23 June 2009

This Just In: Pseudonymous Posting

Well, this is not just in, but a student only just now alerted me to it: John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, was revealed a couple years ago to have been posting on competitors' websites under a pseudonym (see article here).

Mackey is an interesting fellow. He calls himself a "free market libertarian," but he believes a company should, as he says, "try to create value for all of its constituencies"; he claims that as CEO of Whole Foods, he "puts customers ahead of investors" and is interested first and foremost in serving customers, not in turning a pofit (see here).

Apparently, a few years ago, when Whole Foods was considering buying rival Wild Oats Markets, a person calling himself "rahodeb" posted on some of Wild Oats Markets's sites various claims, like that its prices were too high, that it was badly managed, that Whole Foods would not buy it until it went into bankruptcy, etc. It turns out that "rahodeb" was Mackey himself, "rahodeb" being an anagram for "Deborah," his wife's name.

According to the article cited above, when it was later revealed who "rahodeb" was, Mackey dismissed the importance of it all, saying that he was posting only for fun, he never wanted or intended anyone to know it was he who was posting those things, many people post anonymously or under pseudonyms on the internet, and in any case he did not mean everything he said--he was often playing "devil's advocate."

I can relate. So too can many people who have written books, articles, blogs, and postings anonymously or pseudonymously. Sometimes people do this for malicious reasons--they want to attack or discredit others and do not want to take responsibility for their attacks. Other motives are nobler: sometimes people are whistle-blowers who do not want to face retribution; sometimes people work in fields where there is strong pressure for ideological conformity and they wish to express independent views, again without fear of retribution; sometimes people are members of a disfavored sex, race, ethnic group, religion, or political worldview who are not allowed by the "tyranny of the majority" to speak their minds.

As James Taranto recently noted in the WSJ, pseudonymous blogging can be dangerous, even if--as in the case of the modern-day "Publius"--one is serving an important function and engaging in (for the most part) serious commentary. Consider, for example, that many of the Leveller pamphlets that played an important role in bringing about the English Civil Wars were published anonymously, or that John Locke never publicly revealed during his lifetime that he was the author of the Two Treatises of Government published in 1690, or that the Federalist Papers were written not by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay but by "Publius," or that Soren Kierkegaard published under probably dozens of pseudonyms, and on and on. (See this site, which lists scores of pseudonymous authors, some who published under many pseudonyms.)

In all these cases, we should evaluate the writing on the merits, not on the identity of the author or on the fact that it is published anonymously. Who knows what motives an author might have for wishing to keep his identity secret? I think we have a further duty, however: if we somehow discover the true identity of an author writing under a psudonym, unless that author is engaging in clear libel or deliberately malicious attack, we should "play along." That is, we should treat the real person based only on our experiences of the real person; we can, if we like, engage the pseudonymous author as an author, but if the person wants to have separate identities, I think we should respect that.

All of us have many circles in which we turn, many lives, as it were, that we lead. Most of these overlap, but some do not, and some we wish to keep strictly separate from others. If a person has one "life" that he wants to keep strictly separate from another, who are we to judge whether his reasons for doing so are good ones, and who are we to take the liberty of betraying his personal decisions? The issue is one of privacy, and respecting others justified expectations of it. Just because one disagrees with what a pseudonymous author says does not entitle one to indulge the base and indeed wicked instinct of desiring to destroy what one does not like, of "outing" someone who wishes not to be outed.

Back to Mackey: One aspect of his story distinguishes it, perhaps, from the others I have mentioned, namely that he was disparaging a direct competitor in an apparent effort to secure for himself a better financial bargain in the process. If one's pseudonymous writings are designed to profit oneself at the direct expense of others in a way that would not be possible if one's identity were revealed, then that, it seems to me, casts things in a different light. Not to put too fine a point on it, that's pretty low.

Aside from such cases, however (which I believe are pretty rare), I say: Long live the pseudonymous writer! May they continue to agitate, spur, lambaste, discuss openly, investigate, and explore--all without fear of punishment for entertaining heretical ideas.

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