The decision to publish the name and workplace of the blogger Grog, author of Grog’s Gamut, by The Australian’s James Massola has been dominating not just conversation on twitter and on many Australian blogs, but has continued to generate pageviews for the national broadsheet. There’s a lot of back and forth about the ethics of unmasking an anonymous blogger, but I think a lot of it is talking at cross purposes because most of the journalists genuinely do not understand why a blogger would use a pseudonym and therefore begin with the attitude that there is something that needs to be uncovered.
The first thing that needs to be dispelled is that this is about anonymity. Like most bloggers who choose to use a pseudonym, as I originally did, Grog created a consistent persona that he presented via his blog and on twitter, which is nothing like the type of anonymous hit and run trolling that often shows up in comment threads. While the majority of his readers couldn’t tell you who Grog was there were a number who did know, including James Massola, so it’s fairly clear that he wasn’t actively trying to completely hide his identity. So then why use a pseudonym at all? I think that this is the key issue that many of the media professionals don’t understand and why so few of them have a problem with Massola’s decision to make Grog’s life a misery.
One of the reasons that so many bloggers choose to use a pseudonym is that when decide to start publishing their thoughts they have no idea what the consequences might be. Until you dive in you have no way of knowing whether your desire to start publishing will have an effect on your life, there’s no shortage of examples of people’s jobs being threatened or of people being stalked because they’ve written things online that someone disagrees with. When I began blogging my decision wasn’t about me wanting to avoid being held accountable for what I wrote, there were plenty of hints in my writing for people who may have known me in real life, but wanting to ensure that my wife, and especially my young children, wouldn’t end up being harassed by some random nutjob on the internet who’d taken a dislike to me. It was for this reason that the kids are always referred to by their nicknames, Buster Boy and the Troll Princess, and for a long time my wife Rach was simply known to my readers as Mrsdave.
There are plenty of other reasons for wanting to use a pseudonym too, it can be very difficult to discuss intensely personal topics openly if you have to operate under the assumption that someone could use it against you at a later date. For many people blogging provides one of the few outlets that they have to share their thoughts with other people in an open manner and it’s only by using a pseudonym that they can take advantage of this.
In Grog’s case it’s fairly obvious that he was using a pseudonym not so he could hide the fact that he was a public servant, in fact he referred to it more than once, but to ensure that the arguments that he made would not be used mischievously to undermine his professionalism as an impartial public servant. The things that Grog wrote about were all on the public record, which is in stark contrast to the journos who would deny him the ability to separate his professional and personal life, who regularly feel free to base their work on unnamed sources, so a pseudonym removes the angst of having to continually restate the boundaries between private opinion and professional life.
For a journalist this problem simply doesn’t exist, what they write is their professional life and the reality is that they strive for the chance to add their by-line to stories as it’s seen as a way of improving their professional capital. Journos are in some ways in an inverse reality to bloggers as they are rewarded for doing the type of writing that many bloggers fear they may be punished for, either professionally or socially. I think this is a big part of why so few of the journalists on twitter have had much sympathy for Grog and why they fail to understand the hostile reaction that so many people have had to this incident. I can’t imagine the anguish that Grog and his family must have felt when he found out that Massola was going to out him, even though he clearly believed that he was abiding by the APS code of conduct, how frightening must it have been to wonder whether or not this could end up with him costing his livelihood? This is something that most of the journalists do not seem to understand, or perhaps they simply do not care.
I eventually decided to blog under my own name when I began writing for Pure Poison because I figured that there was less chance of running into trouble compared to having people with nothing better to do spending their time trying to out me and pore over the details of my private life, however that was after more than two years of establishing this blog and getting a feel for what the consequences might be of using my own name. The critical thing is that I was able to make that decision at the time that suited me, as I’d seen Possum Comitatus and others do before me, which is completely different to having your details splashed across the pages of The Australian. Perhaps at some point Grog would have made the same decision, perhaps not, but it should have been his choice.
The excuse used by the Australian that Grog deserved to be exposed because he was influencing debate is pathetic, it was the strength of his argument that was making an impact, not who he was or what he does during business hours. It is telling that nowhere throughout this fiasco have the Australian engaged with any of Grog’s arguments, instead they have maliciously insinuated that he shouldn’t have the right to express himself because of his job as a public servant. The reality in this case is that pseudonyms provide the opportunity to speak truth to power and the traditional gate-keepers are unhappy. I think that there is also resentment coming from some of the professionals as they see amateurs and outsiders having more of an impact than they are in important circles.
If nothing else, most journos reaction to Grog being outed highlighted something that perhaps some of us had forgotten amongst all of the twitter banter over the last year and a half. Most professionals in the traditional media feel threatened by the emergence of new media contributors, they don’t see us as colleagues or as a resource to improve their own work but as competitors. They don’t understand why we want to contribute or why we chose to do so in the manner that we do, and they certainly don’t care if our participation ends up making our lives difficult. I think that the ABC’s Jonathan Green summed it up best
so folks just remember green’s golden rule of media: the journalist is not your friend.