Friday, December 30, 2011

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...


BikeMonkey said...

Responding to criticism of oneself by going after the "true identity" of a pseud is an admission that you have no actual response to the substance of the critique. You stay pseud now Common. (it IS a tragedy you don't blog about beer anymore though.)

Nav said...

What you've done with your pseudonym you can do with your real name. Your writing speaks for itself, not your name. When you write for sites like FanGraphs and theScore, and when your posts here take aim at guys who make their living writing about baseball, your real name would add a sense of legitimacy to your arguments. That's just my opinion, of course. At the end of the day, I'm a fan of your writing, and I could care less the name said writing is under. But it's low lying fruit for writers to take aim at, your "The Common Man" pseudonym, especially when they have no answers for you in terms of the actual substance you're putting out there.

Great post, by the way. I think these are issues that have to be addressed eventually. You're being paid to write about baseball. You wouldn't write under the name "The Common Man" for a newspaper, even if you were only writing for said newspaper's website, on their "blog." Know what I mean?

I used to write under a pseudonym. I interviewed for jobs in sports media in which I was told that that wouldn't fly, that it takes away from the legitimacy of what you're doing. I ended up going to my real name, and even ended up changing my Twitter handle in the process. A few guys at theScore recently changed their Twitter handles to their real names. I think it all comes down to legitimacy.

Apologies for the book length of this comment. At the end of the day, it's your writing that matters. And your writing is good. There's a reason you're being paid, albeit little money. I just have a lot of opinions about this.



Stevo-sama said...

Great post, I also 'lurk' behind a pseudonym (well, a pseudo-pseudonym really...very much akin to Clark Kent's glasses) for many of the same reasons. Legitimacy be damned, if one's writing isn't legitimate on its own, then what's the use?

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

My friend Nav I respect very much. And he makes some good points. But as for me, whatever your name is, I'll come read because I enjoy it. Gee, that's simple.

AstroBrit said...

Great post. Just keep doing what you're doing. I know a lot of people in baseball fan circles respect and appreciate what you are doing here at TPA

I adopted my pseudonym in June 2004 and at times felt under siege when I let the mask slip a bit last year and I felt far more vulnerable when attacked (quite maliciously). The joys of being a minor minor minor baseball staff writer.

JImCrikket said...

I've disagreed with what you've written from time to time, but I'm fully in agreement on this point and I use a pseudo for many of the same reasons.

If/when you get to where you are able to support yourself through writing, then quite possibly the "legitimacy" argument holds water.

But, unfortunately, in an age when current and potential employers Google our real names to mine information about our hobbies, interests and other matters that are, frankly, none of their damn business, using a pseudo is simply a necessary precaution.

If readers can't understand that, tough.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like I'm the only one who feels this way, and I'll keep it brief, but The Common Man was an eye-catcher. I mean, aside from being linked by Neyer, I would read your writing because I was intrigued by the pseudonym. From November 3, 2010: "The Platoon Advantage's Common Man did fantastic research on historical batter-pitcher matchups, just hundreds of words of yummy goodness (and The Platoon Advantage's Bill followed up with even more yumminess)" After reading it, I saw what we all see: intelligent, informed, humorous writing on Baseball.

The Common Man also represents the every guy, the guy who loves Baseball and actually blogged about it, instead of leaving douchey comments for legitimate voices in our Baseball community (i.e. some Cardinals fans - Adam Wainwright - Keith Law). One negative thing about the Internet is as many ignorant fools you know personally, you'll find 1,000x more on here. Maybe you can sprinkle in some jealousy along with their stupidity.

To The Common Man, stay The Common Man, from the common man. If you didn't, it would be so incredibly lame.

(just to avoid the obvious remark of being anonymous, @MHilosky)

Anonymous said...


I just wanted to point out that The Economist has a long tradition of using pseudonyms for its writers. For instance, their American correspondent is always name Lexington, the Britain correspondent is Bagehot, Schumpeter writes about business, etc. Different correspondents have held these chairs over time, but all write under the same pseudonyms.

Clearly, The Economist is in a class of its own because the writing and content is second to none. But they provide an extreme example where pseudonyms are in use too.


Anonymous said...

And it can become much like the Dread Pirate Roberts!!!

hk said... you wish!

Dr. Isis said...

Nav, I find your rationale to be fallacious. Pauline Phillips wrote as Dear Abby. Two different women wrote as Ann Landers. cyTheodore Geisel wrote as Dr. Seuss, Theo LeSieg and Rosetta Stone and Sam Clemens wrote as Mark Twain. What is important is not the name, but the development of reputation and constancy of voice.

Hugh said...

Like the other commenters, I am comfortable with your use of pseudonym and reasons for doing so. I hear Nav and see where he, too, is coming from. However, in the UK, there is a very famous satirical magazine called "Private Eye" the bulk of whose contributors do so anonymously or under a pseudonym. In many cases, this is necessary for them to be able to attract and protect their sources.

TCM is not in the same position, of course, and has different reasons. Just giving another example of another MSM outlet where pseudonymity is not necessarily unthinkable. It does, of course, mean that readers are likely to (and almost certainly should) exercise more care in taking at face value any assertions of fact coming from such a source. That's not been a problem for me here to date.

Ceetar said...

I always find myself, probably unfairly, silently judging people who switch from pseudonyms to real names.

It says to me that they're suddenly taking themselves to seriously, that they're more concerned with their personal image than content.

There might be something to the respectability aspect, but that's the problem of the people judging a book by it's cover. Similar to "real world" people that won't take you seriously if you're not wearing a suit and tie, no matter how valid your point/work is. Or Internet bullies who invalidate your point because you made a typo or didn't fully proofread your comment.

Anonymous said...

The best part about a pseudonym is that I can assume that your actually Ray Lankford and no one can tell me otherwise.

DC Cullen said...

The thing I don't understand is that you seem to be a Minnesotan and there's a guy on the radio here who calls himself The Common Man. Since you must know of his existence why confuse things with the same name?

The Common Man said...

Yes, The Common Man is a native Minnesotan, DC, but he also for all intents and purposes moved out of the state in 1997. TCM doesn't know whether the KFAN personality you're referring to was active back then, but TCM was not a sports talk radio guy back then (and, frankly, still isn't).

Thus, TCM had never heard of this other fellow (and in fact still has never heard his voice), who TCM is sure does a fine job at what he does.

Given that, the fact that TCM came to his relative prominence independently, and that TCM does something very different from what this other fellow does, The Common Man doesn't feel it's necessary or even right to change his handle. After all, how can one person own a cliché?

DC Cullen said...

The guy on the radio is actually unlistenable (for me anyway). I just happened upon this blog recently. So I had known of the radio guy for years but never heard of you. Although you are very different from the radio guy, what were the chances that there would be two guys from MN called TCM? Turns out to be a 100% chance. After I read more of your posts I realized that you were also much younger than radio guy. Confusing at first though. Also I'm not suggesting that you change your handle, just noting my (as a Minnesotan) initial confusion.