Monday, August 12, 2002

Edit: I hadn't thought of this, but I shudder to think at what would happen were the brilliant Atrios of Eschaton were to respond to this, considering his site is even more popular and he's just as pseudonymous as I am. Then again, he's probably above it.

Second Edit: Thanks to Tapped for linking to me, even if they seem to loathe light text on a black background like cockroaches in your cheerios. One thing, though: my pseudonymous name is "Demosthenes"... the site itself is called "Shadow of the Hegemon". For an explanation of both, I have a link below to my first post, which should explain things well enough.

Third Edit: As it turns out, Atrios did comment on it. He actually brought up something I didn't, noting that "there are plenty of pseudonyms on both sides of the political spectrum. People tend to ignore the issue when Bloggers they like have pseuds, and bring it up for Bloggers they don't like. Some people have no-linking (or no perma-linking) policies for "anonymous" Bloggers, which they institute on an inconsistent basis - which is fine, it's their sites". I actually didn't know about that last part- I wasn't aware that any sites cared so much about the issue. Then again, if Atrios is right, they really don't.

(And one more thing for those who are reading my site for the first time thanks to that Tapped link: I don't, as a rule, talk about myself this much. Just in case some people thought this was some sort of JournalBlog.)

Well, now I've gone and done it. Steven Den Beste wrote what basically amounts to a screed about my anonymity, and about anonymity in general. Honestly, I hadn't expected such a thing- I knew that he wasn't overly fond of anonymity, but there were a lot of other things that he could complain about, and the question of anonymity was only one of the ideas that I responded to in that entry that Steven wrote that linked me at its end (and equated me with Warbloggerwatch.) I didn't figure he'd spend so much time and energy attacking what is honestly only a mildly important point, but there it is.

And what does he attack? Well, like many others, he knows about Orson Scott Card's books, and that the character of Demosthenes inspired my current pseudonym. I don't think he read my first entry, because it explains it pretty well. (and by the way, Steven, the reason I don't link to permalinks of my own entries is because I don't trust them to work in the first place... but it's at the bottom of the first archive link, for those who wish to read it). I think I'll quote myself here:

My name, at least for the purposes of this site, is Demosthenes. It comes from two different people: a fictional character, and a real historical figure. The real one is a Greek orator by the same name, who is considered by some to be the best orator who ever lived. Although I haven’t read that many of his speeches yet, what I’ve read I've liked. The second and more important “Demosthenes”, however, is from Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game”. Demosthenes is the demogogic network pseudonym of one of the main characters, Valentine Wiggin. Together with her brother Peter’s more reasonable “Locke” pseudonym, they manage to have a decisive effect on world events and world politics. They were barely teenagers.

I read this book around the same time that the public became aware of the Internet. It had a profound effect. Breathless and optimistic articles in Wired magazine proclaimed that the Internet would change political discourse forever. The Internet would bring everybody together, there would be consensus, or at least agreement on the positions of the people on either side. The cliché about “brave new worlds” was in full flower, and the possibility of a teenager changing the world by talking on the Internet seemed not just possible, but inevitable. So I took on the name “Demosthenes” to show my belief in the power of debate to change the world.

Steven argues that the books were "fantasy". Actually, they were science fiction, and one of the reasons I like science fiction is its prescience... that although it rarely predicts the future exactly, it predicts aspects of the future, enough to keep you guessing. So it was with Card's book- what fascinated me about Demosthenes and Locke wasn't so much what they accomplished, but what they represented, and how eerily they predicted that old Internet saw that "on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog". Back when I first started using the name (and there are others), pseudonymity wasn't considered a bug, but a feature. As I said in that first entry, "times have changed, and not in the way I would have preferred." One of those changes are these attacks on pseudonymity.

Steven goes on to complain that "nobody has ever had the influence that these kids had". It shows that he hadn't really read the books much, because Peter and Valentine really didn't have as much influence and power as he seems to think- certainly not more than the President. Locke, actually, wasn't really that well known at all, and it's well established in the book that Demosthenes gained his notoriety by being a firebrand demagogue; one of the more amusing points was that Valentine knew that there were significant holes in Demosthenes' arguments, and that her father agreed with Demosthenes despite the holes. Demosthenes was well known and well respected, but didn't have nearly as much power as Steven seems to think, and certainly didn't start anything like a revolution. The key reason Demosthenes existed was so that when Locke (Peter's persona) came up with his proposal for peace, Demosthenes would be able to use what notoriety and influence as he has to endorse it, and considering that Locke and Demosthenes were bitter enemies, the proposal would gain huge credibility.

(An amusing contradiction of Steven's argument is that Locke only gained real political power and influence when he dropped the mask and because Hegemon- a position that, at the time he did it, carried little authority, power, and influence).

In any case, however, Steven is highly critical of the entire enterprise.

The idea of hoping to have "the reputation of Demosthenes grow and exist apart from my credentials in real life" is, sad to say, a bit unrealistic. Demosthenes is one voice amongst hundreds of thousands, and life just doesn't act that way. And in any case, anonymity actually impedes any progress in that direction. The nameless human behind the blog hopes that the synthetic avatar Demosthenes will take on a life of its own. It's a disturbing ambition.
This is a very curious argument for someone who actually does wield some small amount of influence in this growing medium, and who has compatriots (like Instapundit) that demonstrate it as well. Indeed, that outsize influence is one of the reasons that I've been criticizing Den Beste so heavily- he appears to be attempting to leverage a close reading of Clausewicz, a good knowledge of WWII and citation of various popular political articles into a supposedly comprehensive knowledge of political theory, political philosophy, and international relations. He makes mistakes, and I call him on them. I've been doing this because very few others have, and because his (actually well-written) arguments closely parallel those made by others in the Blogosphere, and by addressing those arguments I can make larger points. Those who have read this site regularly know that I usually use other articles as a "jumping off point" for my own thoughts on a situation, and Steven works quite well in that respect. Perhaps my greatest mistake has been to worry so much about rebutting the guy, instead of just using him as a springboard.

Anyway, back to pseudonymity.

The quotation above is followed by what is really the meat of the whole thing:

The other aspect of the argument is much more important. The human in question not only hopes that Demosthenes the avatar will become famous and respected and influential, but also that the human will never be connected with the avatar and his responsibility for the avatar will never be publicly revealed. (And now I'll go back to using "Demosthenes" to refer to the human, rather than to the avatar that human is attempting to sustain.)
And now the problem becomes clear- he accuses me of overweening ambition by deliberately misinterpreting what I said. I'll quote myself again, because the latter point was selectively interpreted and important in and of itself:

more importantly I don't want interpretation of my arguments weighed by how people perceive my beliefs and interests- I'd prefer the arguments to stand on their own, and the reputation of Demosthenes to grow and exist apart from my reputation and credentials in real life.
Steven interpreted this to say that "I want Demosthenes to become powerful and influential and famous". That is not what I meant. (I think that Steven knew that's not what I meant, and didn't care). What I was getting at was a key reason why someone chooses pseudonymity- that someone wishes to have their arguments and positions stand on their own. Most of the time when somebody says something to somebody else, what they say is filtered by the listener according to their perceived gender, age, sexuality, personality, nationality, ethnicity, and whatever else constitutes their identity. Only after all that filtering is done with does the message get through, and more often than not the real content is changed utterly by the perception of that person's interests and beliefs- as McLuhan said, "the medium is the message". This is, by far, the more important reason I chose pseudonymity- as I've said, there are people in real life who know about this blog and know that I'm the author of it. I'm not afraid of saying in real life what I say here, and I'm not one to hold my opinions back.

Why not anonymity, though? Well, Anonymity presents its own problems. If one is truly anonymous, then there is no consistent body of work and arguments that someone can refer back to when making a point or defending a point. You could be anybody, and there's no possible way of verifying that the same person who wrote the last piece is the one who wrote the current one. There is the advantage of never having to worry about what you say affecting your real life, but there's no reward for consistency and no way for people to make any connection between a work and its author. It also means that there's no punishment for screwing up, either, because the person involved can just pick a different persona and jump right back in. (Usenet featured a lot of this sort of thing by trolls and spammers who don't care about the reputation of their personae.) There's also pretty much no way of developing any sort of audience or readership, which means that your ideas get "lost in the tide"- readers have no previous history of work with which to judge whether or not they should bother with current work. THAT is what I meant by reputation, Steven, not any sort of ridiculous ambition for influence. You can see this by simply zipping on over to slashdot and checking out their "anonymous cowards", who often write insightful posts of great educational or entertainment value, but who by definition can't develop any sort of reputation for doing so- they have to fight their way past the label "anonymous" and all the other morons who have it before they can be noticed. If that even happens.

Pseudonymity addresses both of these issues. It allows for someone to exist as a consistent person, but isn't prey to that filtering mechanism. Yes, someone who develops an online persona could easily drop it and conjure up another, but they would be "starting from square one"- just like the anonymous trolls I mentioned earlier, nobody would really take them seriously, because nobody would have any reason to take them seriously. They could theoretically rebuild themselves back up, but then they're just in a situation where they need to protect their reputation again- the only difference is the name, and all the wasted time, and the necessity for proving oneself worth listening to once again.

The Blogosphere isn't the first community online, of course; there's a bunch of them, and this question of "pseudonym" vs. "anonym" vs. "real" is actually a pretty old one. For those who want to understand pseudonymity, I suggest this article about the "rape in cyberspace". You might remember it- it was that incident on LambdaMOO a while back where one person messed with the avatars of others in extremely degrading ways resembling rape, which prompted an traumatic response from the victims in question- not their pseudonyms, but the players themselves. It's a fascinating and disturbing story, but it culminates with response from the online rapist himself, saying that it was merely a "psychological device..a sequence of events with no consequence on my RL existence".

That prompted this reply:

They might have known. Stilted though its diction was, the gist of the answer was simple, and something many in the room had probably already surmised: Mr. Bungle was a psycho. Not, perhaps, in real life -- but then in real life it's possible for reasonable people to assume, as Bungle clearly did, that what transpires between word-costumed characters within the boundaries of a make-believe world is, if not mere play, then at most some kind of emotional laboratory experiment. Inside the MOO, however, such thinking marked a person as one of two basically subcompetent types. The first was the newbie, in which case the confusion was understandable, since there were few MOOers who had not, upon their first visits as anonymous "guest" characters, mistaken the place for a vast playpen in which they might act out their wildest fantasies without fear of censure. Only with time and the acquisition of a fixed character do players tend to make the critical passage from anonymity to pseudonymity, developing the concern for their character's reputation that marks the attainment of virtual adulthood. But while Mr. Bungle hadn't been around as long as most MOOers, he'd been around long enough to leave his newbie status behind, and his delusional statement therefore placed him among the second type: the sociopath.
(Bolding mine.) That is what I meant by reputation, Steven, not this sort of overwhelming ambition. Pseudonymity is different than anonymity precisely because of that reputation, and the desire to protect it. The Blogosphere isn't the only community in cyberspace to grapple with these issues, it's just the newest, and it's the the most "pseudo" community of the lot.

With that in mind, a lot of the rest of Steven's rant becomes pointless, even if it weren't already. He seems to think that I'm afraid- he goes back to the same argument over and over again that I'm afraid to commit to my own arguments, that I'm afraid to stand behind my convictions, that I'm "cowering behind an avatar". He claims that I only "reveal it to those who are sympathetic", when one of the people who does know is rather unsympathetic to my views, and I knew that when I told him. Steven continuously and pathetically puts words in my mouth and thoughts in my head that simply aren't there and does it again, and again, and again...

Steven, I'm not afraid, and never have been. I don't believe that people would instantly reject me were I to reveal my real identity, any more than I think that other anonymous bloggers like Atrios (who is far more inflammatory than I've ever been) would be worth rejecting were I to discover their real identity. It's not about fear, it's about evading those filters of interest and identity, and about the decision to let one's insights stand on their own.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the whole sorry business is this one part:

Demosthenes has made no attempt whatever to prove that he is entitled to wield the moral authority he presumes to, by attempting to advise us as to what we should do. If he is so certain of his position, and if he wants the rest of us to act on what he says, then why does he himself not demonstrate the courage of his own conviction and himself act on what he says? Why does he ask us all to publicly embrace his opinions when he won't do so, and ask us to accept the social consequences he is trying to avoid?

And why should anyone listen to him if he won't?
It comes down to that question of legitimacy again, doesn't it? I make no presumption as to any "moral authority" except that provided by those who listen to me. If they listen, if they agree, if they act on what I say, then I have whatever moral authority that grants me. If they don't, if they disagree, or if they ignore me, then I don't have moral authority, whether I use my real name, a pseudonym, or post anonymously. If Demosthenes-the-pseudonym gained real power for some reason (which didn't happen in the books), then that power would be given by those who read with the full knowledge that I am a pseudonym, and nothing Steven Den Beste can say would ever take that away from him. Period.

Demosthenes would, I suspect, respond to that: "Listen to the arguments, not to the arguer." But if the arguments are convincing, then why doesn't the voice who presents them act as if he believes them? If anyone should follow an advocated course of action, surely the person doing the advocating should be first.
Do I not? How would you know? For all you know, Steven, I might try to put what I say here into action every day of my life. I might be standing on a street corner preaching it to everybody in sight, stopping only to duck into an Internet cafe and write an entry here and there. Even if I didn't, though, what would it matter? It's not even that "it's the arguments, not the arguer" (although that's certainly true, and Steven has neatly fallen into a textbook ad hominem)- Steven hasn't the faintest idea whether I act as if I believe them or not, except through the entirely useless act of trying to hang their validity on any reputation I might have in real life, or the meaningless act of trying to build my real-life reputation on what I've written here. (The latter is valid, of course, but doesn't matter one whit as to whether my points deserve to be listened to or not.)

Steven, I'm not ashamed of one damned thing that I've ever written. Even the stupid stuff, even the mistakes, even the bloody spelling mistakes and HTML errors that crop up far too often for my liking. I'm proud of it, and even more proud that people think that it's worthy enough to read. I'm humbled by the knowledge that people actually come back to read the site of their own free will, and feel that what I've written is important enough to leave comments on the site and emails in my mailbox, whether I agree or disagree with them. I'm even more humbled when I realize that it's not because of my real life identity, but because they feel that what I write is worth reading, worth quoting, and worth arguing over. I'm amazed and gratified that I have as many readers as I do, and the short entry with which I celebrated my first ten thousand visitors didn't even begin to describe how awed I was that such a thing could happen, and how glad I was that I didn't try to trade on whatever authority I might have "in real life" but instead made the site live or die on its own merits.

No, Steven, the only thing I'm ashamed and embarrassed about is this entry. I know that you don't like pseudonymity- you've made that abundantly clear. I know that whatever goodwill I gained from that first "here's a guy who actually argues honestly against war in Iraq" post is long gone, and I accept that as the price of consistent criticism. But to distract your readers who come to your site expecting political, military, and theoretical insights with this sort of pablum? A long attack against someone who by your own arguments seems to be beneath your notice? I somehow doubt they come to your site expecting this sort of screed (I certainly don't), and you could have addressed the response by simply saying "I wasn't directly talking about you, Demosthenes, so stop being so bloody paranoid". Instead, however, we get mad frothing rage from someone that, for all his faults, I thought was above it. It's a pity, really, and I wouldn't have responded were the issue of pseudonymity not something that needs to be defended. I hope that I have done so adequately enough to ensure that my readers will continue to visit this space. Heck, one day I might say "to heck with it" and identify who I really am. To be honest, though, the reaction I would most hope for is a resounding shurg. To me, and hopefully to my readers, it really doesn't matter.

Oh, and one admission: Yes, I do use Rogers, and therefore live in Canada. Unless, of course, I'm spoofing.

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