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What the Muses Deign: “The Eros of Anonymity”

by Porruka, porruka@macedition.com, January 22, 2001

It’s sexy. It’s dangerous. It’s all around us in this world we call the Information Age. What am I talking about? Anonymity. Ironically, as we become more and more of a global village, we learn less and less about the people we share this village with. Some people (like certain agents of the U.S. and other governments) don’t much care for this arrangement. Others not only support it but go to great lengths to protect it. No longer are you able to judge a person by his face; you’re lucky to get anything but text, and sometimes that’s not even in a language you can use without translating. Even yours truly writes behind a pseudonym. What do you know about me? What do you know about the rest of the rowdy crowd at MacEdition? Why should you care?

Norm de flume

There’s something attractive about being hidden in public. It may be that your views aren’t mainstream, so to express them under a normal name would lead to harassment or worse. Perhaps a person wishes to get a point across without the filtering that might be associated with a real name. Perhaps a person intentionally creates a different persona tied to the fake name, to fulfil some need; an alternate lifestyle, an alternate personality, an alternate job, an alternate life.

Regardless of the reason, plenty of people assume a name and a role in this newly expanded world of communication. Some folks would think that act alone reduces trustworthiness. As it turns out, I doubt the assumption of a pseudonym does much to change the inherent trustworthiness of a person here in this communications cacophony. I could tell you right now that my name is Bill Smith; not only would I likely offend all the “real” Bill Smiths, but you could not verify one way or the other.

Let’s assume it is true. I’m Bill. What do you know about me? Have I automatically become more capable of holding a secret? Have I now earned that greater respect in my readers’ eyes, the respect that makes them trust my words more than those of someone else? Possibly, but for no reason, because there is now no more information about me than before. “Bill Smith” or “Porruka”. Take your pick – they’re the same for these purposes.

In fact, I could be called MacEdition. All the writers on staff could be called that as well. Nothing in this world claims general exclusivity on a name (regardless of what trademark lawyers might argue). So, we have Porruka, Bahamut, Soup, CodeBitch. We’re different. We’re named. Are we any different from Tony Leggett, Chris Hunt, or Tom Ierna, also MacEdition staffers? You know us by the only mechanisms there are in this medium – our words and actions.

Undisclosed interests

At one end of this virtual wire is a reader (or hopefully, many readers). At the other end is a writer. The writer’s words will be judged according to usage and meaning. Those words will also be judged against a greater backdrop, the rest of the world.

Opinions are based on experiences and information. The translation of those opinions into prose will naturally be filtered according to the author’s own tendencies. When there are outside influences on those tendencies, it is common practice to disclaim the influences, highlighting the fact that they may be there, and then allowing the reader to make an informed judgement as to the validity of the content.

Without disclosure (such as stock ownership when discussing recent equity movements), the reader’s trust is taken advantage of and, at times, misused. This can happen in any number of ways. A software review may be skewed by how much the reviewer paid (or didn’t pay) for the product. An analysis of an acquisition may be colored if the writer works for the acquired. Investments of a parent company may be reflected in the choices of content and direction at a subsidiary. Without proper disclosure, how is the reader to understand these relationships and the possible influences on the results?

Trust no one?

No human being is impartial. Some come closer than others. Some simply don’t try. No matter whether there is one name tied to the content (Porruka, for example) or two (Tony Leggett, for another example), the reader has to be alerted to the possible conflicts in order to appreciate them in the resulting work. Does that mean that I now have to come clean and tell the readers my whole sordid past and present? Of course not – and it doesn’t mean that for anyone else, either.

What it does mean is that whenever there is an opportunity to influence editorial direction or content (potential conflicts of interest), those conflicts need to be highlighted strongly. It is far worse to be caught by a third party in a possible conflict of interest than it is to admit to a actual one. Once that bond of trust is broken, the difficulties in repairing that relationship are numerous.

So what about MacEdition? Where do we stand on this whole subject? Our Editorial Statement says most of it for us:

The MacEdition editorial staff makes content decisions based on many factors, as is the case at any publication. However, we will not hold or promote content solely on feedback from our partners or advertisers. If we decide it’s worth publishing, regardless whether the content is positive or negative, we’ll publish it.

Does that mean we don’t enter into partnerships that our readers may need to be aware of? No. It does mean that when there may be reason to consider our content in light of our relationships, two things will happen. First, we’ve publicly stated: the content comes first. There is trust associated with that statement. Where does the trust come from? The second point, namely that we will disclaim influences as necessary.

Are we going to turn over the keys to our souls? Of course not. But if you read one of our articles that guides you toward (or away from) a particular product, service or company, you can bet that we’ll disclose any relevant factors that you need to know.

Pseudonyms don’t matter. Names don’t matter. What matters is that you, the reader, are the ultimate arbiter of the worth of our content. We won’t succumb to the ill-gotten pleasures that unchecked anonymity can achieve. You, the reader, know better. And you, the reader, won’t take lightly to being burned.

MacEdition and I thank all our readers, you, for your support, your attention, and your trust. It is a high honor.

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