Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Anonymity and the blogger

A great debate is going on in Australia at the moment over the vindictive decision of  the Australian to out the identity of blogger 'Grog's Gamut'. 

Grog allegedly deserved his fate, according to the Australian, for having the temerity to criticise coverage of the election campaign by the media, and be listened to by people who matter. 

But the case for outing him is dubious at best.  And he has written a strong response on the issue.

How should we respond to criticism?

The urge to hit back and seek to destroy those who criticise you through exposure of their identity is perhaps a human one.  No one likes having their public actions scrutinised and found wanting.  But, speaking as a victim of this mentality, the notion that no one is entitled to retain their anonymity, though popular in this age of ever increasing invasion of privacy, should be rejected.

If someone criticises your ideas or actions, respond on the substance of the issue, not by personal attack.  Have a discussion that can be judged on the merits of the case made, not by trading insults.

Because in my view personal attacks reflect the narcissism inherent in our society - a narcissism that we as catholics should reject.

Do we really need to know every detail of  a person's life to judge what they produce?

Once upon a time, anonymity was considered to be a virtue.

It was felt to reflect a desire to serve through substance, not claim fame.

Monks and nuns  - such as the late Dom Calvet of Le Barroux for example, that great exponent of the traditionalist ethic - published as 'a monk of' or a 'nun of' their particular monastery.  Some of the greatest novelists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries wrote under pseudonyms.  The identity of most composers of chant remains unknown to us.

And even if we did in fact know their names, how much would it really tell us?

True, one can these days become a celebrity to the point that people will hang on your every post be it about the actual issues, or your cooking or bird watching activities.  Such information may increase the flow of donations, but does it make what you actually say on substantive issues any more convincing?

True too, that revealing one's identity can be leveraged in real world work - some US and UK bloggers undertake public speaking engagements, go on tv, provide media comment and so forth.  But that should be a personal choice, not a job description for an unpaid blogger.

The secularist exultation of the individual

But we live in an age where everyone believes they have the right to know everything about anyone else - where paparazzi plague the famous, teenagers pour out their every thought and move on facebook, and some twitter their every passing reaction.

An age where, it seems, there is nothing more infuriating to some than not knowing all the trivial details of another person's life and being able to expose them to all the world.

Consequences of breach of privacy

Yet there are real dangers to having one's identity out in the open, as anyone who has been following the media over the last few years will know.  We live in an era where calumniation and detraction are rife, and where, having been immortalised by the internet, are almost impossible to rebut.  Where cyber attacks can take on physical dimensions. 

In Grog's case, it turns out he is a public servant, and though he appears to have observed the proper bounds of his position, his work life will almost certainly be severely compromised by the revelation of his identity. And even if there were truly an issue in relation to the Public Service Code of ethics, is outing him in public the proper way to deal with this issue?  I doubt it.

If the Australian didn't like what Grog was writing, they have a powerful medium at their disposal to rebut it (as indeed potentially do all of us in this age of blogs).  Ideas, actions and arguments in the public domain should be responded to in the public domain on the level of ideas.

Not through personal attacks.


R J said...

Time was when Terra's comments on this issue would have alarmed me. Now they strike me as eminently commonsensical.

Some years ago I publicly deprecated authors' (in particular bloggers') anonymity and pseudonymity. I still maintain that both anonymity and pseudonymity are better avoided, other things being equal. (For example - and whatever is the case with, say, the anonymous Gregorian chant which Terra mentions - The Gulag Archipelago might not be the great heroic document which it is, if it had been merely credited to "A Russian".)

To this end, my own identity is pretty obvious to anyone who knows how few Catholics called "R.J." there are in this country. (For some technological reason, I am not permitted to type in my full name when signing into the comboxes of websites like this one.)

But in 2010, other things manifestly are not equal. For several reasons.

In 2006 I failed to predict the extent to which serious print magazines would - over the next four years - close down altogether; or, more often, go exclusively online (Australia's National Observer, America's Crisis); or, still more often, cut contributors' payments to the bone. What price, in such an economic climate, the decently-paid authorship which I once advocated? I can no longer say.

Also, in 2006 I failed to predict how utterly, obscenely hopeless the mass media (whether Catholic or secular) would be in dealing with anything very much, but especially with today's Catholic sex abuse scandals. The Catholic mass media simply snubbed - when they did not, in obedience to Organised Sodom, actively calumniate - any orthodox Catholic layman who tried to warn them of the outrage which further cover-ups would inspire. We owe it to the blogosphere that the loathsome Maciel's reputation was eventually demolished, and that the canonisation of John Paul II has been indefinitely stalled. This uncomfortable truth I must now admit.

"Grog", meanwhile may perhaps take some comfort from the fact that The Australian's victory against him is decidedly Pyrrhic. Fact is, nobody now takes seriously the truth-telling pretensions of Red Rupert Murdoch, unless his or her pay-packets depend on the ever harder task of keeping a straight face in the midst of Murdoch outlets' frenzied smear-campaigns. The very existence, and popularity, of the Internet has inflicted more damage on the Dirty Digger than 1000 old-fashioned trade-unionists could have done.

Terra said...

We need perhaps to distinguish between hit and run trolls who change their 'identity' frequently, and those who maintain a consistent pseudonym.

Good post on why bloggers choose to publish under pseudonmyms here:


R J said...

Thanks, Terra, for supplying the link to the Dave Gaukroger article, which I hadn't seen or heard about before. It is certainly meritorious and well argued.