Anxiety and Authority: Anonymity and Pseudonymity in Electronic Academic Environments

Matthew S. S. Johnson


In "Anxiety, Animosity, and Anonymity," I examine the roles that anonymity and pseudonymity play in online environments, arguing that in such spaces (which are discursive venues that complicate the public/private binary), anonymity is largely discounted and pseudonymity enjoys a status nearly as authoritatively credible and rhetorically effective as onymity. I investigate two online venues in order to make my case: the networked classroom and online forums dedicated to the academic job market. I challenge the notion common to pedagogy scholarship which indicates that students’ anonymous/pseudonymous participation in online classroom environments provides them with a sense of "safety" which allows them to more freely participate in class-related discussion and offer topics of conversation that they otherwise would not address in the face-to-face classroom. Lester Faigley1, Cynthia L. Selfe, and Marilyn M. Cooper2 (among others) find that electronic environments have the potential to downplay various sociopolitical markers (race, class, gender) and other personal characteristics such as accents, perceived level of attractiveness, and soft voices. Just as the text-based, networked environment’s "blind and deaf" characteristic provides the possibility of a more egalitarian space for conversation, anonymity/pseudonymity allow active participation to be less intimidating. The reasons for this effect are not difficult to puzzle out: remaining anonymous or using a pseudonym facilitates a sense of detachment between the participants and their online representations. And yet Internet culture largely discounts anonymity, making such participation comparatively ineffective – with at least one major exception: simply, when there is no alternative (when only anonymous contributions are present). To illustrate this point, I conduct a close-reading of academic job market discussions taking place on the "Academic Careers" wiki (hosted at, where anonymity tends to fuel anxiety, and potentially a dangerous animosity directed toward uncertain targets that can influence – for better or for worse – academic search and hire practices for both applicant and search committees.

On the other hand, pseudonymity, unlike anonymity, has become the Internet’s cultural norm, and is ultimately inseparable from onymity to dedicated participators in online communities, and especially to people who have never known a world without computer mediated communication (CMC). To them, the pseudonym operates as a "real" identifier similar to one’s person in conventional face-to-face communication. This is in part due to the enormous amount of investment online community forum participants put into their online personae. Given the time active participants spend in these environments, from other users’ perspectives, the agent is that username, that pseudonym, that avatar. When, I ask, does a pseudonym become a name? And yet the comparative safety that pseudonymity provides still seems to exist, better-enabling people to participate in online communities. In relationships formed and maintained in virtual spaces, however, the pseudonym is often not a mask behind which an author can hide, but the actual "face" of the author’s electronic self. Where these communicative forms become particularly important is when online environments are considered public spheres3, where speaking (writing) is directed towards specific, active, and responsive audiences and has the potential to influence those audiences, thereby inciting real change within the electronic communities and beyond. I will surprise no one by stating that in public discourse, the responsibility or the writer (or speaker) is especially important. The key to "public" is that the agent is specific, clearly identifiable, and accessible. A "public speaker" implies a particular individual in front of a live audience. A "public environment" is one to which anyone4 has access (such as in "public restroom"). In public writing, the writers and the audiences they address are defined. For these reasons, we are not used to thinking about anonymity and pseudonymity as operating in a public sphere. Public is more direct, more "risky"; it is the potential direct confrontation that makes people fear public speaking and writing so substantially, where the agents are accessible to their audiences. Electronic environments, which participants experience as comparatively "private" (accessing in bedrooms or offices, for instance), but also as "public" (where realtime interaction with a definable, responsive audience occurs), offer us an opportunity to (re)examine the way anonymous and pseudonymous communication operates in this hybrid sphere. The "safety" of pseudonymity, that separation between the biological self and the electronic self, creates a disconnect between speakers and what they say, thus potentially lessening their sense of responsibility and accountability to each other, while maintaining the credibility of a named rhetor/author. I conclude my presentation by indicating that what such an analysis reveals is that it is the marker itself – not the "actual" agent – that public, online environment participators deem essential.

1 Faigley, Lester. Fragments of Rationality (U of Pittsburgh P, 1995)

 2 Cooper, Marilyn M. and Cynthia L. Selfe. "Computer Conferences and Learning: Authority, Resistance, and Internally Persuasive Discourse." College English 52:8 (1990): 847-869.

 3 In my discussions of "publics" and "public spheres," I refer to: Habermas, Jurgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (The MIT P, 1998) Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics (Zone Books, 2005)

 4 Within reason. "Anyone," here, more accurately means one with at least rudimentary means. In certain cases, one has to pay for use of a public restroom, and so one much have the necessary currency. Public libraries require membership cards to check out materials, yet are still "public." Electronic forums require ownership of or at least access to computer equipment (which necessitates a certain degree of literacy and possibly economic means).