In defence of pseudonymity

Pseudonymity has had a bad press recently. A moral consensus seems to have formed that there is a problem not merely with behaving badly online while not under your real name, but with adopting a pseudonym at all. Pseudonymous authors “hide” behind their noms de plume; they lack the courage of their convictions; they are in some sense cowardly.

I don’t want here to get into the powerful imperatives of self-preservation that make pseudonymous writing a necessity when resisting a tyrannical government. I’d like to explore the particular reason why I myself blog elsewhere, and tweet, under a pseudonym (which I am clearly not about to disclose here).

I write for a living, more or less. I publish academic works, and blog here and elsewhere on the areas in which I am either directly professionally concerned, or on those subjects in which I am expert enough to make some observations. As more and more historians start “doing history in public”, this hybrid model of communicating what we as scholars do will become more and more important. And, as more and more of the web is routinely archived by the Internet Archive or the UK Web Archive, all of that communication which might previously have happened in person or in conferences, will now persist in the digital record. And since all these various utterances are linked together in various ways, such as Google Authorship, it will become easier for readers to trawl back through them all, and to put them together.

Given this, it is increasingly difficult to keep open a space in which to express an opinion just as a citizen without it becoming part of a professional profile. There are many issues in contemporary life on which I have views, but without any particular expertise. I’ve written elsewhere on the reasons I just write, and some of those thoughts are clarified in my own mind by the discipline of putting them online. And so my “other blog” gives the space to work out those off-piste ideas without them becoming mixed with my more “professional” writing.

And (incidentally) this is why I am not a “public intellectual”. The concept, at least in the UK, seems to involve the bringing to bear of a general intelligence, honed in one field, to matters of more general interest. Stefan Collini and others have already pointed out the tensions in the role. I have no view on whether or not the specific professional reputation of (say) David Starkey in relation to Tudor England is compromised by taking part in The Moral Maze. My point is simply that maintaining a separation between professional and pseudonymous selves in public means the question does not arise.

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