Culture, Justice, Mishegas

Judaism and internet anonymity

said before that I would share some biographical information about myself, so here it is.  The real reason I’m writing this post is to talk about some issues that I thought of while deciding what sort of biographical information to share.
One criticism of the Internet that I hear a lot, particularly regarding bloggers, concerns anonymity.  People don’t like the idea of someone being able to write whatever they want without their name or identifying information attached to it.  I’ve been thinking about what this means from a Jewish perspective.  What ethical responsibilities do I, as a blogger, have to those who read my writing?  Do I owe them information about myself?
I don’t think I do.  There’s no reason a blogger can’t write responsibly, with well-researched and well-cited information, while still maintaining anonymity.  I personally have no problem with people on the Internet knowing who I am, but there are a lot of cases where that’s not true.
The key is this: there’s a difference between anonymity and cowardice.  I can write under a handle without ever linking that handle to any kind of real-world information, but I still have a responsibility to provide honest content and to respond honestly to criticism.  Using anonymity as a shield for ignorance or deception is not acceptable.  That’s true in any field, and the blagotubes are no exception.  Neither is it acceptable to use my anonymity to spread lashon hara. So from a Jewish ethical perspective, as well as one of scholarly responsibility, with great anonymity comes great responsibility.
Given the pitfalls of anonymity, are there any advantages?  Well, if one provides useful content free of charge (most bloggers don’t get paid), it could be considered a form of tzedakah.  I’m not trying to sound self-centered here, but ideally blogging is a useful form of information and perspective, in donation form.  Maimonides said that one of the higher levels of tzedakah is giving anonymously to an unknown source.  So if a blogger writes an anonymous post, they’re engaging in a high level of charitable giving.  They don’t know who’s going to read their post; it could be anyone in the world.  That’s the beauty of the medium.  And the person reading it doesn’t know who wrote it.  So there’s been an exchange of significant information between two people, neither of whom have any idea who the other is.  There’s no ego involved (“look how much I know about this topic”), just learning.  That, to me, exemplifies both the ideals of Jewish text study or chevrutah and those of journalism; the pure exchange of ideas.
So in this case, as in most, the Internet makes it easier to do really good work or really bad work.  The question is, which one will you choose?
Cross-posted to my blog.

18 thoughts on “Judaism and internet anonymity

  1. Using the lens of tzedakah to think about our responsibility as bloggers (anonymous or not) is definitely an interesting way to look at it. Thanks for the food for thought.

  2. I’d distinguish between true anonymity & persistent pseudonymity. Blogging under a pseudonym is a longstanding tradition in many online communities; as long as you continue to post as renaissanceboy (rather than, say, calling yourself Kung Fu Jew when you feel like being someone new 🙂 then each post you make builds credibility and builds your online identity under this name. That’s different from anonymity, in my book.

  3. I guess there’s a difference between anonymity and having a known handle. For instance, take Jewschooler BZ. Between Jewschool and his own blog, Mah Rabu, BZ writes at two fairly prominent blogs and comments regularly at many others, always under the name BZ. Even if you don’t know BZ’s real meatspace name, many in the Jewish blogosphere know who he is by the reputation he’s made for himself as BZ. Anonymity would be more like the recent comment I got at my own blog from someone who just called themself “friend” and left no further information about him/herself.
    On the other end of the spectrum, I’m one of those people that a lot of people just call by my full name even in person, David A.M. Wilensky. I like my name so I use it, with no risk of anonymity or pseudonymity.

  4. I’ve always wondered who BZ is, actually, and why everybody who’s ever posted on JS (other than me) seems to know him personally.

  5. Jonathan1, I think you’re creating a perfect example of my point there. You don’t know the man behind that pseudonym, but you still have a real sense of who BZ is, as a member of the blogging community.

  6. Renaissanceboy-
    Although I think there are some legitimate uses for anonymity on the web, such as people in closed communities who might face retribution if their identity became known, I generally think it is a bad idea. While I applaud your ideal of bloggers maintaining high standards, citing sources and avoiding lashon harah, we cannot rely on the self-policing of the writer to do this. Having someone’s identity known is the only way to enforce those standards and hold those people accountable. Only if their reputation as a real individual is at stake can we be sure they will follow those standards. If we leave it to them, they may follow your standards, but they may not.
    Second, I take great issue with the assertion that a pure exchange of ideas can take place with anonymity. Ideas can never be fully understood without some knowledge of the context from which they come. People’s life experiences inform they way they see things or understand things and thus shape the ideas they write. Only if the reader has some background of the author is he/she likely to fully understand what the author is trying to say. By stripping the reader of even the most basic information about the author, anonymous media actually hurt the open and honest exchange of ideas. There is no such thing as completely disembodied ideas, only ideas that exist in the lives of actual people, and that is the context in which these discussions should take place.

  7. There are many, many times, usually when I get nasty emails and comments that I wish my blog was still anonymous. I think people definitely responded differently. They’re actually nastier when they think you’re a real, live person whose feelings they would love to hurt. Plus when you’re anonymous, I think you can say a lot without worrying about who could get hurt (namely, family, friends) by what you write.

  8. Peter Stein-
    I think it’s important to note that because of the ease with which the Internet allows people to communicate, it’s a lot more likely that an incorrect fact or conclusion will be called out. It’s not perfect, but I would argue that it’s the best type of fact-checking that respects the right to freedom of speech.
    I agree with your point about the context or background of ideas. I’m not saying bloggers should be able to say what they want with no explanation or background, but knowing what that person does from 9 to 5 isn’t going to help you understand them any better. To that effect, the blogger has a responsibility to honestly communicate their background and position. Anything else is disrespectful to their audience – it asks them to take the blogger’s knowledge and thought process on faith.

  9. I don’t know the background on why the use of pseudonyms in blogging became such a standard convention, but I think for most people it’s just that, a convention. I doubt a lot of bloggers take on pseudonyms not out of some very well thought-out philosophy of anonymity but because that’s just sort of what people do. Once conventions take hold they become rather self-perpetuating.
    I personally find the idea very annoying, particularly when the blogger provides regular or occasional links to his or her real-world identity. In such cases its clearly not about anonymity at all. From my perspective, it often becomes yet another problematic aspect of the insider clique-ishness of the same real-world communities many of the bloggers on here are involved in.
    And yes, many of you will become defensive at that and say, “no, no, we’re not clique-ish,” but trust me, as someone who doesn’t live in the coastal U.S., much of what happens on this site and many others I read regularly is a very insider conversation in relationship to which I often feel like an outsider looking in. For example, just note how often events in the NYC area are posted here with just a location without even bothering to mention that it’s in NYC. If you live in NYC, you probably never even noticed or thought about that, no doubt.
    And that most of you know BZ personally, well, I rest my case. I have absolutely no idea who this person is, and I’m actually pretty connected. But clearly, I’m not connected with the “right” people.

  10. Well, one reason I use my initial + last name rather than full name is that while I have no problem owning my words here, I am not 100% comfortable with the idea that people from my work community might Google me, take something I’ve written about a controversial topic (like intermarriage) out of context, and freak out. That said, many of my colleagues, and some of my students do read Jewschool and I’m perfectly comfortable with that.
    As for knowing BZ personally, I don’t think it’s unreasonable that a group of people who write a blog together might know each other in the real world. Or that people who contribute to a blog might invite their friends from the real world to read it and comment. BZ has mentioned (either here or on Mah Rabu, I forget which) that he is a teacher and he wanted to keep his teaching life separate from his online Jewish commentary life… but on one of his last days of work a couple of his students revealed that they’d made the connection long ago. I’m pretty sure BZ has relaxed a bit on the pseudonymity of his online presence, but it’s not my place to out him either.

  11. dlevy writes:
    BZ has mentioned (either here or on Mah Rabu, I forget which) that he is a teacher and he wanted to keep his teaching life separate from his online Jewish commentary life… but on one of his last days of work a couple of his students revealed that they’d made the connection long ago. I’m pretty sure BZ has relaxed a bit on the pseudonymity of his online presence, but it’s not my place to out him either.
    Yeah. I don’t mind if people who know me from the blogosphere know my real name, and I even link to other pages that contain my real name. The pseudonym is intended more for the reverse — to prevent people who know me in real life (particularly my students) from Googling me and finding my blog. But now, if you google my name, Mah Rabu is one of the top hits even though my name doesn’t appear anywhere on it, because Google is just that smart. So now my students have found my blog, and that’s ok, because I never posted anything so incriminating anyway.
    So now that there are no more secrets, I suppose I could start using my real name, but that name wouldn’t mean anything to anyone except to the people who know me personally, whereas everyone who reads my blogs knows who BZ is, so “BZ” is actually less anonymous.

  12. Gregg-
    I think what you’re talking about is a great example of the uses/abuses of pseudonymity. BZ’s point about about his real name meaning nothing to a lot of people shows that the self-perpetuation of pseudonymity isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
    I do think, though, that it’s up to an individual blogger to decide if it’s advantageous to them to use a pseudonym. Obviously enough, if someone’s writing under a pseudonym, we don’t who they are, and we don’t necessarily have enough information about them to criticize their choice to keep their identities separate. So we again arrive at the conclusion that we need to trust bloggers to make honest choices about what information they reveal, and bloggers can’t shy away from that responsibility. I have personally chosen to disclose biographical information about myself, but if someone like BZ has not, I have to trust that he’s made an honest choice (which I do).

  13. And then there’s the changing of names. I currently have two pseudonyms, feygele (blogs) and TheWanderingJew (twitter). In an effort to be just one name, I’m switching everything over to TWJ. I’m not sneaking around, but telling folks I’m doing it. Consider yourselves told. 😉

  14. So now that there are no more secrets, I suppose I could start using my real name, but that name wouldn’t mean anything to anyone except to the people who know me personally, whereas everyone who reads my blogs knows who BZ is, so “BZ” is actually less anonymous.
    For comparison, voice synthesis software has gotten much better since the ’80s, so Stephen Hawking could get something more realistic-sounding if he wanted to. Why doesn’t he? Because that voice is what everyone knows as Stephen Hawking’s voice!

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