Why Pseudonyms in Blogging Need Monitoring

This story illustrates why I am nervous about pseudonyms on this blog … a person can say whatever he or she wants, misrepresenting himself or herself recklessly and with impunity, if one refuses to use one’s own name.

What do you think of pseudonyms in County Blogdom?

Atlanta (CNN) – A top-tier rabbi and expert in Jewish law and ethics is now under the microscope for what many see as his own ethical transgressions.

Rabbi Michael Broyde was outed last week for having created a fake identity that he reportedly used for about two decades.

Broyde has long served on America’s highest Modern Orthodox rabbinical court and was said to be a finalist to become the next chief rabbi of the United Kingdom.

Just last month, he was named one of America’s top 50 rabbis by Newsweek magazine. Broyde is a professor of law and religion at Atlanta’s Emory University.

Under the pseudonym Rabbi Hershel Goldwasser, Broyde cited and promoted his own work, wrote and weighed in on articles, gained membership to a rival, left-leaning rabbinic organization and engaged in otherwise privileged online conversations by way of its Listserv.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.kellyjyoungblood.com Kelly J Youngblood

    You know, it’s funny. A number of years ago, even when I first started blogging in 2006 (?), it was less common to use one’s real name (for any online activity, blogs, message boards, etc.). Now, that is the thing TO do.

  • http://twitter.com/jewellspring Jenny Wells (@jewellspring)

    I have been trying to tell my community, which until this year was homeschooling families in small-town CA…in other words, people that want to hide to some degree…and could when we started out in 2003… that being the same person online and offline and teaching their kids the same is the only way to navigate these changes. Because trying to hide in this new world is inevitably impossible.

  • Joe Canner

    Despite the potential problems, I think it is still important for people to remain anonymous if they so choose. Unfortunately, there are people who post here (not the least of whom is your co-blogger, RJS) who need to hid their identities because of possible blowback from friends, family, and colleagues for whom the things posted here are either too liberal or too conservative for their liking.

  • RJS

    Joe,

    Certainly I think there is value in a level of anonymity – Google searches makes everything so permanently public that you must always be aware what some future employer, or other contact might find searching for your name. In my case I don’t want a google search on my very unique name dominated by hits on this conversation. I’d much rather it was dominated by my professional presence as most of the searches are for professional reasons.

    But – Scot knows who I am, my dad, daughter, husband, pastor all know I write here and have read at least some of it on occasion (and the list of people is actually much larger). So my anonymity is limited.

  • Jon G

    I appreciate this, but it is also helpful, especially when one’s name can easily be googled and employers read on-line content when evaluating prospective employees, to have some anonymity. Also, some people open up better when they aren’t known.

    Not saying who…but some people. ;-)

  • Tom

    Not always but often pseudonyms are used to allow harsh or Abusive discussion. pseudonyms are a little like darkness. Not good things are easier to pull off. I support legitimate use but care must be exercised.

  • Warren Buffett

    I agree. Pseudonyms are dangerous. We must guard against them.

    -Warren Buffet

  • Joe Canner

    RJS #4,

    Thanks for the clarification; I assumed it was because you might have issues with your employer.

    I think there may be others here would would have problems with their churches, for example, because they have not made their “liberal” stances public.

  • E.G.

    I agree with RGS and Jon G (says the person with the pseudonym). If your name is John Brown, then you’re one of a million other John Browns. If your name is at all unique, then suddenly you stick out among the crowd.

    So, forcing the use of real names would allow some a degree of anonymity just due to the fact that their name was common, while others would not have any anonymity at all.

  • Joe Canner

    Tom #6, I agree that anonymity is frequently used to say things online that one wouldn’t say face-to-face. However, as I stated above, some people require anonymity because they have real-life contacts who are not as charitable as they should be. Of course, we should not abuse the privilege. Fortunately, on this blog that tends to happen infrequently (or else Scot is doing a lot of editing/censoring).

    Incidentally, it’s not clear to me how one would even go about requiring the use of real names. Initials and non-names would be easy to spot, but it would be easy to make up a name or use someone else’s, as “Warren Buffet” has so eloquently illustrated above.

  • LMoon

    It seems that there are several different things being discussed here. Pseudonymity (using a fake name – what the person in Scot’s post was doing) seems the most dangerous precisely because others don’t necessarily know that the person is hiding something. Posting as anonymous (or guest, etc) clearly shows the poster is hiding their name and that you could be dealing with anyone, and initials indicate partial hiding.

  • http://timgombis.com Tim Gombis

    I don’t notice it as troublesome on the blogs I frequent because the bloggers police the commenters and appear to delete abusive or nasty material. I do see the value for some who want to float ideas and engage in genuine dialogue focused on the topic without having to deal with unwanted affects in other areas of life, as was stated above.

  • John Green

    Anyone can create a pseudonym that *sounds* real, and link it up with an email address that *seems* legit. So, I’ve never really understood why some blogs and sites require posters to use their “full names.”

  • http://blestpickle.blogspot.com/ Lynne

    There are certain places and subjects where anonymity is really important. What springs to mind first are stories of abuse in churches, domestic violence, sexual abuse etc. Sometimes people need a pseudonym for their own safety, sometimes they don’t want to plaster someone else’s failings all over the internet, especially if they don’t want to go public. And sometimes people just need to have their stories heard without an embarrassing backlash

  • beth

    ugh. I hear you Scot. I do post on your blog under a fake name, but I feel like I have to. I used to post things online under my real name, but then an angry parishioner of my husband’s (he is a pastor) used what I said online against my spouse. Engaging with your blog has been a lifeline for me as a pastor’s wife, so I continue to do so, but saying things with my “real name” online is just not worth the ministry risk. It ends up detracting from other things.

  • http://caveat1ector.wordpress.com Hydroxonium

    For many people, online presence is just a very tricky issue. Also, I always thought that it’s generally a good practice (for safety/security reasons) to use pseudonyms online …

  • http://etchea.com/blog/ Deets

    I use Deets because it more personally identifies me than my real name, Steve Johnson. I include a link to my blog so that people can see who I am. I started using Deets with AOL dialup (remember those days) and feel it would be wrong to change at this point.

  • Diane

    I understand the reasons for using a false identity, but I do dislike it.

  • RJS

    Diane,

    I think there is a difference between maintaining some privacy or anonymity and creating or using a false identity. I’ve used initials instead full name – but there is no false identity. I think the same is true of most of the commenters here who use various screen names.

    Perhaps pseudonyms need monitoring primarily to ensure that they don’t represent false identities.

  • Josh T.

    I don’t use a false identity, but I never post my last name on blog comments. I don’t want my religious/political opinions showing up in google searches, especially since my views about the age of the universe, evolution, etc., often do not line up with those of my fellow church members (and I’m not particularly interested in broadcasting those opinions to all my acquaintances). That’s one reason I’m also not interested in Facebook.

  • TJJ

    This seems like an extreme occurance. I use my real initials, but not a false identity. I speak freely here on theology and politics, but not disrepectfully or dishonestly. I do not do that on facebook, esp no politics on facebook. I am a professional and I teach at a public institution, I do not want controversial things coming up on google searches by clients or students, etc.

  • MatthewS

    Lynn #14 is 100% correct. This rabbi clearly abused people’s trust. But there are folks online who have stories to tell and information to offer where reputations and careers are at stake. Perhaps someone can be clever enough to help find a creative solution that helps protect those who need it.

    One thing that occurs to me – it seems that the rabbi’s identity was as much false identity as fake identity. Many pseudonyms are clearly fake names, used of convenience to preserve anonymity. In many legitimate cases, the reader is informed of this device.

    Mark Twain, btw, is pseudonym.

    In favor of using one’s real name where possible, I have bitten off and swallowed more acidic comments and come-backs than I care to count because I chose a long time ago not to post anonymously on public blogs. Putting my name to it has changed what I was willing to say a number of times.


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