(Well, this started out as a short post on a topic that had been close to my mind recently. It just sort of turned into something larger. I'm afraid it's not very well-edited, since I don't have time to go over a work of this length, but I'm leaving it here for those who might find it useful.)
PART A: ANONYMITY
Recently, some of the virtues and vices of blogging anonymously stirred my interest, for reasons that I won't go into here. For the most part, I disapprove of blogging anonymously in any blog written for public consumption, particularly if you want to talk about your social setting.
Some people, like the Curmudgeonly Clerk, have good reasons for not putting their name to their blogs: federal rules may prohibit it, and there's no real point in them losing their jobs. But in the main, I find it a bad plan.
Before anyone accuses me of blatant hypocrisy, I have blogged anonymously in the past, both on sites like Deadjournal and some bulletin board sites (way back in the day). But these were always what I would call 'community journals,' writing intended specifically for a very narrow audience of friends and family who already knew who I was. If you weren't a member of that audience, you might 'stumble' on the journal--but otherwise you'd have to be a pretty damn dedicated stalker, in which case you've got worse problems. One key element of such journals is that they have a security model: in most of them, access to the writing was limited either to members of the community, or at the very least could be limited if I wished. At least to the target audience, it wasn't so much blogging anonymous but under another name.
'But that was in another country,' and besides, this is a different kind of blog. Most of the people I link to from Three Years of Hell, or who leave comments, are either professionals, students, or academics. We move within a very, very narrow world, and if our writings are going to be interesting at all, we have to write about the people with whom we work or play, those who make us insanely angry or profoundly grateful. Most of the problems of blogging anonymously arise from this 'small world' effect:
1. It doesn't work anyway
As I said, most professional (or school) bloggers move within a world circumscribed by a very limited number of real-world walls. This means your anonymity is inversely proportional to the actual value of figuring out who you are. In other words, if you're a Harvard blogger but I'm at Columbia, I'm unlikely to be interested in whether you're 'Webbed Lightning' or 'Alfred Pennyworth.' I'm not likely to meet you casually, and unless I've got some real-world friend in your area (always possible), I'm unlikely to care. But then, I'm not going to find your real name that useful anyway.
But if you're at Columbia and so am I, finding out who you are is pretty easy. First of all, blogging is at its heart an exhibitionist endeavor, and you're going to tell someone. They won't keep it quiet. And in a law school, rumours move fast.
But even supposing you're a model of discretion, you're going to write about things around you. If you're a law school blogger, you'll write about something funny that happened in your classes, or one of your social events; if you're a professional, you might talk about a client; if you're a doctor, you might mention some freaky disease. From that observation, or a number of them over time, you'll get found out. And once one person figures it out, forget it: you can't climb back into the bottle without scrapping the blog and starting over. From a new IP address.
Oh, yeah, that's the other thing: anonymity presumes you know the bits of the net that don't leave a trail. If you don't know what WHOIS does, how IP addresses work, or what's written in the source code to your site, don't even dream that you're anonymous. Sure, you might be, but you'd be surprised what a sufficiently determined (and skilled) net detective will figure out.
2. It gives the illusion of safety
But an anonymous blogger, thinking they're safe from detection, may quickly develop a sense of security that's wholly unwarranted. Blogs are similar to diaries, after all, and it's very human to put some comments into a personal diary: "That damnable right wing nut was at it again today, griping about persecution of Christianity." "Hasn't he noticed that his coat makes him look like a woolen version of the StayPuft Marshmallow Man?" "And with regards to the kid eating next to me, three words: no more onions." (And these are just things people could say about me.)
If you have that under lock and key beneath your pillow (or, in digital terms, behind some password-protected page), so be it. But if you don't, be sure that the guy next to you on the elevator is hearing about it. Even if they don't read your blog, someone they know will be. And maybe, just maybe, they'll put two and two together.
Here's a thought experiment: go to Friendster.com. If you don't have a profile, make one. Then search for one of your (relatively web-savvy) friends on the east coast, and link them to you. After that, search for a friend or two on the west coast who has almost no connection to the first friend. If you're like me, you'll find that the two friends are linked by at most three or four degrees of separation, via people you don't even know. Now think how much closer that is in law school. Or your office.
Bottom line, folks: if you talk about someone, no matter how careful you are, they're going to figure it out. If not every time, probably at the worst time. No one will expend the mental effort to determine if you're the person who held the door for you this morning, but people will hunt for the guy you slagged off for making that awful smacking noise with his gums.
3. It makes other people nervous
Now, imagine the blogger whose secret is out. Their Batman has suddenly been revealed as not-so-millionaire law-student Bruce Wayne, and he's had some pretty nasty teeth behind that cowl. Well, the result there is obvious. But let's suppose our Mr. Wayne has been the model of discretion and decency, or at least been justified in whatever bile he's spat during his 'Batman' phase. How are people who he talks to daily going to react, wondering if the next thing they say is going to be broadcast to the world at large?
So, anonymity doesn't work, gives a blogger a shield made of candyfloss, and can alienate their real world friends. In which case, I really find it's best to just go ahead and put your name on the work to begin with. You don't have the security, and it makes you think that much harder before you start running your mouth.
PART B: SOME RULES TO LIVE BY
Let's assume that some bloggers haven't been web-heads since NCSA Mosaic 1.0, just got their Blogger account, and want to start writing away. What are some good rules? Well, from my experience:
1. Would you say this to your mother?
Re-read everything you write, and ask if you'd say it in real life. In fact, ask if you'd say it in answer to one of your professors, over the microphone in your largest lecture hall, to all of your assembled fellow students. OK, no teacher is ever going to ask this kind of question, but if they did, would you want to be remembered for the answer? That's the test that goes through every one of these entries, every time. (Largely, I'll admit, because I've made serious mistakes in the past. Heck, you can check some of the archives here, though they're hardly my worst.) If I won't say it in real life, it's not going on here.
Everything you say on a blog will be remembered: even if you remove it, there's the off chance you didn't get to it before the Googlespider did, and trying to get something you've said out of that spider's cache is a royal pain. Even worse is trying to get it out of the hands of people who have read it already.
2. Grant your victims their anonymity.
As I said, you're going to mention people you know, the people you talk to every day. After all, unless you're someone like Prof. Volokh, with some cutting-edge professional things to say, what you're talking about is your life, and very few of your readers will be wanting to hear your personal opinions: they're here for your life. But the people you write about have not, in general, asked to be there. My attitude is to treat each and every one of them, no matter how much you like them or are being complimentary, as your victims.
I'm serious. If you assume an adversary relationship even to the mention of your best friend, you're less likely to run into trouble. When I wrote the story below about advising a friend to invite her young man up to New York when he felt like it, I asked the woman for permission, giving her a full copy of the post before I posted it. If she's said no, you're be down one story. I can write about something else, and stories are a cheaper currency than friends.
In these cases, honesty is overrated. If you get a story from me, you're getting at best a half-truth. I feel perfectly free to change the location of the action, the sex of the actors, anything except the essential action of the story, if I feel that the person involved doesn't want to be identified. I know what I'm trying to say, and you'll get the point, hopefully with a laugh at the end. I'm not going to give you enough to find my 'victims' unless you were there. It's only fair to them.
3. Self-censor. Frequently.
I can already hear the comments as I'm writing this: "But... but... if I do things like that, my readers won't be getting an authentic idea of what the law school experience is like." But they won't get that anyway--at the very best, they're getting facets of your law school experience, filtered through your own particular opinions. Unless you're going to spend an inordinate amount of time blogging in a day, your readers will get disconnected vignettes, small glimpses of the highs and lows of your experience. They're not getting 'authenticity' anyway, they won't miss it because you decided not to slam some gunner you didn't happen to like.
There's a lot of topics that are dear to my heart that don't make it to here. There's some political issues I won't address, not because I don't have feelings on them, but because I do and I know they'll offend some people unnecessarily. Much as I'd love to tell you about my love life, my relationship with my family, or the juicy gossip of the law school, it's not getting published.
And make sure it's not just political opinions you're censoring. That's an exception to the rule above. It would be relatively easy for anyone, at least at the school, to figure out who my professors are. I'm not going to contact them every time I write something, and indeed so far as I know, none of them read Three Years of Hell. But in return, I'm not about to say anything unkind about them, or even anything less than approval. Most law students will find this practical (don't peeve your examiners--a good maxim), but more importantly, it's polite.
4. When you're done self-censoring, do it again
And by this, I mean 'watch your language.' The occasional four-letter word isn't a killer, but they are words that wound, and raise your risks of getting into trouble with your readers. Besides, very few people will think better of you because you can use the word 'cunt' as a descriptive term. Ask if you need the word there, and if not, lose it.
When you get the urge to let it loose, go read Warren Ellis' blog. There's a man who can curse. When you feel like being Spider Jerusalem, ask yourself if you can live up to the hype. If you can't, drop the act.
5. It's not just on your blog
All of the above, by the way, applies whether you're a blogger or someone leaving a comment. Most blogs don't have a very tight security model, and it's sometimes tempting to comment from anonymity. All the warnings above apply to you too.
I generally comment with my real name, or if not, with a link to Three Years of Hell, to avoid the temptation to start acting like a jerk. But even if you don't want to leave your name, remember that what you're saying will be read, and especially if you're commenting anonymously, your words will represent everyone who's mistaken for you.
How would you feel if a colleague, a workmate, or a professor wrote to ask you, "What's going on at Company X? Your colleagues are swearing like sailors and acting like children." He then gives you a link to a 'debate' which features foul language, unveiled insults, and personal attacks, all signed by "A Member of Company X" or "Another Secretary at Company X." Not pretty, is it? Many of the blogs you comment on have readerships in the hundreds, if not thousands, and you give you and your associates a reputation.
(Note that, as mentioned on the 'About' page, I reserve the right to edit or delete comments, and have done so in the past.)
None of this is revolutionary, nor even particularly original. It's common sense. I can't claim to always get it right. I've annoyed a number of people (and usually apologized for it) with things I've said here. Bloggers are only human, and we won't get it right all the time. Still, these are the rules I'd like to live by. If anything because I'm less likely to lose the affection of my friends or the respect of my peers if I do so.
(If my readers have gotten this far, and have any other suggestions for good blog etiquette, I'd love to see it. I apologize for the disjointed nature of this post. I'll probably edit it a bit over the next few days to make it more coherent.)