Blogging Transitions: academic blogging when people know who you are

[This is another post highlighting some of my thoughts in the build-up to the 'Transitions - changing your online persona as your real life changes' session at ScienceOnline09 this weekend. I was planning to post this a little earlier in the week, but then I got distracted - but you still have a couple of days to post your critiques of my ramblings.]
Whilst this is primarily a science-oriented blog, I do indulge in the occasional post about the trials and tribulations of academic life. This was actually one of those unplanned consequences that I talked about last week, and I did it for some of the same reasons that other academic bloggers do; to get my own thoughts straight, and to draw upon the perspectives and experiences and support of readers and other bloggers. There is, however a difference between me and a large proportion of the people who blog about academic issues in that I write under my own name. This situation does constrain me to a certain extent, both in terms of what I can write about, and how I can write about it. Things have to be a bit less personal – if someone in the lab annoys me, or my boss is being unreasonable about something. I can’t just vent my frustration about it with a quick online rant. That’s not to say that I can’t talk about actual incidents in my day-to-day life, but ideally I should be using them as a starting point for a more general discussion, and not focussing so much on the particular episode itself. Anyone who trawls through my archives will notice several examples of me probably failing to achieve this, but that’s certainly my aspiration.
However, in my experience the most effective academic bloggers are those who are willing to take a stand, and clearly state exactly what’s pissing them off, and just how pissed off they really are. That’s valuable, because it raises awareness – in the past couple of years, my eyes have been opened to problems that I had either missed or dismissed before – and also allows us all to connect the dots; it slowly becomes apparent that the incidents that have concerned you at your institution are not just one-off abberrations, but symptoms of more widespread structural problems – and that you’re not alone in noticing and being concerned about them. But here’s the issue: anonymity gives people the freedom to say things that need to be said, and might be risky to say otherwise; particularly given that the distribution of blogging academics is almost certainly strongly skewed towards the non-tenured side. Does that mean that I’m restricted from making a real contribution to the discussion of academic issues, or to working towards changing things for the better?
A couple of things encourage me to think not. Firstly, the existence of people like Kim, whose blog is full of insightful discussions of teaching and pedagogy, shows that it is possible. Secondly, one thing that struck me about the Aetogate affair was that much of the blogging about it, which was fairly critical of the way that it was handled, was by named bloggers – as can be seen if you look down Mike Taylor’s compilation. Although there was a bit of grumbling from the SVP ethics committee, I don’t think that there was too much blowback for it; it probably helped that on the whole, the discussion focussed on criticising the process, rather than getting personal.
Perhaps this provides at least a glimmering of how I can talk about issues and problems in the academic world without getting a damaging reputation as a trouble-maker. But I do wonder if that risk is over-rated; Julia has made the interesting observation that a lot of the people of our age getting involved with the running of SVP – sitting on committees, and things – are themselves bloggers. Perhaps blogging is just another outlet for people who have latent activist inclinations; in which case, even without the internet attention-whoring, I probably would have got a reputation for causing trouble anyway.

Categories: academic life
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Comments (13)

  1. DrugMonkey says:

    I probably would have got a reputation for causing trouble anyway.
    tru dat!!

  2. Diana Moscu says:

    Blogging under your own name, or some pseudonym, is the same for people who have no idea who you are.
    For everyone else, if they can imagine you saying it aloud, then I figure writing about it is fair game.

  3. Chris, you are discussing what is on my mind since I began blogging. The choice between pseudonym or real name. I can see the positive and negative of both sides but as long as I am not sure where my path and career will take me it seems to a better choise, at least the calmer one, to remain enigmatic. I do, however, have a lot of respect for those people who are publishing under their real name and do not restrain themselfs to also adress perhaps more controversial matters.

  4. BrianR says:

    While I appreciate the arguments for the benefits of anonymity, I think over time it would be better for virtual communities to mirror actual ones and have everyone somewhat out in the open. While anonymity does indeed protect those that want to share real problems that need solving, it also acts as a guise for those causing problems just because they can (i.e., no accountability).
    But that’s just my perspective, which is limited … others have thought a lot more about this than I have.
    Anonymous or not, the bloggers that generalize and broaden whatever experience they are sharing have a more significant impact. Being able to highlight the root of the problem or situation and not getting ‘lost in the weeds’ has value. Unless I personally know the person, overly-specific diary type rants are pretty useless. That is, useless to me … they may have cathartic value for the blogger, and that’s just fine.

  5. hypocentre says:

    I blogged my ‘coming out’ here. I stand by what I said then – and I haven’t needed to use the back-up anonymous ‘rant blog’ at all.

  6. Dr Dave says:

    Interesting issue this. I suspect that there are a number of issues about “coming out” as a blogger (I am inceidentally not anonymous on mine). Ones that spring immediately to mind are:
    1. My university believes that it owns the IP on all of my science. I wonder therefore where they stand legally with my blog? If I was anonymous then I guess there would be no problem.
    2. Could some one complain to my employer if I caused offence on my blog? If so, I wonder whether they would potentially see it as a disciplinary offence.
    3. I hope my students appreciate what I write, but does it in any way undermine my credibility?
    4. I wonder whether I don’t get asked to do consultancy jobs now because people are worried that I might blog? Has it diminished my credibility with potential consultancy partners?
    5. Could a publisher refuse to publish my work if an element has appeared on the blog?
    I am not sure that I have the answers to the above, but they do worry me a little sometimes.

  7. Maria says:

    While anonymity does indeed protect those that want to share real problems that need solving, it also acts as a guise for those causing problems just because they can (i.e., no accountability)
    I think sometime it would be interesting to compile a list of cases in which anonymous blogging really has enabled destructive behavior. Because this argument is quite common, but I can’t actually think of any specific instances of serious troublemaking above the level of the common troll.

  8. BrianR says:

    Maria, you’re probably right … I guess I was more referring to anonymity on the internet in general.
    Deciding what is “serious” troublemaking is also very subjective. Digging into blog archives and studying that properly is way beyond my level of engagement/interest for this topic … but, if somebody else did it, I might read a summary of their study.

  9. BrianR says:

    Dr Dave … you bring up very good points … here’s my two cents on your last two, for what it’s worth:
    “4. I wonder whether I don’t get asked to do consultancy jobs now because people are worried that I might blog? Has it diminished my credibility with potential consultancy partners?”
    If you were to be a consultant then you’d presumably sign a document saying you wouldn’t discuss proprietary info to anyone. Since blogs broadcast to the public, that would count. If I were asking someone to consult and they could demonstrate that they were compliant with this in the past, I wouldn’t see a problem. If there was some evidence that they broke a formal agreement, then it might raise a red flag. I don’t think blogging diminishes credibility in and of itself … just how it’s conducted (like anything else).
    For me, I would NEVER ever blog about details of my job … perhaps I’m overly concerned, but better safe than sorry.
    “5. Could a publisher refuse to publish my work if an element has appeared on the blog?”
    That is pretty sticky. I guess it depends on definition of “element”. For me, I have not blogged about any of my own research in any detail until the paper has come out.

  10. Dr Dave raised some points, glad you did. I am still undecided if to do a PhD. I would actually like very much to blog about my research then beyond just saying I work with rocks A in country B. Of course I also have some issues now with my mapping project and I took great care not to ever mention some aspects which might have wider implications. Especially I am worried of fanatical rockhounds and collectors who might sweep-off all potential samples or ruin sample sites that are already rare and hard to come-by. Especially point 5 is really sticky like Brian wrote. If I blog about my PhD research how much blogging will be OK so that I can still expect to publish without getting into trouble? Being a pseudonym might ease the tension on that issue at least a little.

  11. I forgot to mention:
    On the other hand wouldn’t blogging under the real name about research (unless of course you are under a certain kind of contract) be the ideal kind of transparency? The process of research and science couldn’t be more open to the public and other researchers than when posting about it while it is being conducted.

  12. BrianR says:

    Lost Geologist says: “…wouldn’t blogging under the real name about research … be the ideal kind of transparency? The process of research and science couldn’t be more open to the public and other researchers than when posting about it while it is being conducted.”
    Yes.
    My guess is that online communication/collaboration and reporting of research results will continue to grow. If so, those communicating their research through a website could not be anonymous … you can’t give a talk/poster at a meeting anonymously, I don’t see why it would be any different. This would also weed out crackpots because they inherently fear accountability.
    But maybe all that won’t be “blogging” as we know it today … but more of a social network set up, I don’t know. In that way, blogging could remain an outlet and communication device for those that do want to remain anonymous while, at the same time, there would be a fully transparent and results-oriented system that people can use to communicate their science.
    I’m just thinking out loud …

  13. Kim says:

    Maria said:
    “I can’t actually think of any specific instances of serious troublemaking above the level of the common troll.”
    Common trolls are more than mere nuisances, though. They can poison a discussion by driving away people who simply don’t want to deal with them. Troll management is one of the biggest headaches of online communities, from bulletin boards to Usenet to mailing lists to blogs.
    Most pseudonymous bloggers and commenters are good at playing well with others (and there are people who blog or comment under their own names who aren’t). But people who blog under their own names risk damage to their RL reputation by being rude on the internet. (And this is speaking as someone whose first instinct was to blog under a pseudonym, and who “came out” due to prodding by another geoblogger – I’m not anti-pseudonym.)