The political blogosphere is buzzing over a tiff between National Review legal blogger Ed Whelan and a liberal blogger named Publius at Obsidian Wings. Whelan and Publius have apparently had long-running arguments over Supreme Court nominations and federal judicial decisions.
Well, Whelan somehow found out Publius' real name, and published it in a post.* Publius is an untenured law professor and apparently keeps some of his liberal political views private away from his conservative extended family. Now, he no longer enjoys the privacy of pseudonymity. You can read round-up of the issue here.
Now before I get into the issues of pseudonymous and anonymous blogging, I'd like to say that Ed Whelan's actions were shameful. Perhaps people should not blog under an assumed name. But Whelan was clearly motivated by a desire to hurt an ideological opponent personally, rather than undermine his arguments logically -- especially given that Whelan immediately followed up his post with an e-mail to Publius calling him a "coward and idiot".
Whelan's motivation was not to defeat an opponent in debate, but destroy an enemy's career. As Joe Gandelman wrote:
And the question then becomes: then just WHO was this revelation supposed to impressed?
Who was it supposed to sway?
It will not undercut Publius’ credibility one bit with people who read him or link to him.
It will not change how people who read Whalen’s posts already detest Publius’ writings.
It was, basically, taking the battle a step further — using the big blogging tool (a post, indexed on Google Web forever) to try to undercut someone personally.
Now, on to the subject of anonymous and pseudonymous blogging. I agree with Jonathan Alder:
I also think it is important to distinguish between anonymous and pseudonymous blogging. While complete anonymity may enable someone to evade any accountability for intemperate or unwise remarks, the creation and maintenance of a pseudonym can have a disciplining effect on blogger behavior, and thus should be encouraged as an alternative to purely anonymous blogging and posting. Reputation effects and the desire to maintain readership can impose significant discipline. A pseudonym operates like a brand name, and the value of the brand is, at least in part, a function of how the pseudonymous blogger acts over time. This disciplining effect is hardly perfect, however, particularly when it comes to maintaining civility. As I believe the tone and snarkiness of many pseudonymous bloggers and commenters attests, a pseudonym can reduce a blogger’s vulnerability to personal attacks and can shield him or her from social sanctions fur uncivil conduct. I believe this means that those who utilize pseudonyms should take greater responsibility for the tone and content of their own posts so their pseudonymous shield does not become a license for nastiness and snark (and I hope I was able to do this when I used a pseudonym). But I also believe that, barring exceptional circumstances (e.g. something far worse than wrong-headed criticism) other bloggers should respect the choice of others to rely upon pseudonyms.
Now anyone who thinks that he is truly anonymous on the Internet is a damned fool, so, as I've written before, it's best to assume that everyone in your life reads your blog every day -- even if they don't. Never think that you can live two separate lives.
Although I have made exceptions, I generally don't respond to completely anonymous comments. There needs to be a measure of accountability. And although I operate under a pseudonym, there are many readers who know my real name and could hold me personally accountable for what I have written -- and have. And there are many more readers who know me only pseudonymously, but can hold me accountable to the reputation that I would like for that pseudonym and this blog to have.
Totally anonymous commentors have no such accountability, and often act accordingly. Which is why I felt no compunction about outing the nasty anonymous comments left on my blog by Karen Sutherland, the lay leader of my former church that slandered me to my District Superintendent, Rick Neal, and had me driven out of the church and herself appointed pastor in my place. Which pissed her off.
But I digress. A little. Back to Whelan/Publius.
Whelan refers to Publius as "irresponsible". What exactly does that mean? Did Publius lie? Did he slash Whelan's tires? Or is "irresponsible" a codeword for "disagrees with me"?
Unless Whelan can express convincingly what Publius wrote that was so reprehensible, then his outing of Publius' real name was nothing but a particularly nasty ad hominem attack.
*I would like to note the irony that Whelan used an anonymous source to out an anonymous blogger.