Over the past two months, Ed Whelan (with whom I blog on NRO’s “Bench Memos”) and a pseudonymous blogger at Obsidian Wings known as “publius,” have traded barbs and insults while debating various issues related to President Obama’s nominations of Harold Koh and Sonia Sotomayor. As a rhetorical matter, neither side proceeded with kid gloves. As a substantive matter, I believe Whelan got the better of publius more often than not, particularly with regard to Koh’s legal views. This weekend, however, I think Whelan crossed the line.
Over time, the heat-to-light ratio in the Whelan-publius exchanges increased, and Whelan learned publius’ real identity – a recently minted, untenured law professor. As part of a recent response to publius, Whelan decided to disclose this information in a blog post. This was wrong. While Whelan defends his course, I think it was an intemperate and unjustified response Granted publius attacked Whelan in harsh terms, often allowing the force of his rhetoric to outstrip the substance of his argument, but Whelan gave as good as he got, and exposing publius served no meaningful purpose.
In my view – and I’m hardly a disinterested party given my own history – pseudonymous blogging can enrich the academic and policy blogosphere. While it enables some to hurl reckless charges and gross epithets, it also facilitates the engagement of more individuals in on-line discussion and debate. There are many understandable reasons why intelligent and knowledgeable people in various fields are reluctant to blog under their own name. Adopting a pseudonym is not necessarily a cowardly or sinister act.
Of course one blogs under a pseudonym at their own risk. There is no guarantee pseudonymity can be maintained over time. When I blogged as Juan Non-Volokh I was well aware I could be exposed by those I debated or criticized. Indeed, I assumed it would happen long before I came clean on my own. The more I blogged in my own voice, focused on issues about which I know a fair bit about, and revealed details of my life, the more likely exposure became. In the end, my identity was probably something of an open secret among most of those who truly cared. So while I don’t know how much the threat of exposure would have influenced my own blogging on this site, the more acceptable it is to expose the identities of pseudonymous bloggers, the more potentially valuable voices the blogosphere will lose. Whatever is to be gained by chastening the intemperate pseudonymous blogger is outweighed by what is likely to be lost.
I also think it is important to distinguish between anonymous and pseudonymous blogging. While complete anonymity may enable someone to evade any accountability for intemperate or unwise remarks, the creation and maintenance of a pseudonym can have a disciplining effect on blogger behavior, and thus should be encouraged as an alternative to purely anonymous blogging and posting. Reputation effects and the desire to maintain readership can impose significant discipline. A pseudonym operates like a brand name, and the value of the brand is, at least in part, a function of how the pseudonymous blogger acts over time. This disciplining effect is hardly perfect, however, particularly when it comes to maintaining civility. As I believe the tone and snarkiness of many pseudonymous bloggers and commenters attests, a pseudonym can reduce a blogger’s vulnerability to personal attacks and can shield him or her from social sanctions for uncivil conduct. I believe this means that those who utilize pseudonyms should take greater responsibility for the tone and content of their own posts so their pseudonymous shield does not become a license for nastiness and snark (and I hope I was able to do this when I used a pseudonym). But I also believe that, barring exceptional circumstances (e.g. something far worse than wrong-headed criticism) other bloggers should respect the choice of others to rely upon pseudonyms.
Ed Whelan obviously feels differently, as his posts make clear. In time, I hope he reconsiders his course, and that others recognize that exposing identities is the wrong way to deal with pseudonymous bloggers with which one disagrees.
Note: I wrote this post on a plane. Upon landing I discovered this post by Walter Olson at Point of Law with which I am in general agreement (save what he says about me). My former professor, Michael Krauss, responds here. My only comment on Prof. Krauss's post is that there are many reasons an untenured professor may wish to blog under a pseudonym that do not involve "trick[ing tenure committees by hiding one's true views until one gets tenure." In my own case, my colleagues were well aware of my political views, and political considerations were only a small part of the reason I chose to adopt a pseudonym.
UPDATE: Matt Franck adds his thoughts on Bench Memos here.
SECOND UPDATE: Ed Whelan has apologized to "publius" for his conduct.