Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

I regularly read and very much enjoy John Wells’ Phonetic Blog, a blog run, as you might imagine, by British Phonetician John Wells. Well, today he made a post which inspired a whirlwind of thinking within me about orthonymity (using one’s actual name), and rather neatly crystallized further progress in a debate I’ve been having in my own mind for several months. From his post:

You may have noticed that this blog is neither anonymous nor pseudonymous. It bears my true name at the top. If you are for some reason curious about me or my life, googling my name will quickly reveal to you more information about me than you could reasonably want to know. You will find links to my home page, my personal history, and my (unauthorized by me) Wikipedia entry. On my home page you will see my email address and even my home phone number. (I have never hesitated to make these contact details available on the web. It helps journalists and others who might wish to contact me to do so.)

But many of those who leave comments on this blog hide behind nicknames or pseudonyms, sometimes fantastical. We don’t know who they really are. (There are some exceptions here. I know that “Ed” is Ed Aveyard, and that ”clinicallinguistics” is Martin Ball, while “wjarek” is Jarek Weckwerth. And of course there are several commentators who, I assume, use their real names.)

I ask that from now on everyone who comments on postings on this blog should use their true name. I refer you to a recent article in the Guardian by Jonathan Myerson.

The right to be anonymous is the right to be forgotten

Of course, the internet has a great many people discussing the merits of available anonymity, and I suspect that Dr. Wells would likely agree that for some situations, anonymity is simply required. However, blogging about language (or commenting on a blog about language) is unlikely to step on the toes of world governments, put you in a whistleblower position against powerful organziations, or even inspire scorn among family and friends, some of the usual cases highlighting the need of anonymity.

However, up until a few months ago, I’d have posted either as “WS” (my real life initials), or more likely, as “The Linguistic Mystic”, my well established psuedonym, and posting with my real name would have been rather out of the question. This is not so much because I’m afraid of blowback or retribution, but because I don’t entirely trust my (still young) self. I know that posting on a comments page or even creating a blog are public acts, and I also consider myself a great deal more saavy than I once was regarding the public/private line.

However, with the continual improvement of search algorithms and the internet’s ability to keep things around for the forseeable future, on the internet, we have no right to be forgotten. As such, online, I’ve taken to avoiding using my real name entirely in most situations where I don’t need to, and I’ve even gone about googling and removing my real name from any sites I might still have access to.

The Guardian article to which Dr. Wells links is a good one, and neatly examines the idea that anonymity discourages care in discussion. However, I’d like to present the counterpoint: Even well-intentioned, well-reasoned and non-“trollish” remarks can come back to haunt you when circumstances change. When such remarks are made anonymously or psuedonymously and they become unpopular, people attack your words. When those same remarks are made orthonymously, people attack you.

Orthonymity is forever

That’s not to say that I will never use my real name. There are times when I explicitly want something to be publicized and associated with me in the future, something I’d want future friends, parterns, and even faculty selection communities to Google and find. In effect, for me, using my real name is more than just “introducing myself” in a conversation, as Dr. Wells suggests. Using my real name is branding my words and saying “I not only say this, but I endorse and am ready to defend it now and for the forseeable future”.

One of the biggest changes in this site’s recent reworking was one I hardly mentioned at all. For the first 6 years of this site’s life, I made conscious effort to separate “The Linguistic Mystic” from me, Will Styler. At early stages in the site’s existence, I’d even taken conscious steps to ensure that the site would be difficult to link back to me except with extensive googling or through the people I’d shared that link with.

However, that policy has been weakening. I’ve not done anything terribly controversial nor terribly presumptuous, and my name had already been revealed in a few places (both in citation requests and in the news). When I recently went through a full redesign of the site (which required me to review every post), I realized that, well, the site was actually something that I should be proud of. Some of my old posts were, perhaps, a bit shrill in places, but on the whole, I had created a sizable chunk of work which I should actually take credit for.

So, with little ceremony, I added the “About the Author” link to the “Site Information” in the upper right corner, linking directly to my personal homepage at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Vowels, and added a symmetrical link pointing back here from there. And today, two paragraphs up, I posted my full name for the first time ever on this website.

A role for anonymity and orthonymity

Sure, there will be people people making low-quality posts with fake names, but there are people making them with real names. In fact, what little hate mail this blog has gotten me has been from people using their real names and information. I don’t take personally somebody trying to avoid linking their random comment of the morning to their entire career, but I do appreciate knowing something about the people who I’m talking with.

Ultimately, though, I don’t care whether people, when commenting, use a psuedonym or their real name. At this point, to be honest, I’m just grateful to inspire any discussion at all.


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