Blogging Identity: Anonymity or Transparency

This post was originally written for ShortbreadStories.

So, you’re thinking about starting a blog. You’ve decided on a theme, and you’ve chosen between WordPress, Blogger and Tumblr. You’ve got your tagline and an idea for your first post all sorted. There’s just one thing left to decide: go anonymous or reveal your identity.

Before you can make this all important decision, you need to decide what is the intent of your blog?

Intent will be quite different than theme. You may have chosen to talk about food, raising children, writing or your career, but how you want to talk about that information will determine if you should reveal your identity or go anonymous.

I’ve started this blog for two purposes. The primary reason was to talk about being a creative writing teacher in a manner that may provide tips on teaching or even what to look for when taking a writing course. The second reason was to help promote myself as a private writing tutor. Obviously, I couldn’t have a blog with the latter purpose without revealing who I was; however, I could have started a subsequent anonymous blog where I felt free to rant about certain unsavoury students.

Yet, why didn’t I?

I didn’t want to get into that mindset. The ability to go home every day and have a good moan about people without repercussions is far too tempting. I would, indeed, go home and call people all manner of names just so that I can ‘get it all out’. (You see, I’m a terrible gossip.) And I didn’t want to encourage this sort of negativity in myself.

However, there are anonymous bloggers who are able to write cathartically without becoming a monster; I sincerely envy their control. They can really let loose, and they can write about their feelings without repercussion, but they don’t go to that ‘nasty’ place that anonymity can encourage.

Additionally, true anonymity is difficult to achieve. Someone, somewhere, can figure out who you are. So, even if you’re writing anonymously, you must be prepared to be ‘found out’. Just because your blog does not in any way reveal who you are (your name and photo are not attached, you’ve set up a separate email address for the blog, you’ve been careful to not list any identifying details such as where you live, work or any names of friends) this does not mean that you cannot be discovered.

As you may or may not know, each time you log into the internet you are accessing a server through your Internet Service Provider (ISP), and you have a unique IP address which is based on several factors including your location. Whenever you access a website your IP address is recorded.  If you click through from your blog to another website that journey may be recorded in ‘referrer’ information that your web browser automatically sends every time it asks for a web page from a web site.

Now, before you worry too much, this IP address does not read ‘Chris Smith’s computer, 457 Broken Lane, WI USA, third house to the right, basement computer, typing with one hand.’ When an IP address is traced, usually, only the city and Internet Service Provider is recognized. However, if you are accessing the Internet from a large company or public sector organisation it is possible that your IP address will be linked to the company or organisation and someone familiar with IP addressing may be able to work this information out.

In fact, last summer, the ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’ story broke by someone tracing an IP address. In said blog, an anonymous lesbian living in Damascus posted about her life as a homosexual in a Muslim country. Her blog was often quoted by the press, and she was even interviewed by major media organisations. Until one clever individual traced her IP address to discover that she was in fact a he. And, he was a straight married American PhD student living in Edinburgh, not Damascus.

Theoretically, to minimize IP address tracing, you could always access your blog from public computers (for example using public wireless networks or different internet cafes) however this is often not practical.  So, in order to minimise the possibility of someone being able to work out your IP address by looking at ‘referrer’ information you should turn on your browsers ‘privacy’ or ‘safe browsing’ functionality and make sure you close all web browser windows after writing updates on your blog.

Likewise, at the 2011 Aye Writes Festival I heard a talk by Brooke Magnanti (the author of the ‘Belle de Jour’ blogs and subsequent books) about digital identity. She said that despite being clever about her IP address, changing all personal information mentioned in the blog, and keeping her identity close to her heart, a clever bleader (a blog reader) sussed her out. She was also publishing a blog about forensic science (she is a forensic scientist) under her own name and the bleader noticed that both blogs were being updated at the same time. This person then kept an eye on the two blogs and sussed it out. Luckily, he kept Brooke’s secret but not everyone is that lucky. (She was almost ‘outted’ by a scored ex-boyfriend, so she decided to reveal herself before he did it for her.)

In fact, one way to have an your anonymous blog outted is to post about work, which not only causes embarrassment but can also get you fired — especially if you’ve signed any sort of a disclosure agreement. You may think that unless you work for MI6, it’s not likely that someone from you work is going to stumble across your blog, track your IP address, suss out who you are, tell your boss, and have you fired. But it does happen. And it may not be IP address tracking that causes you to lose your identity. Instead, it’s forgetting to hide details about your identity and employment that can cause a co-worker to figure things out. (Or in the case of Brooke Magnanti, you might tell someone who can’t keep a secret.) Monster.com has published a revealing article on just this topic.

Yet, despite all of this, you may still want to blog anonymously. You feel that it will provide you with a bit of freedom. You can reinvent yourself so that your online identity is someone you’d never be in real life. You may even prefer to blog anonymously because you feel it’s safer. This may be one of the biggest reasons women don’t reveal their blogging identity. Many aren’t comfortable talking about their personal life on the internet, because they’re afraid of stalkers or other unsavoury characters trolling the web. After all, you never know who’s out there reading your posts.

Some of my favourite blogs are anonymous. I feel like these authors truly speak their mind. Their posts are lively and prone to debate.

However, I also know several bloggers who abandon anonymity after a few months. Simply, keeping up the pretence became too difficult. They wanted to talk about the town they lived in, their lives and their work (all in a positive manner), and constantly hiding these type of identifying marks became too tiresome. Luckily, they didn’t begin their blog with any negativity, so switching over from anonymity to transparency was easy. In fact, one blogger I follow never officially revealed herself, she just stopped deleting the identifying content from her posts.

Making that decision about your identity is important in blogging. It helps you decide the nature of your posts and can even foster your writing voice. However, do remember that even if you decide to write anonymously, someone can find out who you are. So, never say something you’ll one day regret.

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