I received my first comment recently from a reader who I can’t identify. I think I know who Trish is, but I can’t be sure. On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog. Trish, that was not meant about you, it was a statement about anonymity online. Which is the whole point of this post.
But before I get to that, let me write one more thing. Scott IM’ed me yesterday to tell me that he’d stumbled across my blog. I’m not sure how; I’ll have to ask him about that. Actually I don’t even have to ask him… he’s already been asked, since I know he’s reading these posts now. Anyway, I’m bad – I didn’t tell anyone when I started writing this. Except Fred, of course, who helped me set the blog up in the first place. It took me weeks to remember to send the URL to Yvonne even. Actually this would make for an interesting diffusion experiment: from a readership of zero and no publicity, how does a single blog diffuse through the blogosphere? If I had the time and inclination (and permission) I suppose I could check the ibiblio server logs… but yeah, I’ll be doing that in my copious spare time.
Anyway, Scott found my blog and created a LiveJournal feed for it. Which means that now there’s one more vehicle for people to discover my blog: Paul‘s blogroll, links from a few of Fred‘s posts, and now Scott’s LJ feed. Of course I never knew who was reading this, but until Trish’s comment, I assumed that I had an audience of maybe 4 people. Now I have to assume I have a more or less infinite number of readers… or more accurately, an indeterminate number of readers. I’m pretty sure that none of my faculty colleagues (except Paul) are reading this blog. And so far none of my students are reading it, that I know of, though that’s probably only a matter of time.
I was surfing blogrolls recently (yes! another great time-waster is born), and I stumbled across this post, in which the author writes that she’s happy that she’s an anonymous academic blogger, so that she can write nasty things about someone. Someone who richly deserved it, in this case, but that’s not really the point. The point is that this is, to me, one of the strangest things about blogging: I feel like I have to be careful what I say because I don’t know to whom I’m saying it. If this were an anonymous blog, this might be a non-issue; I could write whatever because it wouldn’t be attributable. But clearly this is not the case… I chose the name of my blog deliberately.
I used to think that people who maintained multiple blogs were either overachievers or had way too much free time on their hands, but now I begin to understand why you might want to do that. Not that I’m planning on starting another blog; this one is enough of a time-sink. But I can understand the appeal of having various online personae. Of course this shouldn’t come as any great shock to me, I wasted enough of my high school and college years in MUDs. (Including, I might add, some of those frequented by Julia… I did after all grow up just down the road from MIT. Not that that matters, I suppose, since anyone with a telnet connection could have logged into those.)
On the other hand, it occurs to me that the fact that my readers know who I am but I don’t know who they are, makes writing this blog pretty much like all of the writing I do professionally. I publish a paper, the reader knows who I am, but I don’t know who they are or even if they’re reading it. And there’s less chance that I’ll get comments, making the reader even more of a stranger to me. Plus I know many of the people personally who may be reading my stuff; LIS just isn’t that large a field. So I have people I know personally sneaking around reading my writing, & not telling me, & I have no way to know they’re doing it. Jeez, when I put it that way… how weird does that sound? (Or at least I don’t know they’re reading my stuff until I read their stuff and I’m cited in it, inshallah.)
So what’s the big deal? I ask myself. Why do I feel differently about this form of writing than I do about any of my other forms of writing? Is it just that this is not professional writing, so I have a personal investment in it that I don’t have with my journal pubs? Maybe, but I think it’s more than that. The rules of scholarly writing are pretty clear: you can disagree wth someone, but you have to do it politely. It’s damn rare to see name-calling in scholarly writing. If no one was reading this, though, I might use more colorful language or post things that I wouldn’t post now, political rants, comments about the job, etc. …of course, if no one was reading this, I wouldn’t be writing this at all. So I guess what’s weird to me about blogging is that it’s a personal forum, but not completely. Like a cocktail party with your colleagues: everyone’s a little drunk but you still have to watch your mouth.