Pseudonymous Blogger Ethics

In June 2011, an acquaintance of mine and prominent Fedora Linux user named Larry Cafiero called my attention to an argument he was embroiled in with some fellow bloggers. I cannot really get worked up over arguments among bloggers in general: A friend of mine semi-jokes that blog comments are where souls go to die, and life is too short to get wrapped up in such total wastes of time, and that seems largely true. However, I took a look anyway, and much of it seemed to involve exaggerated personal offence taken over something-or-other with a heavy ideological tinge by a person named 'Landor'.

Who or what is a 'Landor'? He or she appears to wish to ensure that nobody knows, i.e., the domain ownership for was carefully anonymised, and no actual name appeared anywhere in this individual's writings during 2011-2012 on his now-vanished Web site, or appears on a 2010-2011 WordPress site. He or she appears to be in Hamilton, Ontario.

In the ever-growing category of "Be careful what you wish for", I spent many years working, in at least minor ways, for online rights including the right to be anonymous or pseudonymous on the Internet and other media. (I was proud to be the person who retyped and published to the Internet the full text of the court decision, faxed directly from the courthouse, in the newly founded Electronic Frontier Foundation's 1993 groundbreaking victory in the Steve Jackson Games case, for example.) So, I've been dismayed to note that the pseudonymity I went to bat for seems used primarily to take sleazy shots at actually named people from behind cover of anonymity.

One of Mr. or Ms. Landor's biggest complaints, in the middle of his or her blogging dogfight with Cafiero (whose name 'Landor' misspells as 'Cafieor') was that Cafiero had once made reference to a 'book' [sic] that I co-authored, named 'How to Ask Questions the Smart Way', which supposed 'book' [sic] 'Landor' alleges justifies and 'makes excuses for' abusive behaviour towards people seeking technical help on online forums, and concludes that making reference to 'How to Ask Questions the Smart Way' is 'insulting'.

I commented to Larry Cafiero:

Hi, Larry. Sorry to hear that you got caught up in that unpleasantness.

Thanks for the mention of the essay I co-wrote with Eric. We meant well in writing that, though I could bore you with the reasons why it failed to help the people we wished it would. (People kept telling us, "But you also need to add a section about [foo]" and we kept good-naturedly doing so, so it's ended up way too verbose, for starters.) And thank you especially for recognising that our basic intent was to help reduce the frequency of inefficient and ineffective help-seeking: People actually communicating reduces the frustration levels all around, and gets them help in a way that ignoring the syndrome notably doesn't.

One of my greatest regrets is that, sometimes, people cite the essay in such a way to excuse and justify being an asshat in public forums. Not our intention (speaking, I hope, for Eric, too). We just wanted to tell the truth about why problematic help requests tend to fail, and help people fix that. Part of that truth is to warn that bluntness happens, and to say that it shouldn't be too hastily interpreted as hostility if you encounter some.

Yet, the advice to take a breather before posting, and to watch (what might come across as) caustic tone, is well taken and should be heeded more widely.

Then, I went back over to 'Landor's' blog, and very calmly pointed out that the 'How to Ask Questions the Smart Way' essay, far from justifying and excusing abusive behaviour towards users seeking help, makes crystal clear that such behaviour is not OK in the least, and has an entire section on that point entitled How to Answer Questions in a Helpful Way, from which I quoted. I concluded by saying I was sorry that anyone got the impression that we authors had encouraged abusive treatment, but that the allegation was factually incorrect, and I wished people would not perpetuate that tall tale.

'Landor's' response? Wow, I wish I could say he did the right thing and addressed this very polite, brief, straightforward critique. No, alas, I fear I keep overestimating the sense of fair dealing among Linux users.

'Landor' didn't merely ignore my very low-key correction of his error concerning the essay (which essay I'm guessing he didn't actually read — I mean, gosh, anyone who'd even opened the link wouldn't have referred to it as a 'book' — but carefully didn't say so). No, his idea of a proper response was to delete my critique entirely and substitute this:

Rick Moen says:
June 3, 2011 at 1:39 am

(comment removed for being offensive)

Wow, neatly done! Expunge the polite rebuttal so that nobody can see it, and then personally slur the critic. And the real beauty is being able to carry out this petty character asassination in the middle of a rant decrying abusive behaviour online. 'Landor's stupendous, borderline-artistic display of public hypocrisy is up in lights, and yet at the same time rendered invisible to casual visitors. I have to admire the guy's nerve, really.

The great thing is, 'Landor', in his online activities, puts at stake the reputation of nothing but a disposable pseudonymous handle, so he can cast mud onto anyone, posture self-righteously about it, and then walk away with no personal consequences.

There are good and indeed vital uses for pseudonymous presence on the Internet (political dissidents, whistleblowing, domestic abuse, etc.), which is why I've gone to bat for it so many times. It's a pity that those legitimate uses are swamped by its use by nameless little kiddies evading consequence for cheap personal slams taken against real people who -- unlike the kiddies -- stand personally behind what they say and do.