Thursday, March 07, 2013

Anonymity (and Confidence)

Anonymity on the internet seems to be the hot topic of the week, so here is my take.

I started blogging quite some time ago. As with most blogs, the initial effort was pretty pathetic, something that nobody would claim as their own. That's fine. I'be been through that scenario many times in my life, whether it was starting grad school, taking out a USCF [*] license, or getting physically intimate with someone for the first time. You name it, we all have (or will be) in situations that are way outside our comfort zone. For too many people sadly, putting a toe in is as far as they get. They let their embarrassment get in front of them and they sell themselves short. If for whatever reason someone is reading this and thinks that they could blog too if only they could be a) good enough b) sure that they had enough material to last for more than a week c) whatever else... then please, take it from me, go for it. Dive in and never look back. Whatever concerns you have will take care of themselves if you are truly committed to the cause.

Rich Apodaca (@Rapodaca on Twitter) gave a number of reasons this week as to why someone - and chemists in particular - would choose to be anonymous on the internet. While I agree with all of his reasons, I think he missed a big one: lack of confidence. It takes a world of confidence to go out on the internet and post your opinions/comments/thoughts with YOUR NAME ATTACHED TO IT knowing that everyone can see it and criticize. This was extremely scary for me. While I have always known that I had a great education in rheology, it took me the better part of 2 decades to be able to CONFIDENTLY post my opinions about rheology to others, let alone criticize what other rheologists have published in renown journals. It was a very scary step for me and I am sure that that would be an equally scary step for others. For me, it was rheology, but for others it could be whatever particularly (sub)section of chemistry that you are (kinda) specializing in.

At the same time, I've never had any hesitation at all about "putting my name on it" (as Herm Edwards says). I can easily understand that in certain situations, anonymity is critical as what you say could have repercussions through your employer. Fine. I have no problem at all with that. If what you speak is true, it will show through your comments. On the other had, anonymous comments that are written so as to drive a certain agenda or to just incite an argument show through as clearly as a hydroxy groups shows through in an IR spectrum.

The fact that I have always put my name on my blog is actually rather striking to me in hindsight. I started this blog while at my previous employer, Aspen Research, when they were owned by the Andersen Corporation (i.e, Andersen Windows), so we were under the thumb of their IT department. Literally. I could go on for days about how heavy-handed they were, but what is always the most telling example to me and our clients was that we were not allowed to do a Google Image search. Why? Because the little thumbprints that showed up in the search results were potentially pornographic. Seriously. They were worried about little 1/2" by 1/2" pornographic images. We could never go to the websites hosting the full-sized photos since they were filtered out, but just the fact that we would have been able to view the little pictures was enough that we were creating a "hostile work environment" and so no Google Image searches were allowed. Again, this is only the tip of the iceberg as to how heavy-handed they were regarding internet access.

So when they suddenly said one day out-of-the-blue that they not only allowed but even ENCOURAGED to use social media (so long as we were civil, respectful and represented Andersen in a positive light), I was positively, absolutely, without-a-doubt, head-over-heels, taken aback with joy. Who wouldn't be? With that kind of permission, I began to write seriously. No, my early writing sucks. Whatever. Look at any other blogger's earliest writing. Practice makes perfect (although I am still have a long ways to go). But in all cases, I have always put my name on it. I can't imagine doing otherwise. I've published papers, given presentations, filed patents, etc. all with my name on it. What reason is there that some one wouldn't put there name on it? Rich has already given a long list; I've added a lack of confidence but argued that away; so what else is there? Start blogging and put your name on it.

[*] USCF = United States Cycling Federation. I thought that I used to ride my bike pretty seriously, but it wasn't until that thin little green postcard arrived in the mail in late March of 1986 that I decided either I was going to go all in or forget it. I'm sure there are people reading this that think they are good/great cyclists, having done centuries and whatever other rides are available. But would you ever sign up for a race where you were going to be viewed and judged in front of a public audience as to how well you rode? Think about that and tell me you're not scared. Somehow I found the guts to race and I'm glad I did. I never looked back and I never regretted it no matter how many races I got smoked at. That was a big wake-up call, one that I will never forget and I one that I use to teach others with. Blogging is no different. You sign up innocuously with Google for a blogger account, BOOM you get and suddenly it's like "Oh S*#t"! This is for real", and you either decide you are going to do it or you walk away.

1 comment:

Andrew Bissette said...

I think lack of confidence can swing either way. On the one hand, if you want to do it without any fear of repercussions, or sloppy writing being linked to you later, pseudonymity could give you a big confidence boost.

On the other hand, I started blogging recently under my own name. Both decisions were made precisely because I lack confidence. I lack confidence in my views and intelligence, and in my writing style. I started blogging to improve all of these, and doing it under my real name as way to motivate myself to really work at writing well: I don't want sloppy work or stupid statements coming back to haunt me.