Petrified Onions

The latest controversy to sweep the blogosphere is the outing of previously pseudonymous blogger John Blevins, a.k.a. Publius by Ed Whelan (Whelan, Ed, “Exposing an Irresponsible Anonymous Blogger,” The Corner, National Review Online, 6 June 2009; Blevins, John, “Stay Classy Ed Whelan,” Obsidian Wings, 6 June 2009; Whelan eventually apologized, “My Apologies to Publius,” The Corner, 8 June 2009). This prompts some musings on the subject of on-line personae by Matthew Yglesias (“The Metaphysics of Pseudonymity,” Think Progress, 9 June 2009):

And of course it’s a fallacy to assume a perfect identity between any Internet persona and its author(s). A whole bunch of different writers collaborate on producing Think Progress and they write in what I think is a pretty uniform voice. But like the writers behind The Economist, they’re actually all beautiful unique snowflakes who are often quite different from the TP persona. And by the same token, Matthew Yglesias “in real life” is not the same as the character I play on the Internet. On the other hand, I’m not sure it’s quite right to say that the in-the-flesh [ME] is “real” and the on-the-Internet one is somehow “fake.” This blog has existed for over seven years now, and it’s almost certainly the case that more people “know” the persona than know me. And I think that should hold all the more strongly for any prominent pseudonymous bloggers. The well-known, stable character is a person with integrity, influence, a personality, a reputation, social connections, etc., the same as anyone else. To be sure, they may be artifice in terms of the presentation of the character. But our various “in real life” self-presentations (to a boss, to a first date, to family, to friends, to people we run into at a high school reunion) involve artifice as well.

In the past you body was at least the skeleton on which your personae hung. They depended on you to take them places, to animate them. The dutiful son only existed at the family get-together, after which he was de-emanated. The nightclub alter ego only came out to play when the costume was dawned.

Media personae persist. In the era of mass participation mass media, your personae don’t need you anymore. They’re out there, being recreated by anonymous onlookers while you are sleeping.

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