Why I use a pseudonym

Earlier today, a college professor was fired for saying something asinine on Twitter. (Washington Post, Fox News)

I’d already set up my new blog and Twitter account under the pseudonym “Ray O’Neill,” because this isn’t the first, or dozenth, or hundredth time I’ve seen someone ravaged by an outrage flash mob. It always goes like this:

  • Someone says something asinine, or ill-considered, or controversial.
  • It gets noticed by a few people, who spread the news.
  • It gets noticed by a critical mass of people.
  • That mass of people screams invective at the heretic and does its level best to destroy his or her life.

That last step can take many forms. Sometimes the heretic has a craven employer (that’s what happened to this college professor). If self-employed, the heretic will have business partners or social institutions or someone else the mob can try to threaten. If that isn’t likely to work, then the big guns come out — organized harassment, doxxing, stalking, swatting.

There are ways to deal with this:

  • Cower. Be meek, mild, and passive. Never say anything that millions of people aren’t already saying, or better yet, say nothing at all. Fuck that.
  • Be famous enough, or important enough, or connected enough, that you can weather most Internet storms. Millions of fans make a good breakwater for waves of outrage, paid moderators can filter out social-media harassment, and corporate or political cronies can blunt or discourage the more serious attacks. (It’s harder, though not impossible, to swat someone who’s in the justice system.) This is good for people who have access to it, but for the rest of us…
  • Be unknown. If the outrage mob only knows you by a pseudonym, than the only damage they can do is to that pseudonym. At worst, if the harassment gets to be more than you can take, you’ll have to abandon that pseudonym — the rest of your life will be blissfully unaffected.

There are those who abuse pseudonyms, enough of them that some celebrities and media denizens have called for banning them, but enough outrage-mongers and keyboard crusaders use their given names to disprove the lazy assumption underlying that call for compulsion.

In summary, my name is Ray O’Neill, as far as you know.

Originally posted on August 29, 2017.


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