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Posted
14 March 2005

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Anonymity

Some time ago I wrote briefly about my decision to (partly) anonymise myself for this blog. Over the years I've played on both sides of the field. Reflecting on this experience and the experiences of others, I'm more and more convinced that anonymity is the right decision for me, but also that it's harder than you might expect.

Of course anonymity is not for everyone, but my advice for beginning bloggers is to make it your default position. In other words, if you can't come up with a good reason to identify yourself, then you shoud probably be anonymous. The risks of divulging too much information about yourself are many, sometimes complex and sometimes obscure. A colleage asked me recently what the risks were of posting his parent's home address on his website. At the time I said the risks were probably minor, but there's always the nagging doubt that there's something I'm missing.

The internet has a long memory and is more searchable than any other information repository that we've had in the past, and so magnifies the privacy risks. Sometimes there is a risk of a highly undesirable outcome that is also very unlikely - but the multiplying factor of the internet makes it worth considering. In a recent hacknot article, Mr. Ed cites considers the

risk [of] antagonizing someone who may be genuinely dangerous. This is one of the prime reasons for conducting online arguments anonymously, wherever possible.

In short: better to be safe than sorry, and all that.

More important than considering anonmyity for yourself, you should also consider whether or not to identify your family members, employer, and other important people and organisations that you refernce in your blog. Eric Meyer makes good points on the selfishness of sacrificing your children's privacy for the sake of your blog. When reading this I just can't help but think of dooce, a great blog that goes into intimate, graphic detail about one new mother's life, identifying all concerned by name and image. It's compelling reading, and very funny, but does make me cringe sometimes to think what her daughter (and her friends, enemies, etc) will make of it all in 16 years time. If privacy risks are difficult to assess for yourself, it must be even harder to do the same for others, particularly over a long time frame.

Speaking of dooce, she's often referenced in mainstream media stories about people who have lost their jobs as a result of blogging. Also there have been cases of bloggers making career-limiting moves. In some of these cases it seems the blogger made a genuine attempt not to portray their employer in a negative light. However, corporations are generally known for their extreme sensitivity to criticism and honorable motives are seldom an acceptable excuse. Indirect criticism or even undesirable association are also asking for trouble eventually.

It is a strength and a weakenss of weblog technology that it's very easy to hit the "Publish" button. And once you do, there's no turning back - you cannot assume that anything made public can be revoked again at any time. In a moment of impulsive weakness you may lash out at someone or something in an inappropriate way, which may then come back to haunt you. If you don't trust yourself with the Publish button, anonymity is for you.

But let's not trivialise the cost of anonymity. One of the more obvious costs is the detriment to your credibility. I'm certain that most people would view a statement made by an identified person as more credible than one made anonymously. So as an anonymous entity you need to work a lot harder to establish credibility. One of the reasons I use my real first name when posting to this site is an attempt to mitigate the cost to my (already shaky) credibility.

Anonymity is also quite hard to achieve in practice. It requires effort and thought to avoid 'leaking' your personal information to the internet, particularly when you have multiple online personas. Let me give an example. Like most people, I join mailing lists using my real name. The other day I was tempted to post to the list a link to an article here on girtby.net. However this would have created an association between this website and my real name. Of course I could have made it sound that I was just pointing to the article and not the author of it (e.g. "here's something I came across recently"), but to anyone looking closely it would be a relatively ineffective deception.

To give another example, a friend linked to me recently on his blog, using my full name. I politely nudged him and he removed my last name from the post (thanks!). But if you search in the right places you can still find the original version of the post and hence it's possible to identify me. I'm sure over the years I have inadvertently leaked someone else's private information; it's an easy thing to do sometimes.

BTW you may have noticed that I have added a page all about me. This page describes all the information that I'm prepared to make public about myself, in connection with girtby.net. It's a privacy policy of my very own!

Update: The EFF have a nice guide to blogging safely, including some hints and advice for blogging anonymously.

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