Pseudonyms, sock puppets, and some nasty tribble trouble

I was extremely dissapointed to learn that academic journals will publish articles under pseudonyms. The article in question: “Bloggers Need Not Apply” (2005) by “Ivan Tribble” (a fake name). I find it irritating when people hide behind fake names, or organization titles, instead of speaking as human beings – but Tribble reveals some interesting realities surrounding academic identity – for one, academics are often terrified of being exposed:

“Several committee members expressed concern that a blogger who joined our staff might air departmental dirty laundry (real or imagined) on the cyber clothesline for the world to see. Past good behavior is no guarantee against future lapses of professional decorum.”

and many academics have no interest in getting to know each other beyond the limited scope of their professional roles –

“Our blogger applicants came off reasonably well at the initial interview, but once we hung up the phone and called up their blogs, we got to know “the real them” — better than we wanted, enough to conclude we didn’t want to know more.”

I think this points to the limited perspective fostered in many academic departments, that imposes a professional identity which conflicts with “the real them”.

Also the author really does not understand blogging:

“You may think your blog is a harmless outlet. You may use the faulty logic of the blogger, “Oh, no one will see it anyway.””

I’m blogging because I want my writing to be interactive, part of a broader discussion. Otherwise I would take regular old field notes in a scrap book, live in an isolated tower, and call myself a wizard or perhaps a tribble.

But what about the positive aspects of blogging, of which Tribble ignores completely. He argues that bloggers tend to write rants that damage their own reputation. But what about the benefits of learning from this? A child learning to ride a bike will certainly fall and hurt themselves but in the end the benefit of learning how to ride a bike is worth the growing pains. I think it is important to learn to write for broader audiences, to learn how to moderate and construct a public identity. Academics need to start speaking beyond their own classrooms – and this is something that takes practice. Yes there is a risk of humiliating oneself, and cutting oneself off from future employment, but in the end the benefits of a more open discussion and public participation demand such risks be taken.

I have found the blogsphere to be very forgiving of such lapses in judgment. Sure, there are Tribbles out there itching to judge and condemn, but I find most bloggers want to engage discussion just as much as rant. Why so much ranting? Because we have been silent and repressed for most of our lives, never speaking or engaging ourselves politically or publicly. It’s no surprise to me that so many bloggers are emotional and intense, it takes that kind of energy to get beyond the institutional barriers that have made people private and withdrawn citizens.

Some great responses to Tribble’s article have been accumulating in the blogsphere – In front of me is a perfect example of symbolic violence imposed by the PA [pedagogic authority]. Traditional journal publishing, the peer review process, and academic hiring practices create a culture of privacy and control. Tribble’s journal published rant reveals how some people feel speaking freely is a threat and a problem. The result is that students and professors are scared to speak their minds in public – with many choosing to write anonymously.

See Bitch Ph.d’s post, arguing why she chose to write her blog anonymously (fear of being caught by a nasty Tribble).

Daniel Drezner responds to Tribble: “The default assumption you should make is that the academy has a lot of people who share the Tribble worldview of the blogosphere. I seriously doubt that any amount of reasoned discourse will alter this worldview. So think very, very, very carefully about the costs and benefits of blogging under one’s own name.”

Robert Farley rips into Tribble: “This is just infuriating. First, a reasonable academic can, and does, understand that different media and different fora call for different kinds of message. Plenty of social scientists publish work in mainstream academic journals AND in policy or professional venues. Publication in the latter neither undermines nor detracts from the former. Sensible academics understand that blog posts, New York Times Op-Eds, and Foreign Affairs articles can and should be interpreted differently than vetted, reviewed work. What they don’t do is rage at a medium that allows unmediated access to the public.”

Scott Hagaman writes “I suppose the moral is that the silence of the academic is golden. “

Easily Distracted (couldn’t find authors name) comments “Tribble’s reasoning isn’t entirely about blogging: it reveals a larger and more typical kind of academic parochialism. Yes, there’s certainly a whiff of pure distaste for blogs. But it’s also not blogs as such, but the decomposition of guild controls over what is verified as legitimate scholarship that they potentially represent. It’s the same attitude that lets other scholars justify opposing electronic publication of journals: all in the name of defending the high standards of peer reviewed publication.”

Stephen Downes writes:

“It’s ironic to see this author warning about your blog making you look like an idiot without any warning about doing the same in a column for the Chronicle. That is probably why the article is published under a pseudonym.”

Collin Brooke writes:

“So anyway, Ivan the Tribble has taken the trouble to disabuse the millions of us who blog of the notion that applying for a job is about standing out, presenting one’s self as a human being, or representing one’s self outside of the highly conventionalized genres of the application dossier”

So is it meaningful to discuss this disciplinary control as a kind of symbolic violence?

Will the internet and new communication technologies “revolutionize” a somewhat stale academia? Or will our public voices be burried in tribbles?

Am I destroying my future job options? I don’t think so. I believe that where I stray, people will let me know, and I’ll be better off for it.

Tribble follows up on the discussion, and the outrage I’ve touched on in the quotes above, in his article “They Shoot Messengers Don’t They?”. “As my original column made clear (and many amid the outcry reiterated) when it comes to blogging, I just don’t “get it.” That’s right, I don’t. Many in the tenured generation don’t, and they’ll be sitting on hiring committees for years to come.”

So my advice to him is to do what anthropologists do, compliment your understanding with the experience of participation. Try it out first Mr Tribble!


5 responses to this post.

  1. Great post! I think some of the commentators are right on target, about cultures of silence, and about “discipline” needing to carry all of the connotations that go with that ugly term. In some instances, even innocent joking, being jovial (I don’t mean rude jokes meant innocently), can be frowned upon — some individuals have had an semblance of humanness “learned” of them. For that, you show pity, not deference.


  2. Typos, sorry — what I meant to write was:

    some individuals have had any semblance of humanness “learned” out of them


  3. Posted by mktheberge on July 31, 2008 at 1:00 am

    Hi Owen. This is off the topic for this specific post, but does relate to your blog as a whole. I’m doing my phd on ethnographic blogging–I’m aiming to conduct an ethnography solely within the blogosphere. The more narrow focus within this is bloggers who focus on environmental sustainability. In any case, I think you and I have some research methods in common. I’ve just started my blog and put you on the blogroll. I’ve enjoyed you work! Have a look at for the beginnings of my blog.
    Cheers, Mary


  4. Talk about a blast from the past!

    I remember that discussion pretty vividly.
    July 2005. The summer between my stints in Indiana and Massachusetts.
    I had been blogging for a few months, after having attended a faculty workshop on blogging. Not only did I find the Tribble article quite disappointing but it left me with a negative impression of the CHE as a whole. The whole discussion probably contributed to my impression that academia was oblivious to the advantages of open dissemination of ideas and radical transparency.
    One would hope that things have changed, in the past three years. For one thing, Drezner became tenured just a few months after the Tribble debacle. Not sure if Jill Walker Rettberg already had her tenure at that time but she’s one of those “scholars who blog,” and she’s successful enough.
    Though things may have changed, we still get disturbingly misleading articles in the mainstream press about literacy and online reading. The connection between “Ivan Tribble” and Motoko Rich is that they both pit “naïve proponents of online activities” to “offline traditionalists” without helping anyone to gain actual insight in the social changes which are making the “online revolution” possible.
    I rarely get this disappointed.

    Now, about job prospects. It might well be that some institutions (academic or other) label bloggers in a negative way. Which mostly means that such institutions aren’t appropriate workplaces for bloggers. On the other hand, there are several people who are taking advantage of diverse opportunities thanks to blogging. Maybe they won’t “land” the most prestigious job, but that’s not to say they can’t live a fulfilling work life.

    Ah, well…


  5. […] Comments Reflecting on Wiltsh… on Why do anthropologists bl…enkerli on Pseudonyms, sock puppets, and …Anthropologists and … on Why do anthropologists bl…mktheberge on Pseudonyms, sock […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: