At her address to the Bloggers Caucus at the MDP Convention two weeks ago, Governor Granholm admitted to being a regular lurker on Michigan Liberal, MI's best lefty blog. She proved it, too, as she went around the room calling handles from people's nametags. You're wizardkitten! And you're Brainwrap! she called out, as she went around the room. She had a confused look in her face when she met me, presumably because she has met me several times in the last few months in my role as Vice Chair of my county party, and in all those meetings, we never talked about blogging, nor did I identify myself as emptywheel. Before she left, we all joked that, whenever she wanted it, she could have the handle "Michigan One," so she could post on her own.
The governor of Michigan gets it. She gets that we use handles to blog. And she understands the joy of, for the first time, placing a face to a handle and--as often as not--a real name. And that marks her
as someone who understands the community of blogging.
I have nothing against people using pseudonymns to write in comment threads (except when, as in Lee's case, they're writers working under the expectation that they always take public responsibility for their work), or who author blogs while cloaking their identities. It's a free country, and pseudonymous speech has a long tradition in American politics and a strong legal basis for continued protection. However, I was and remain disturbed by the way newspapers and magazines quote from bloggers and commenters whose identities they do not even make an attempt to determine.
But she uses the embarrassment of Lee Siegel as an opportunity to campaign against a completely unrelated issue, quoting bloggers without first knowing their real identity. She does so, too, by invoking another only partly related issue, supporters of campaigns advocating for those campaigns while writing under pseudonym.
Before I deal with these issues, though, I'd like to turn to this concept she introduces, "Double-Sided Anonymity." What a remarkable phrase!! Because, first of all, we're not talking about anonymity at all. We're talking about pseudonymity, blogging under a consistent identity, albeit one identified by a different name than the ones your parents gave you. I guess Garance uses the term to refer to the double blindness that results when a newspaper cites from a blogger without first ascertaining her identity. But it's misleading. Presumably, a newspaper isn't going to cite from a blogger--except to give a story blog color--unless that blogger has an established and consistent identity. If someone were to quote me, they be quoting emptywheel, a voice that has been around for at least three years, one with a track record in certain areas. Want to quote a blogger who spends an inordinate amount of time reading filings from the Plame case? You can be sure you've got a credible source by quoting me, even if you don't know me as Marcy Wheeler. Garance makes this threat into a much more dangerous one than it is by conflating (and not for the first time) pseudonymity and anonymity.
So lets go back to her argument.
First, she's using what Siegel did to attack two unrelated practices. But what Siegel did is different (and fits the narrow definition of sock puppetry). Siegel broke the rules precisely because he tried to sustain multiple identities online, in what might properly be called pseudo-schizophrenia. Even so, as Siegel and others have found out, it's very difficult to maintain pseudo-schizophrenia, precisely because the way human identity works. It turns out that our writing style marks our identity as surely as our birth name. And since those who try sock puppetry are generally those with fragile egos and weaker writing styles, they tend to reveal their true identity either because they continue to fight the same battles as they do under their real name (Ezra first identified Siegel, for example, when Siegel mentioned his mother), or they use the same writing style. You'd have to be a great writer to get away with sock puppetry in a true blog community (imagine James Wolcott with a handful of sock puppets--that would be scary), but chances are, if you're that good of a writer, you don't need to resort to such tools.
Then Garance talks about the danger of newspapers citing pseudonymous bloggers without ascertaining their identity. Maybe I'm missing the big influx of blog-pundits being cited by the dead tree news. But as I said, chances are if they're citing a blogger, they're citing her pseudonymously, which is different. And, as
Duncan Atrios points out, there are so many existing problems with anonymous (as distinct from pseudonymous) sourcing in this day and age, I don't understand how Garance judges this to be the overwhelmingly threatening one.
As for the general issue, yes quoting anonymous blog commenters is generally a stupid practice, though journalists/editors and producers rarely bother to let their readers/viewers know the relevant financial connections and conflicts of interest of those who write op-eds or appear on their television shows (let alone for those who do "man in the street"-type interviews, which is really more of what we're talking about here). Yes, disclosure of this stuff is always good but in the hierarchy of Problems With Journalism the dreaded Anonymous Blog Commenter is really just a matter for a blogger ethics panel. There's rarely any vetting of the kind Garance imagines for bloggers anywhere else in the universe.
After all, if someone were to quote me, emptywheel, for an article on, say, Jennifer Granholm, it'd be simple as pie to find out my biases, even easier than it would be to find the biases that come with being a county officer for the Democratic party. It'd be a lot harder to expose the biases in the SAOs who loaded Judy Miller up with bogus claims (until Judy's identity itself began to ruin the credibility of her anonymous sources). And a lot more dangerous.
Which leaves us with Garance's threat that a Congressional staffer blogs pseudonymously to support her boss. Perhaps I'm naive, but I really wonder if Garance knows what she's talking about. It seems to me, the folks pushing candidates at DKos fall into one of several categories:
- Committed volunteers blogging on their own time
- Bloggers not blogging on issues related to their candidates
- People whose identity quickly becomes identified with their candidates, in which case their biases remain clear
The thing is, if someone is blogging about a candidate consistently enough to get even one diary recommended at DKos, chances are their pseudonymous identity is thoroughly marked as a candidate supporter. If a blogger is doing drive-by posting, she won't have enough credibility to attract any notice within the blogging community--much less the notice of the press at large. The nature of human identity is such that its very difficult to maintain the fictions that Garance is so fearful of over the long term. And odds are good that, before that happened, you'd have revealed your identity to a few select people anyway.
But it all comes down to a misunderstanding about two things--the difference between pseudonymity and anonymity, and the nature of credibility in the blogging community. People who win credibility in the blogosphere do it by maintaining a consistent identity over time. That identity reveals more biases than newspapers currently do when they name someone by a birth name. And the identity of that blogger is vouched, as often as not, by her relationship and consistent ties to the community.