let ‘em pound sand; I don’t care.” This is very liberating, let me assure you. On the other hand, if it is indeed you—or the better you that you have labored so diligently to create over the years—personal attacks will seem that much more threatening, stressful, and, yes, personal. No wonder blogging or facebooking or twittering or what have you under your real name can be exhausting. No wonder, faced with direct ad hominem attacks on their character and motives, so many online participants keep getting twisted into emotional knots and tangled up in hysterical cyberfights. No wonder the internet has turned into a rage machine.

In this respect, pseudonymity is tailor made to open up space for the sardonic attitude which Frank Herbert claimed was critical to preserve a person’s equanimity as he moves within the public gaze. It sets up a figurative straw man which your enemies and friends can attack to their hearts’ content while diverting the slings and arrows of unwanted attention away from your own tender ego and sense of self worth. It frankly frees you to focus more on the content of your arguments than the personalities involved. And that, in my humble opinion, is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

* * *

I hope, Dear Readers, that the conclusion to this overlong peroration is obvious: everyone should henceforth and immediately adopt an online pseudonym. In addition to solving the problems outlined above and thereby lowering the stress level and blood pressure of internet participants everywhere, it would also drive the cybersurveillance technocrats at Google, Facebook, and the NSA mad with frustration, which would be its own very fulsome addition to the global weal. I’d allow you to mail me a small honorarium in appreciation, but sadly the U.S. Post Office will not deliver checks to an imaginary address. Bloody name-ist bigots.

1 Whereas I would insist on—and take pride in—being understood as a very informed and curious consumer of information and opinion. It is the content I am interested in, not the author. For this reason, I could well be considered a very indiscriminate consumer of content: I will read almost anyone on anything, and I will acknowledge and appreciate solid, provocative thinking wherever I encounter it, even in the fetid swamps of writers widely considered to be bumbling or disingenuous nincompoops. Even David Brooks has the occasionally interesting thing to say, believe it or not.

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