(Photo of the blogosphere courtesy of Matthew Hurst)
I was tempted to title this piece, “The Cowardice of Bloggers,” but I figured that this might be needlessly inflammatory. No reason to get people angry by calling them cowards just to get a bit of attention. (READ ME because I’m too controversial for words.) I have to admit that the temptation was great, for it seems that one needs to become the Dr. Strangelove of the Blogosphere to get noticed these days.
For the record, before I begin, I should make it clear that I am not suggesting that pseudonyms be banned from web sites. Nor I am suggesting that it isn’t fun and at times useful to use a handle that hides your true identity. Everyone wants to be Clark Kent on some days of the week. And of course there are serious political reasons, for example, retaliation by employers or governments, for hiding one’s true identity. No question, there are good grounds for using “pen names.” With this string of caveats in place, I now make my case
The Blogosphere is about to be buried in junk. When exactly it will be totally buried is anyone’s guess, but I see the sphere turning into the electronic equivalent of Wall-E’s earth, probably before the glaciers melt. If you go to sites that run political commentary, you will find piles of junk written under “You don’t know me or What Me Worry” pseudonyms. Yes, you will also find serious pieces written under pseudonyms, but often the individuals behind these contributions are known to various communities of bloggers. The writer feels a commitment to her work because she has a reputation to maintain.
Words are forms of action, and like other forms of action we bear responsibility for them. How we act and what we say are not separate from who we are. (This is why we should remain skeptical about those who keep telling us that John McCain isn’t really acting like himself. No, he is acting like himself. His actions and words are John McCain. They define him and he shouldn’t be allowed to walk away from them. I know that I ain’t waiting around for the real McCain to show.) Every time you post a commentary or a blog, you are in fact saying something about who you are. You can say, “Well, it’s just a game, so whatever I say doesn’t really matter. As proof of the fact that it is a game, I am not signing my real name.” Ah, and there is the rub. Junk and more junk because people don’t feel responsible for what they are saying.
Keep in mind that many sites have just wanted to build traffic. One way to do this has been to encourage pseudonyms. Venting is very seductive. And it takes a lot less time, thought, and effort to turn out a “What Me Worry” comment under a pseudonym. But lots of people feeling this way will increase the “hits” on sites, which translates into advertising dollars. Think about this aspect of the pseudonym phenomenon: when you use one carelessly and often, you may be playing into the hands of corporations. In other words, you are allowing yourself to be used.
Okay, you say that no one is forcing anyone to read blogs or commentaries. Fine. (Although junk comments often take up a good deal of space on otherwise serious sites.) But my concern here is not only for the readers and the cluttered Blogosphere. It’s also for the authors. Saying something in one’s own voice involves a commitment to oneself. A commitment that can be transformative. So, yes, one can use the Blogosphere to vent, but in the end it’s a no growth proposition. If you just want to curse at the sky, so be it. Nothing is going to change and you will end up not taking advantage of something that might be transformative, expressing yourself in earnest.
So, what I am recommending? I am suggesting that more bloggers come clean and that more sites encourage people not to use pseudonyms. The Blogosphere has the potential to become the public square of the twenty-first century. However, we are on our way to filling it with so much junk that the nuggets are getting harder to find. And I am not sure that even Wall-E will be able to get us out of this one.