Publius Outed

The pseudonymous blogger, Publius, has been outed. Ed Whelan of the National Review outed him in what appears to be nothing more than a fit of pique at a third blogger, Ed Volokh, and Publius commented on Volokh’s criticism of Whelen, so Whelen lashed out at Publius. Or so it seems from the nosebleed bleachers I sit in.

I suppose Publius isn’t completely blameless, but the only thing I’d criticize him for is his taste in names. “John J” would have been cuter, and heck why not just use “Jim Madison”?

However, the particulars aren’t really important. What’s important is the issues of pseudonymity, and so on. So I will move on to those.

Let’s get something straight from the start: pseudonymity and anonymity are not the same thing. I feel like it shouldn’t need constant repeating, but hey, if law professors can’t get it right, how can we expect other people to get it right? A pseudonym is an identity. It is an identity that is earned, because you don’t get to use any of your previous reputation. You’re starting from zero, especially when blogging.

There are many reasons people use a pseudonym. Publius did it because he’s a reasonably young law professor and has heard that there can be tenure issues for controversial blogging.

Maybe. If what you write isn’t very good, there’s a low cost to it, personally. But if what you write is good, then ironically, being known to be a pseudonym is better than the pseudonym itself. Mark Twain, Voltaire, and are better known than their so-called real names. Think of all the great actors and musicians who are known far better by their stage names.

This is why outing a pseudonym is a two-edged sword. It will likely irk the person using a pseudonym, but it’s less likely to hurt them, especially if they’re reasonably good. John Blevins is probably not going to have tenure problems, especially now that Whelan outed him. Ironically, he’s probably better off for having been outed than not and part of that is who outed him.

Well-known personages who are irked by pseudonymous writers may think they’re being attacked by some anonymous little nobody who is hiding, but no, they’re being attacked by an identity that’s just not easily tied to some SSN. The power relationship is such that the better-known person is unlikely to look good. Whelan certainly hasn’t come out on top on this one. While pseudonymity is somewhat controversial, it cuts across political lines and some of the most thoughtful criticism of Whelan comes from his admirers. And in the future, everyone in the law biz who remembers Publius will think better of Blevins. We human beings do that; that’s why the old movie star’s dictum about publicity is, “spell my name right.”

In other cases, the pseudonym still wins. Dan Lyons wasn’t hurt by being outed as Fake Steve Jobs. Joe Klein wasn’t hurt by being shown to be Anonymous. Juan Non-Volokh was probably helped by being outed, too, and Prof. Brian Leiter, who outed him, probably suffered in his reputation.

This is perhaps, I think the most important point, as it’s simply practical. If a pseudonym ticks you off, you’re better off letting them stew in their own juices. The better known a pseudonym is, the better it is for the author to be known as the pseudonym.

There are exceptions to this, of course. If Publius were a politically conservative professor blogging out his inner liberal, there’d be a hypocrisy issue that would hurt him, but it doesn’t make it any more right. Thoughtful people who out hypocrites usually talk about the outing being necessary despite it being questionable.

Nonetheless, an important lesson to this is that as Feedie said, outing a nym is “a matter of basic decency” and “unworthy of someone with [his] impeccable professional credentials”.

10 thoughts on “Publius Outed

  1. Adam, you said you wouldn’t. Putting a smiley face on things doesn’t make them automatically funny.
    Ed

  2. I can’t believe that you referred to famous writers universally known by their pseudonyms, and didn’t name check George Orwell (born Eric Blair).

  3. Good point. Orwell is like Voltaire in that hardly anyone knows his other name.

  4. Actually, I think this is the tip of a larger iceberg. It has become clear to me that there are individual and government needs for all of pseudonymity, anonymity, and strong attribution of objects both at the transport layer and the literary layer (I think it’s over Application, but under Political and Financial, if you’ve seen the t-shirt).
    I’m considering trying a session on that at Privacy Camp this weekend.

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