The Case for Anonymous Writing

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Dustin Verburg
Dustin Verburg
The Case for Anonymous Writing

On September 25, Todd Mintz wrote an article titled “The Stench of Anonymous Blogging” on Marketing Pilgrim. It’s a well-written post, and Todd makes a ton of good points. Transparency, accountability, and authenticity are all important in the world of search marketing. There are plenty of professionals with good advice that write under their real names.

I’m sure there’s also a lot of bad, crappy content or entire articles full of false information that were written under the veil of anonymity. I think Todd’s post, while full of good points, leans toward the reactionary side. The Internet and anonymity have been joined at the hip for as long as I can remember, and it will continue on that path into the future if left to its own devices. The ethics of anonymous blogging are an interesting and important topic, and it’s one that merits further discussion.

Not Created Equal

Anonymous posts or articles written using a screen name, handle, or other pseudonyms that aren’t inherently lacking in value, nor are they inherently good. Each piece of content needs to be measured by what it actually is. Let’s look at content that people have put their real names on—Mike Daisey’s report for This American Life for Foxconn, for instance, contained multiple factual errors.

In the end, his name didn’t matter because someone sniffed out the BS. Todd writes, “Without accountability, the anonymous blogger can present whatever version of the truth he/she wishes without risk.” I argue that political pundits, most of whom use their real names, do exactly the same thing and reach a huge audience. They’re certainly not confined to the Internet, but they make good use of it to voice their version of the truth.

Posting under a name that’s not your own or under complete anonymity isn’t always the right choice. It’s not usually the right choice, but it can be the right choice when the author has a specific goal in mind. There needs to be a reason. If there’s a concrete reason that a writer’s not using his/her real name, the content needs to speak for itself. The words are what matter. Just because certain people abuse anonymity doesn’t mean that everyone has to use their real name for everything they compose, especially on the Internet.

Relationships and Credibility

Todd’s spot on when he talks about accountability. He is accountable for his content, and if he’s posting on someone else’s site, then that site owner is accountable as well. He doesn’t cite any examples of these anonymous guest posts, but I’d wager that these anonymous authors have a good relationship with the respective site owners. The site owners trust them and are willing to post their anonymous content.

Let’s look at it another way. If I posted an article stating that “SEOmoz’s toolbar killed my dog,” I’d be called out immediately. If I made that same post in anonymity or using a pseudonym, there would also be a legion of people to call me out on my BS, or it would be ignored entirely. If we take this even further, it’s an anonymous writer’s Berners-Lee given right to post BS on his/her own blog. No one’s going to believe it or read it.

We know to stay away from the crazies, and that trolls best remain malnourished. Furthermore, site owners absolutely have to stand behind whatever they post, so these anonymous hack jobs are never going to get a guest post at Marketing Pilgrim simply because they’re not credible like Todd Mintz is. There is a system of checks and balances in place.

Armor for Words

Todd is right when he says that people feel more comfortable behind a shield of anonymity, and it allows them to say whatever they’re feeling without an intense threat of repercussions, but it goes beyond that. The Internet has always been an unpredictable place with unforeseen dangers lurking around every corner, and using a screen name or forgoing name attachment altogether functions as a certain kind of armor.

Sometimes, something needs to be written, and an individual simply cannot write it under his own name. Sometimes, the song is more important than the name behind it.

Oftentimes, a writer faces some daunting obstacles when penning a piece under his/her real name. Benjamin Franklin, for instance, used many different pseudonyms to achieve different goals. It not only got some of his letters and ideas published in his brother’s newspaper, but it also allowed him to explore different points of view. Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Brontë all wrote under aliases to overcome gender bias and get their work published.

Sometimes, the work is more important than the name attached to it, and that’s a trend that continues to this day. Sometimes, the message is too controversial, the author’s name has too much baggage, or the ideas are too new to attach anything but a pseudonym.

If anything, the Internet is moving away from privacy, and it’s becoming a place where pseudonyms and anonymity might be things of the past. For some people, using a different name or remaining anonymous prevents that ubiquitous Google-stalking phenomenon—sometimes the writer doesn’t want every reader to know his favorite films and work history, simply because it’s not relevant to the piece.

Set Your Goals

I mentioned previously that I don’t think writing behind a pseudonym or remaining anonymous is always a great idea. There are ethical concerns. As Todd noted, an anonymous writer risks losing that sense of transparency and authenticity without a real name attached to the work. I’d argue that as long as there is a goal behind writing anonymously or under an assumed name, and the author has a good reason, then an anonymous post is acceptable. An anonymous troll post is an anonymous troll post, but any serious piece merits careful consideration of the author’s goals and the work itself.

Sean over at 01100111011001010110010101101011 (Warning: Some coarse language is contained in these posts) recently started a series called “The Angry SEO,” in which SEO professionals write anonymous letters to their clients. There are some curse words and other strong language, so the authors (professionals who no doubt have a relationship with Sean) wish to remain anonymous.

The letters are extremely funny, but they also get down to some universal truths about working in the SEO world—and about the nature of working in any industry where you’re at the mercy of clients who don’t fully understand what you do. The authors and the site owner had a clear goal in mind when publishing these anonymous posts, and it worked out to everyone’s benefit.

Good content does not live at the behest of an author’s name alone. There is plenty of bad, dishonest content on the Internet (and elsewhere) written and broadcast under real names. There is also plenty of truthful, beneficial content written under pseudonyms and the veil of anonymity.

Our goal as writers should be to spread knowledge and encourage open discussion, and I think we do a pretty god job of it. Inaccurate information and falsehoods can and will be called out as bad, unethical content no matter the name attached to the work.

Writing anonymously isn’t always the right way to go, and sometimes there’s no point to it aside from “hiding from blacklash.” When an ethical writer has a clear goal in mind, however, and has a site owner willing to stand behind him/her, writing under an assumed name can accomplish great things.

Dustin Verburg

Dustin Verburg

Dustin Verburg is a writer and musician based in Boise, ID. When he's not playing guitar he writes about good ... [Read full bio]