On Pseudonymity…

By The Common Man

For a moment, I think it’s important to talk like a normal person.  Every so often, I get an objection in the comments or on Twitter about my use of a pseudonym, especially when I use this forum to criticize others who are not similarly pseudonymous. This happened to me the other day, in fact. It’s an entirely reasonable and justified objection to raise, and my reasons for remaining pseudonymous are not easily explained in 140 characters or less. So I thought it would be appropriate to have a place to which I can point people to explain my decision. If you are not at all interested in why I choose to write as The Common Man…well…feel free to skip this post.

I began writing as The Common Man in February of 2007 on a lark. I was in grad school at the time, and not really enjoying it much, and The Common Man provided an outlet for my thoughts on sports, politics, culture, and family. Eventually, it became clear I should write about baseball exclusively. It’s what I was best at, and what I enjoyed most.

I began to build a following with the support of great writers like Rob Neyer and Craig Calcaterra. But that support was for a guy named The Common Man. Indeed, any of the reputation as a reliable and reasonable source for information and analysis that I have built over the last few years has been under this pseudonym. If I were to start publishing tomorrow somewhere else under my real name, it would mean almost nothing. While there are people around the Internet and in our small community who know my real name, and know me personally, the rest of our readership would have no idea why they should trust Joe Shlabotnik’s word or opinion on anything.

Writing under a pseudonym is a privilege that we are afforded in this society. It’s a practice with a fine tradition, used by great men like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Samuel Clemens to critique power. No one accuses them of being cowards.  I am not those men, obviously, in form or quality.  But I see the inhernent value in what they did, and their methods in doing it.

However, pseudonymity is a privilege that comes with a responsibility not to use it as a shield from behind which to toss bombs. I try very hard not to abuse that privilege. I back up my arguments with good reasons, I use evidence and logic, and sometimes I use the tools of satire and incivility to get my point across more forcefully, if I feel the situation warrants it. And when I am wrong, either in fact or in tenor, I try to make immediate amends. I fix factual errors and I apologize unequivocally when I have erred.

I firmly believe that there’s nothing I write or say as The Common Man that I would not write or say under my real name. I believe my co-blogger and heterosexual life-partner Bill will confirm this. My pseudonym has a reputation, and I do not. I value that reputation just as highly as a non-pseudonymous writer values their good name. After the last few years of hard work to build that reputation, I have no intention of throwing away any of the trust and respect that name has earned.

I have other reasons I remain pseudonymous as well. I have a real job, for instance. I don’t let my online writing interfere with my ability to get my work done, but I also don’t feel the need to advertise my extracurricular writing activities at work. Nor do I believe being trivially Googleable would be good for my future prospects should I someday choose to seek employment elsewhere. This is my hobby. I’ve begun to make a small amount of money on a weekly basis, thanks to paying gigs at Getting Blanked and at NotGraphs, but that doesn’t pay the bills and keep the lights on at Casa de Common Man. I’d love for, at some point, that to happen. And if that day should come, this very well may be a very different conversation that you and I are having.

If you have additional questions or objections about my pseudonymity, please feel free to post them in the comments. I understand that this is an issue that provokes a great deal of emotion in some people. And while I will probably disagree with their objections, I also sympathize with them. Particularly if they or someone they care about are the subject of one of my posts that is less than complimentary. And I certainly don’t think I’m above criticism.  Thanks, as always, for reading.  And now, back to our regular programming…