Thursday, 21 October 2010

On anonymity

I started this post hoping that it would be summary of last night's very interesting and enjoyable Cambridge Library Group discussion forum about the Cambridge 23 Things programme run during the summer. But the post had a mind of its own, and has morphed into one that I have been meaning to write almost since I started this blog, on the subject of anonymity online. This was one of the major topics discussed at the CLG meeting, but not the only one, and I'm sorry for not doing justice to other topics such as what we might do to carry on the cam23 learning momentum, the rate of Web 2.0 change, or evaluation skills for librarians. I'd be very happy if other attendees wanted to comment on those other aspects here or elsewhere, and, as ever, welcome comments from all comers on the contents of this post.

At the meeting some people expressed the opinion that they didn't like the number of anonymous blogs in Cam23, and that, by extension, they do not like people having 'anonymous' identities online.  This was an opinion that I've heard before, including during 23 Things, but it's one that's quite different to my own.

Thoughts personal

When I started this blog back in June this year, I made the deliberate decision to make it anonymous.  I did this for a number of reasons:
  • Because it would be easy to change my mind and attach my own name to the blog, but impossible to do that in reverse. Initial anonymity was a good hedging-my-bets option;
  • Because I felt that the blog started out as a place to reflect on Things, not a place to reflect about me. I didn't think that my opinions would be significant enough to librarianship or the world at large to warrant being traceable to me;
  • Because I wanted to make my mistakes in private. This is my first blog, and my first real foray into Web 2.0 as creator rather than consumer, and I thought that if I'd be more likely to experiment fruitfully if I thought no-one could identify me with my errors.

Thoughts general

There are a multitude of other reasons for remaining anonymous online, far more than those I cite above. Few of these seem to me truly troublesome, outside deliberate impersonation of others and attempts at fraud, although many may give those in positions of power and responsibility cause to think. If someone is blogging anonymously about a service which you suspect may be your own, I can understand that you might be interested to know who they are. But, equally, I can see why they wouldn't want you to know...

It's worth considering that there are many different kinds of 'not-using-your-own-name' on the internet - thus far I've been using 'anonymity' in an unhelpfully broad-brush sense:
  1. True anonymity in which there's no consistent identity and no trail: this might be posting comments as 'anonymous', without any identifying name or image.
  2. Complete pseudonimity, consistently applied. This might be someone with a clear online identity in one place or across several places, such that their views can be examined over time, though there's no way of working out who their offline persona is.
  3. Pseudonymous but identifiable to those in the know. A consistent identity with enough details relased that those nearby in the offline world can identify the person.
The next stage in this sliding scale, which is outside the realms of anonymity but still relevant is the use on an online moniker in association with a real name.

'Venetian Carnival Mask' by gnuckx on Flickr
'Venetian Carnival Mask' by gnuckx on Flickr
These formats are good for different things. Posting as 'anonymous' is no way to get your views listened to seriously - with no back story it's hard to evaluate the worth or possible motives of a comment. But the other variations all have their uses. A pseudonymous writer might not inspire confidence at first, but as an identity is built up over time their values, knowledge and biases can all be evaluated. Knowing someone's 'real name' might seem like an easy way to sidestep that process - surely then, especially if they're in your institution, you can use information about their job, interests, previous contact you've had with them, and so on, to interpret and understand what they write online. That's true, but it's also a very easy way to pre-judge what you think they're going to say. I really enjoyed the anonymity of much of Cam23, because it meant that I could read and be read on the worth of what was written and what I wrote. I didn't fall prey to thinking 'well, x works at the y library, so he/she would say that...', and I was hopefully saved from some of that myself. That sounds a bit paranoid, I know, but I wonder if it isn't also true, at least to some extent.

Having multiple identities isn't a new, web-based phenomenon. It's something most people do in most of their lives: one persona for work, one for home; one for friends, one for family; one for older relatives, one for younger siblings... the list goes on.

Thoughts personal, redux

These days, as you may have noticed, this blog isn't anonymous - my name, in all its distinctive-surnamed-glory, is up there in the profile information. So why the turnaround chez Girl in the Moon?
  • I wanted to participate in Library Day in the Life, and my job title and role is so distinctive that naming or describing it pretty much names me. So I included my name and job title on the Library Day in the Life wiki, and described my job and place of work here on the blog.
  • I got involved in organising the Cambridge Librarians TeachMeet through commenting on blogs as Girl in the Moon, but the organising, and the event, happened in the offline world. At that point it became silly not to associate Girl in the Moon with Katie, at least in TeachMeet spaces such as the wiki.
  • Once I'd done that, there was little point really maintaining the pretence over here. These days the blog has a more general professional development and reflective focus, and on Twitter I've got to know a range of librarians some of whom I meet at CILIP and LISNPN events. If I'm going to network with people then they will want to know my name so it might as well be available to them.
  • Ultimately, I feel more confident now, in my technical skill and in my opinions. I'm happy for people find this online me and associate it with the offline me they might already know. Social medai presences are said to be an important personal and professional marketing tool, and I'll be hunting for jobs soon, so every little helps.
  • Oh, and it's also just easier not to have to self-censor identifying information.

Final thoughts (and a new cat among the same pigeons)

At the CILIP New Professionals Day and the LISNPN meet-up that evening there was some discussion about the value of having one's own picture as an avatar. Clearly having a mugshot as an avatar makes it easier for people you've not met before to recognise you, but a comment was also made that it's good to be able to look online people in the face when communicating with them. Again, there seemed to be some hostility to people who have pictures of cats, fish, cartoons, or whatever else to represent them. Is it duplicitous not to reveal if you're fat or thin or blond or auburn or black or white or green? I'm not sure how much it impedes communication if your consistently used avatar is not actually *you*.

With my personal name online I wonder why I feel cagey about putting my face up there to match, but for the time being I'm staying a brown-ish book, not least because it's a tad more aesthetically appealing...
Bibliography of posts that have inspired this post:
Thing blogging, 'Batgirl and me, or, The disorder of multiple personalities'
The mongoose librarian, 'Who *was* that masked mongoose?'
Discovery, 'Identity Crisis'
Books make noise, 'The paranoid post - or why I enjoy Librarians as a community of pure spirits'
Phil Bradley, 'Yes, but what's your real name?'
Jack of Kent, 'On blogging pseudonyms'


  1. Thank you for this post. There was a large element of exploration and training in the Cam23 programme and it was only natural for people to set up aliases and atavars. If people are going to continue their blogs as part of a CPD or Chartership exercise then some part of the mask needs to be dropped but an interesting image can become a "brand-name" identity. Most of my identifying images involve harbours, sea or boats, one of my "other lives", a good as mask as anything.

  2. Thank you Katie, for summarizing the issues so well. As an outsider taking an interest in the 23 Things programme I did find it frustrating that people such as yourself were producing really interesting valuable material without giving any clues as to who you were. Your blog and other activities can only boost your professional profile so I'm really glad you have unmasked.

    On the subject of anonymity I was very much influenced by Mary Ellen Bates' exhortation to create a professional online identity at this year's SLA conference - her slides are available and pretty much speak for themselves:
    Brand You and Web 2

    However you will see that I've not quite practised what she preaches - it is, as you note, a difficult step to put an identifiable photograph of oneself up online.

  3. I wish I could have been at this discussion, I'd have been really interested in it.

    I agree with so much of what you have said and took the same journey really, from anonymity (of the kind not too hard to work out if you knew a little bit) to not-at-all anonymous.

    Part of my issue (as another with a fairly unusual name) has always been an element of caution about who *else* might see/find you that way. This is why I hate Facebook ;) I don't want pictures of myself for people I was at primary school with to gawp at. Or someone I briefly met at something once. Not everyone in the world is nice (shock).

    Also I don't do photos unless under duress. So I will remain an owl and happily so.

    Oh and a final point, there are certain things I have not been able to say/discuss precisely because I was not anonymous and therefore places/people/situations would have been too identifiable. There are benefits in some circumstances to being anon/pseudonymous.

  4. A very interesting post, especially given my own over-cautious type 3 anonymity. I find it interesting to see how you changed your mind over this too. I thought I'd comment a little on why I keep my own anonymity.

    I've always been very jealous of my own privacy, which anonymity helps to protect. As you say, once you give that up you cannot get it back. I also want at least the option of separating home and work, which anonymity allows me to do. Although I use the same id for practically everything (except Delicious, which never let me change it, although I think that's now irrelevant as they've been taken over by Yahoo), I can make it obvious to friends or others who I am quite easily if I want to. I am happy to throw away information that individually doesn't add up but would probably not make it hard to figure out who I am. If you know me, my Twitter biography is a dead give away. At least I maintain some degree of choice.

    One aspect of separating work and home is that anonymity guarantees that I don't appear to speak on behalf of my employer. If I am blogging I still try to write as though my various superiors and colleagues would read it and still not get me into trouble or cause embarrassment, but it still affords me an extra layer of protection. Perhaps I don't deserve the protection when, for example, I have been critical of CILIP in the past. However, I do hope that what I write makes sense no matter who wrote it and, if necessary, is backed up with evidence/argument. To continue the example, I have had personal reasons for my strong opposition to some of LA/CILIPs activities and attitudes, but I have instead tried only to write about what could be grounded in proper argument. One reason I took against the organisation years ago was because of remarks made by one individual. Although I often almost cracked and shouted about it, I think it was probably wiser to have kept my own counsel, especially if I am not prepared to give my own identity in the process: that would have been properly mean. I hope I am prepared to accept the limits that anonymity imposes.

    Another important point is the fact that everything is archived and traceable and I want to be in control of that as much as I can. Using the classical example, if I apply for a job, I want to control what my potential employer sees. It might be good for them to see my blog, in which case I can put it on my CV as you suggest; it might for whatever reason, however, not be good, and I have more chance of protecting that. I can write about my political views if I so wished and not be so afraid that they may prejudice an application. If you Google my real name you'll just get a load of information about musicals and dodgy films (bad dodgy, not the other kind of dodgy) by someone else with the same name. I'm happy with that.

    I don't think I'm a control freak! I think caution is nearer the mark. Perhaps I'll thaw in time as I relax and the world grows more suspicious of anonymity. Twitter has done a lot to make this more likely as I interact more online with people I don't know personally. To be honest, if anyone really wants to know who I am, I would be open to a direct enquiry. The important thing for me I suppose is that the choice is still mine.

    As for photos. NO!!! I am a member of an online chess site, which went through a similar pair of debates about anonymity and photos a year or two ago. I was prepared to divulge my real name in the end because the site is a closed one: you need to be a member or bother to register to find out the information. However, I still have my Greek bull as a photo there on the grounds that I at least don't want to have to look at myself every time I log in; I certainly don't want to inflict it on anyone else.

  5. I missed the CLG on Wednesday (at my book club) but would have liked to have gone. Interesting post. The anonymity thing never bothered me and I couldn't understand why it bothered (still bothers??) people.

    I think when people were reading good blogs they wanted to know who was writing it so they could look out for other things they were doing. If they were not so good blogs people didn't really seem to care. I likes the anonymity in Cam23 - even if you could use your detective skills to work out who most people were - it meant you read blogs for the sake of the information in them. You didn't just home in on people you knew.

    You can build up an online persona that is recognisable without having to know who the actual person is. It doesn't have to be for bad reasons that people are anonymous.

  6. I quite agree with your post - I started (and in my blog at least stay) fairly anonymous for very similar reasons. Lack of confidence initially, and the wish to dip my toe in the water. I am pretty sure though that anyone that has much online presence quite quickly becomes identifiable - especially if one works in the same location or field. At no time in my blog have I stated who I am, but by the time I mention my involvement in Teachmeet, the CLG and the CDG it does not take much detective work to 'unmask' me, despite my fairly common name :) At some future point I intend to publish a 'library routes' post in my blog (has been written for months, but I've not yet taken the plunge)- at that point it makes sense to state who I am there.

    Regards profile pictures I have no problem with people using 'false' pictures, and I feel the same with names. In my dealings with them online, that persona becomes theirs (much as we think of Stephen's Hawking's electronic voice as his own), be it a cartoon, or a picture of cat - the only problem I have is with people who frequently change them. (my online avatar on twitter/facebook is me...just too far away to make me readily identifable in a face-to-face meeting).

  7. Thanks for the comments, everyone! This is such a broad subject that there were lots of points I had to leave out of the post, and it's great to see them being raised.

    @Clare: That's very flattering - thank you. As well as Mary Ellen Bates (thanks for that link), a couple of other recent presentations from the New Professionals Information Day by Lex Rigby and Phil Bradley are also worth a mention - they both emphasised the importance of having a visible, findable online identity.

    @Celine: Yes, with anonymity comes freedom. It's a difficult trade-off...

    @Orangeaurochs: Thanks for such a detailed comment - I think I agree will all of it. I don't think it's the mark of a control freak to want to have control over what people can find out about you, although I fear it's a losing battle given that (for me certainly) what we might want, or not want, known changes over time, however ever considered one might think one is being at the time.

    On your point about levelling anonymous criticism (especially criticism of CILIP), I agree that personal criticism is best made out in the open, but that general criticism rooted in sound argument and fact should be valid whether its attributed to a 'real' person or not. I received a slightly surprising comment (read to the end of the main post) very early in my blogging career after I wrote a critical post in which I thought my remarks were all backed up by evidence. It's clear that some people feel that any anonymous criticism is unfair, which is a shame - if someone has a fair point, then that's all that should matter.

    @LK: You've managed to summarise my main ideas very concisely, thank you!

    And a general point: From the recent news we read the story of Conservative MP Nadine Dorries who stated that her blog is partly or mainly (depending on whether she meant 70% or 30%) fiction, an example to illustrate what we already know: having a real name and known offline identify attached to a blog is no guarantee of truthfulness.

  8. I remember the "surprising comment" and being quite taken aback by it, partly with how agressive it came across and partly because it unintentionally implicated me too. I think it is comments like that which lead me to say that if anyone really wanted to know who I was, I would let them know. I just would rather not.

    I agree that it's probably a losing battle in the end anyway.

  9. I started on twitter with a fairly anonymous tag (although one which friends from my undergrad days would recognise easily), but as I've moved into blogging and commenting on other blogs I decided to use my real name. I also use a real photograph of myself, not because I like it particularly but because I identify much more strongly with being me than being a book/boat/cat/whatever. It also reminds me to be careful not to say anything I don't want to be directly associated with, which I think is an important consideration.

    That said, I have absolutely no problem with others preferring to retain some degree of anonymity, and I think the key point is how you go about building an online brand. So as long as your avatar and pseudonym remain consistent across platforms, your voice also remains consistent, and people can contact you I don't see why "girl in the moon" is any less a valid or acceptable identity than "Emma Davidson".

    At the end of the day, if people don't know the 'real' me then why should giving them my real name be any more informative than providing a pseudonym, especailly when searching for either is likely to bring up a fair amount of information about me? On the other hand, I like to think that my engagement with social media is a positive personal thing, so why would I deliberately disassociate myself from that?

    This is such an interesting subject, and the more I think about it the more I come up with quiestions I'm not sure I can answer! Thanks for posting, Katie :o)

  10. Thanks for posting this, I found this an interesting point when it was raised at the CLG meeting.

    With my blog, and online in general, I'm happy for people to know who I am, to know that it's Annie that's coming out with these opinions or whatever. That said, as I'm posting I'm aware of that and so if in the future I decide to write an expose of all the shocking things going on at Newnham library I'd probably do it under a pseudonym! :P

    One thought that's not so much to do with anonymity as it is to do with online monikers, I'm more likely to follow a link to a blog with an intriguing name such as Neon Librarian than if it was just called Jennifer Yellin's blog (just an example!) unless I actually know the person or had been recommended it.

    Also, my twitter picture isn't a photo of myself mainly because when I first got my account twitter crashed everytime I tried to upload one of myself, clearly protecting everyone from my ugly mug!

  11. @Annie: the issue of monikers is indeed something interesting in its own right. My own is a strange combination elements chosen at two different times for different reasons to try and guarantee uniqueness (and some kind of bovine link). Obviously it doesn't identify me either, but that wasn't the main thinking behind it. What does interest me about a lot of Twitter names is how much they identify themselves, not just by something timeless (though still not necessarily so) like their name, but by their profession, e.g. something like library_girl. I wonder, as you do, how much it defines their way of tweeting or how people see their tweets. I wonder also what they'd do if (heaven forbid) they changed profession.

  12. A late reply here... Emma - I like your point about your photograph making you feel more responsible for what you say. I hadn't stopped to consider that, and it's interesting the way in which having our face visible might make us feel more *personally* connected to our actions. Hmm...