Thursday, September 23, 2010

Why pseudonymity matters

A while back, someone on Twitter shared a link to an article in an Anthopology blog that mused about the reasons why people are more comfortable sharing personal information on line than they are in person. But as I read the article, I saw something else: one of the reasons why many women choose to use pseudonyms online.

The blogger witnessed a conversation on a subway that went like this (full version here):

Him: I haven’t seen you in awhile!
Her: Yeah …
Him: So are you going to Penn?
Her: No.
Him: You don’t live out east?
Her: No. I live here, in Manhattan.
Him: Oh, I live on Long Island. If I didn’t have kids …
Her: Yeah, it’s expensive.
Him: Well, yeah. But also the schools. I would have to pay for the type of education my kids get on Long Island.
Her: [Nods politely. Casts sidelong glance at me.]
Him: Are you married.
Her: No.

Just reading the conversation made my skin crawl and set off every one of my warning alarms about creepy guys. Ick. ICK.

The anthropology blog muses that people are willing to share much more personal information online because they feel as if they have a degree of distance that they don't have on a subway. There's this implication that sharing information online is just as dangerous as talking to a creepy guy on a subway, but that people don't realize just how dangerous it is.

But... sharing can be valuable as well as dangerous.

Living in a world where one can't share personal stories - a kid's lost tooth, a failed experiment, a glorious day in the field - is isolating. It's even more isolating when those personal stories involve undercurrents of discrimination - like being mistaken for an administrative assistant. Blogs (and other communication across distance) can reduce the sense of isolation for women geoscientists - that's one of the findings from the survey that Anne Jefferson, Pat Campbell, Suzanne Francks, and I did last summer (now online here). Blogs do seem to help.

But sharing that personal information can come at a cost if you attach your real-life name to it. Creepy stalkers may be rare, but if your real name is attached to your stories, you can be found. And, although it may help job-seekers to be Googleable, it's also important that job-seekers come across as someone who would fit into a job. Expressing fear that you aren't good enough at research is not a good way to sell yourself to an R1 university, and sharing frustration with teaching sexist students does not make you look like an excellent teacher. The very things that make women-in-science blogs valuable could threaten the careers of the bloggers, if the bloggers didn't use pseudonyms.

We didn't talk about pseudonyms in our GSA Today article. But I've got a feeling that pseudonymity is what makes the benefits discussed in our article possible.

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