How not to blog anonymously

In the wake of the Civil Serf debacle, the issue of anonymous blogging has once more raised its grubby head. I maintain that it is a dumb idea that encourages dickwadery. Most folk agree.

Some don’t however, and – more dangerously – they put this into action and start an anonymous blog themselves. Take, for example, ‘The UK Libertarian‘ which published its first and only post a few days ago. Now, the UK Libertarian isn’t pulling his or her punches. Oh no!

[Quote removed on humanitarian grounds – see the comments]

Now then, that’s not very nice! Not surprising then, with such incendiary views, that the author notes:

I’ve kept this blog anonymous so that I can shout out what I think, and I want you to shout right back at me.

I would be tempted. Only, I think that whole anonymous thing is about to come crashing down.

The thing is that the UK Libertarian is on blogger. Blogger gives you a global profile which lists all your blogs. If you want to keep a blog anonymous, then it’s a good idea to keep that blog off your profile. Bet you know what’s coming now, right?

Josh Cowan’s blogger profile

The image above is a screen grab of the Blogger profile of Josh March, who writes a blog about PR and social media called Social Marketing Strategy by Joshua (and from which his profile is linked, which is how I found it) and runs a company by the name of inetworkmarketing. It turns out Josh’s other blog is none other than…UK Libertarian! Ooerwhatagiveaway.

Let’s hope inetworkmarketing’s business plan isn’t predicated on getting any government or public sector work…

20 thoughts on “How not to blog anonymously”

  1. Oh Josh… oh dear 🙁

    I am interested in the linking rules. You have linked to Joshua March, so does that mean that in linking to his ‘anonymous’ blog you endorse his views? As would be the case under libel law… am going to ponder and blog on this in light of my cowardice with the Miliband blog.

    Shame

  2. I most certainly do not, as well you know! I merely link for my readers’ entertainment.

    This really is just another example of ‘you can’t be anonymous on the web’ – just a rather silly example, that’s all.

  3. What I find most disturbing about all this is the feeling that people feel the need to be anonymous. Mr Marsh’s views are his own business and as long as they don’t harm anyone… well. But why not stand up and say: “this is who I am and what I think, now come talk to me”. There seems to be a growing feeling, partly driven by fear of bosses, that the only way to be ‘real’ is to be anonymous – possibly done more efficiently than this chap. That’s worrying because that then makes the norm of online voice one of ‘a role’, an ‘act’, a ‘message’ a ‘brand’ which is exactly what we’re trying to get away from.

  4. Dave – I think you are taking too hard a line on anonymous blogs. Surely what matters most is the content? People may opt for anonymity in order to be unpleasant (or worse) or they may simply feel more comfortable with some degree of anonymity, and given Owen Barder’s experience of how any web-material in relation to a civil servant can be distorted, a degree of caution is not surprising. As your example and Civil Serf illustrate, an attempt an anonymity is no guarantee of protection if you do inappropriate things. If you want to see a good anonymous civil servant blog, check out http://strategytalk.typepad.com/. I am sure the anonymity of this blogger is penetratable, but I don’t think that is a reason for seeking to out him!

  5. Hi David,

    Serves me right for creating a blog when tired and feeling pissed off (best to wait til the iron’s cold etc).

    Interesting that you don’t think anonymous posting has any value though – would you care to back this up? In my view it allows an expression of thought not controlled by other roles one might have in life that require you to be professionally neutral. I was actually partly inspired to start up the blog from re-reading about alter-ego blogging in the Cluetrain Manifesto.

    Anyway, I accept the public chastisement, and have now deleted the blog (pretty pointless if not anonymous, for the time being). In the mean time, I would be very grateful if you could delete the actual quote from the blog, although I’m happy for you to include the sentence “I’ve kept this blog anonymous so that I can shout out what I think, and I want you to shout right back at me.”. This is simply because I’d like to keep my political views separate from my professional role.

    Paul – you say that there shouldn’t be any need to be anonymous, yet Dave himself in the blog above says:

    “Let’s hope inetworkmarketing’s business plan isn’t predicated on getting any government or public sector work…”

    With this Dave is claiming that my political views may affect my business career – something that I would have no control of, once my thoughts were public.

    The truth is, we live in a world which is very judgmental, and where people (everywhere) make business decisions about other people based on personal like and dislike. It would be great if this wasn’t true, and everyone could be completely open about everything, but it’s not.

    So, you are essentially telling me that my only choice is to shut up or publicly link my political views to my business which, you accept, could have serious negative consequences.

    Not really the utopian freedom of the web, is it?

  6. @ PaulJ – One of the key attributes of social media is authenticity and with that comes trust. Both are impossible, in my view, when the person publishing the content is nameless. It also encourages people to think they are safe and to say inappropriate things – publishing under your own name makes you think twice automatically and that has to be a good thing.

    Fundamentally, I just don’t know *why* people would want to publish anonymously. What’s the point? If what you have to say isn’t something you’d want attributed to you, why bother saying it? There’s more value in being open and honest, like Jeremy and others, because it allows a conversation to develop.

    I’ve written a few posts on the topic if you need more.

    @ Josh – thanks for being open enough to respond on here. It’s a lesson for everyone to learn that you can’t be careful enough online, especially if you want to preserve anonymity. Hopefully the points I make above explain my stance on this sort of thing. I believe the web should be open and transparent because that is the best way that trust and community spirit can be generated, and it’s only when we have that sense of community that we can start to really achieve the results that are possible.

    I’ll take the quote down, because it obviously is making you feel uncomfortable, though it will still be lying in people’s feed readers and stuff.

    The view that wanting to get government work and having the opinion that civil servants are unaccountable layabouts are incompatible has really nothing to do with blogging – people with views they know others might find unpalatable just keep quiet about them. It’s called being polite. Its as true of everyday conversation as well as blogging. I’m guessing you know and speak to civil servants now and again, and manage not to voice your opinions on their worth then. So why the need to blog about it? Especially when you know there is a chance it will offend people who you might need onside for your business?

    You might also want to ask yourself if you really want work from the government, if that’s the way you feel about it.

    What I haven’t mentioned is my own views on what you wrote about people who work in public service – people like me. I know that you’re wrong, but I also know that there are a lot of people that think the same way, and that depresses me.

  7. Hi Dave,

    Thanks for your reply. First off, I would like to make very clear that the blog post I wrote did not say anything about “the people who work in public service” – I know many civil servants and they are hard working, intelligent people. What I was ranting against was the system they work in, which is a very different thing.

    I completely understand your viewpoint on being completely open and transparent, and certainly I would agree on the huge importance of that. However I believe there’s a difference between, for example, a corporate blog being completely honest and transparent about the workings of the company, and the CEO of that company having a seperate, anonymous blog on his or her political views. Those views have nothing to do with the business. If they were a politician then they would be relevant, and it would be important for the politician to be honest and transparent about their political views.

    Essentially I’m arguing that if you are required to be politically neutral in your professional life, you shouldn’t be prevented from engaging in political discussion outside of and separate from that – you seem to disagree and are arguing that ‘politeness’ means not sharing your views at all if you are not in a professional position which allows you to do so publicly.

  8. I think you’re semantically shifting your position on the civil servant issue there, Josh, but I’ll take your word for it.

    Re: the point about being politically open – I think there is an issue about responsibility here. I don’t think you can have it both ways. When I took a job in the civil service, I accepted the fact that it would be very difficult for me to have much to do with politics. I made the decision, and I have to stick with it. It means I don’t make political points on my blog, by and large, and that’s the way things are.

    Likewise, if I was self employed, I would make the choice about whether the sector I target would affect how public I can be about my own personal views. If I want to spout off about how crap politicians are, I have to accept that not many of them would want to give me work.

    I guess the point is that just because you can blog about something, it doesn’t mean you should. We make choices in life, some of which open certain avenues, but close others. I think that’s just the way it is and we shouldn’t try to have it both ways by trying to claim an anonymity that doesn’t really exist anyway.

  9. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree here – I believe that the ability to write anonymously or to be able to experience alter-egos is a truly great feature of the internet, allowing people to experience a wider range of life.

    You might as well claim that when users play online virtual worlds they should be required to be called by their real names, look the same and have a link from their avatar to their real world profiles.

    I set up the blog to be an anonymous alter-ego, and I don’t see where you could draw the line between this and when someone signs up to a virtual world or online game, like World of Warcraft. If a player likes to kill other people in the game, should this be posted about on his professional profile? Or are you arguing that anyone who wants to guard their reputation must also keep it squeaky clean in virtual worlds?

  10. The way I see it is this: I don’t like to differentiate between what happens online and offline. If there is something I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying in person, then I don’t want to blog about it.

    I am not sure that the virtual worlds/games comparison is really valid, because no one tries to change the (real) world in Second Life, do they? But, if people want to be taken seriously in Second Life – say they are running part of their business there – then they will be open about who they are, by linking to their avatar from their blogs, or whathaveyou.

    It comes down to my fundamental question: what’s the point? Why bother posting stuff anonymously? People use avatars and false names in virtual worlds, because they are a playground, somewhere to have a laugh. That’s fine. But in writing a blog, which you hope will be taken seriously, I can see no advantage in keeping it anonymous. Firstly, by your very anonymity you are giving people a valid reason to ignore you. Second, when you are found out, it will be a disaster, and any reputation you had built up could possibly be ruined.

    So by all means, blog anonymously. But don’t be surprised when no-one listens, and don’t cry foul when you end up out of work.

    (this is good stuff, by the way!)

  11. The point of the blog was very clear, and stated – to learn. I wanted to put views out, possibly radical, so that I could hear arguments against them. I could then either argue against those or change my position.

    I had no intention of trying to change anything – if I did I would go into politics, and then would be very open about my views.

    You’re right, if I was running a virtual business in second life then that would require openness. But I wasn’t running a virtual business – I wasn’t trying to ‘do’ anything, other than blog and get feedback on the blog – for my own personal enjoyment. I don’t think you can claim the comparison is not valid because I created an alter-ego using a blog rather than a virtual world client.

    For example, what if a ‘political’ virtual world was created, maybe even an island in Second Life, where users could create virtual political avatars and go and debate? Second life is just a graphical tool to allow interaction between users.

  12. Being in a similar situation to Joshua in that it helps to be seen to be politically neutral in order to do our work, I can see the benefits of anonymity in blogging and commenting.

    Being dogmatically opposed to anonymity does not take account of the reality that some people might have valuable (or amusing) contributions to make despite not wanting to put their name to it in public.

    Is there not some parallel with the Chatham House Rules:

    The Chatham House Rule reads as follows:
    “When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed”.

    The world-famous Chatham House Rule may be invoked at meetings to encourage openness and the sharing of information.

    http://www.chathamhouse.org.uk/about/chathamhouserule/

  13. Hi Shane,

    Thanks for the back-up – the Chatham House Rule is a great example. It shows that there is (and always has been) a need to be able to speak freely without having to worry about those views being aligned with your company, organisation or professional reputation.

    Again I would like to draw a line between myself and people who blog anonymously about their work, employees or colleagues – I was doing none of these things, it was a blog about ideas, and had no relation whatsoever to my work. The reason it was anonymous is because despite it having no relation to my work most people would still connect them, which may be ‘unfair’ but is just life.

  14. @ Josh – Again, though, it comes down to having to make the choice – you can’t (and shouldn’t expect to) have it both ways. It’s common sense. If such a political virtual world existed, and I chose to contribute, I would do so in a way that accepted that at some point people could track my opinions back to me – and I really think that that is how it should be!

    You should have been able to publish what you were writing on the UK Libertarian under your own name without shame – the views you were expressing weren’t offensive. But you obviously held back doing it in the open because you felt it might damage another area of your life, in which case I think it was best that you didn’t blog it at all.

    You say the libertarian was for your enjoyment. But sometimes there are things we enjoy that for whatever reason we can’t do anymore: by working closely with government, we can’t do political blogging. By becoming Governor of New York, you can’t sleep with prostitutes. It might seem unfair, but it’s just the way things are.

    Again, I make the point: I don’t say anything online that I wouldn’t say in person. I think that’s a good rule to live an online life by – and it’s something I have learned myself by making mistakes. When I worked in local government a post from my blog was published in the local paper. I got a kicking over it from my managers, and rightly so. It was inappropriate. I’ve avoided blogging about anything to do with my employers since.

    @ Shane – good point, but occasional anonymity for making amusing or astute points is probably a different thing from having a long running blog discussing issues which may or may not have the potential to damage the author’s credibility.

    Of course, I am in no place to tell people what they want to do. I would just never advise anyone to blog anonymously, and would never allow it in a system I develop (like the one I am working on now, for example, for further education). It encourages people to behave badly because they think they are safe, and it creates a house of cards which could cause a considerable amount of damage when it falls down. Which it will.

  15. Just thought I’d throw one more thing into the equation here – at the Clay Shirky lecture at the RSA yesterday he talked about how social media tools allow groups to co-ordinate to rally against undemocratic governments or mafia. These are very successful, for example the website which rallies businesses together to refuse to pay protection money in Sicily – something which is only possibly because the creators of the website are able to anonymous. Otherwise, they would be killed. Similarly, in Belarus teens use flash mobs to organise protests – which they could not do if the identities of the original organisers became known.

  16. (I’m not trying to claim I was doing anything of the sort, or comparing the UK to a dictatorship or the mafia, just pointing out important uses of online anonymity)

  17. I think it’s worth noting that this discussion you guys are having carries more authenticity and weight because you both sign your posts. We as bystanders can find out more about you, contextualise your contributions and decide whether to have content relationships with you. If one or both of you had remained anonymous, the discussion would, in my eyes, have seemed less grounded and relevant.

  18. I was going to write a comment here yesterday – then decided that because I’m not a civil servant, my concerns are of no value. However, it seems to me that there’s a category mistake being made here, in which anonymity is generalised from the social web to employment generally and from there to the entire Web. Not good.

    Context is important here, and is the only setting in which the original comments about anonymity make sense. On that basis I would prefer that the context was referenced each time the discussion came up, to keep it distinct from the myriad situations where anonymity is both prudent and helpful.

    In that vein, one example nobody has mentioned is the debilitating effect of fame, such that a well-known personality unduly shapes people’s opinions via popular standing. (On that basis, everyone should have a secret alter-ego!)

    To sum up, blanket generalisations are unhelpful, regardless of whether they are made by anonymous posters or about them.

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