Saturday, February 25, 2006

Thoughts on pseudonymity...

...inspired by all the interesting discussion going on at New Kid's and Dr. Crazy's, and by the wonderful meme that jo(e) built. They've already pointed out the best reasons for academics to blog pseudonymously, and the complex relationships between our personal and professional personae.

In my case, there's a personal angle as well. For various reasons, my strategy for survival and happiness as a child was to be generally invisible and not to rock any boats. This approach has carried over into my adult life, partly out of habit and partly because it suits my interests. I’m curious about the world and people around me, and I find I learn a lot more about them by watching and listening than by making myself the center of attention. I’ve never felt any great sense of ambition that motivated me to change the world; I do feel motivated to learn as much about it as I can while I’m here.

Blogging pseudonymously is an extension of that attitude. I’m not trying to publicize my own thoughts as much as I’m trying to join a community and enjoy the ideas and relationships that develop. (Notice I created a place where people come to hang out and enjoy each other’s company, not a place where I can pontificate about my Big Ideas.) I also blog pseudonymously because of some quirks in the way I present myself and relate to others in the real world. Most people (quite appropriately) like advertising the best things about themselves, showing off that they’re funny or musical or have good fashion sense, making sure you see their talents. When I get to know people, though, I like to keep an eye out for their hidden side, and to be the person who finds out something that other people wouldn’t be likely to know. If I went to a party and met five new people, for example, I would feel far more satisfied at the end of the evening if I'd gotten those new people to share something interesting about themselves, than if I'd told them all something interesting about myself.

So that shapes how I present myself, too, in that I don’t go out of my way to advertise the things I like best about myself. I don’t purposely create obstacles to getting to know me, but I do like to reward and surprise the people who get involved with me enough to see past the surface. (This probably explains all those personality-test things that say I’m difficult to get to know.) I don’t mind being pretty ordinary on the surface, and I rather like the idea of cultivating a secret, more interesting me, that only a few people have access to. For example, I keep in pretty good shape, but I’m kind of round and dumpy, and I don’t look at all as athletic as I am. So it tickles me when someone who’s known me for years is startled to find that I hold a black belt in tae kwon do, or that I have walked 300 miles across Spain. (One of the things I liked best about working on the Habitat site was that I signed up for morning times, and then came back to campus for an early afternoon class. It amused me to no end to clean up and change into my spiffiest outfits and go off to class, so that no one would guess that barely an hour earlier I had been wearing leather gloves and my tough boots, sawing strandboard at a construction site.)

What’s funny about the blog is that it tends to reflect the “secret” me rather than the outside me. Not that I have that many wild adventures to write about (or that what I’ve written is all that fascinating), but the nature of blogging means that you’ve already gone through the process of finding me and sticking around long enough to decide you like it here, so even though I haven’t met most of you (and even have no idea who you are), we’ve established the kind of intimacy that lets me write more about the fun stuff. (besides, who wants to cultivate ordinary on a blog?)

But if I were to write about all this under my own name, that would defeat the purpose. You meet me, you google my name, you can walk right into this goofy virtual bar that somehow came to exist here. Nah. What would please me far, far more would be to find out that someone I knew IRL came to the bar but didn’t know it was mine; maybe then in two or three years I could have the pleasure of mentioning offhand “oh, yeah, remember Pilgrim/Heretic? That’d be me.”

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