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Keeping a pseudonym hidden: possible?

(started out as an email; decided to make it a blogpost, just in case I add thoughts later on).

Liz Henry moderated a SXSW panel on fictional blogging. Here’s a wiki entry about it along with her notes (Here’s a list of panel notes along with a summary by Ethan Zuckerman).

Several interesting issues came up, including a new EU regulation that forbids the use of false identities for product reviews. Liz is a prolific blogger, and on her home page mentions she keeps a pseudonymous blog of 2 million+ words.

It does not exactly surprise me that Liz is a pseudonymous blogger, but I wondered if a blogger could really keep a writing project of that magnitude under wraps. In a brief email exchange, I asked for the URL of her “secret blog.” Then I had second thoughts; do I really need her to tell me this URL?

  1. after doing a simple google (“liz henry” pseudonym blog ) and finding nothing, I feel that Liz probably links multiple times to her blog (if you’re a blogger, you can’t help yourself; that’s the nature of the game). I remember once attending a panel with Danah Boyd where she made the point that it’s impossible to hide your identity on the web. I strongly disagreed in my mind (though I was heading to another panel, so I didn’t have the chance to make the point). It’s relatively easy to maintain a pseudonymity at least against the casual surfer. A generic name/title, plus a few red herrings, and it’s no problem really. Yes, if you’re lonelygirl15 or a mass murderer, people will eventually figure things out, but as long as people don’t have a compelling reason to hunt down your identity, you’re fine. I have a smalll pseudonymous fiction site and even can think of multiple ways people could track me down online, but no one ever has. The main thing I needed to worry about was bloggers writing, “Person X is really Robert Nagle” but I could easily take a few countermeasures to prevent this from appearing in search results (robot.txt makes it possible to remove your blog entry itself from google search results; but your footprint will still appear via other blogs). The best way to throw people off the track is to occasionally link to your pseudonymous blog with a random snarky comment (or better yet, write in a language with a nonRoman alphabet!)
  2. With several million words, plus the fact that Liz is connected to several west coast bloggers, it’s semi-likely one of them has linked to her pseudonymous blog at least a few times, and even if its subject is of no interest to me (i.e., knitting, VisualBasic, Survivor updates, etc), I’ve already heard of it.
  3. The trick is concocting an inconspicuous identity which at first glance raises no questions. I remember reading a hilarious piece about how to create your own vanity page on wiki. The trick is not creating your own page but hijacking a page of a lesser known celebrity or public figure and then gradually adding your personal details (the example cited was a nun in Italy who died 10 years ago). I don’t think the article was meant to be taken seriously, and perhaps the wiki people have enacted stricter controls on neglected entries, but it’s an interesting idea.
  4. The bugaboo of pseudonyms is Wikipedia. Yes, you could change a wiki page, but if someone were persistent enough, it would just require too much effort to create sockpuppets everywhere and reedit the page. Even if a friend or sockpuppet could keep burying the information on the wiki entry, the version history would make it easy to verify. I am REALLY tempted to create a wiki entry about Liz Henry (with a few lines), wait 6 months, and see what activity has happened to it.
  5. In my mind the only way to protect a pseudonym after it has gained critical mass is to create an “obfuscating haze” of 10 or so counteridentities. But that’s way too much trouble just to protect a single identity..unless you’re hiding from a police or a crazy ex. You’d have to bolster the counteridentities with other supporting evidence, and you’d have to add to these counteridentities over time just to narrow the field of possibilities for the random surfer. Once it requires more effort to protect a pseudonym than to actually write for it, the cover will be blown.
  6. In my mind, the perfect way to deflect people from your main pseudonym is to create an easy-to-find pseudonym and let people think that this pseudonym is in fact the main one. If you want to throw a real surprise party for someone, drop enough hints for a “fake surprise party” and then throw the real one a day early (or be open about planning a real one–then having the real one occur at a different time or place; why on earth would anyone go to the trouble to plan two parties?)
  7. It’s possible to exclude a pseudonymous project from search engine search results. But it’s not possible to prevent other people’s posts about this secret project from showing up. Here’s the paradox: a pseudonymous project gains importance and significance by its hypertextuality; lonelygirl15 did create a phenomena. But the phenomena could exist only because of google’s social networking functionality. Without this “findability,” it’s doubtful that the project would have been recognized or appreciated. A lot of great creative expression goes unrecognized and ignored. How do you promote the expression itself without also elevating the visibility of the creator (or production method) ?
{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Zed 4/6/2007, 6:23 pm

    I was reading her pseudonymous blog before I know how prolific she was in so many other places. Until now, I hadn’t known it was supposed to be any kind of secret — I remember I once wondered why it didn’t link to her other sites, but I didn’t put much thought into it.

    In one sense, keeping a pseudonymous would be pretty easy… avoid all personal details, don’t talk about having a pseudonymous blog, and don’t say the same things elsewhere. If your blog revolves around being a dog breeder, polyamorous, and a bike activist in Minneapolis, well, that wouldn’t be a secret long.

    If your blog were about, say, critiquing TV news coverage, and you kept your interest in the subject private, you’d be fine.

    OK, maybe it’s only easy like making a millions dollars and not paying taxes by, first, making a million dollars, and, then, not paying taxes is easy.

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