I have been online a long time. I have a digital trail that sometimes feels like it’s a mile wide, where I benefit more from the fact that a lot of content from the early days of the world wide web weren’t archived before servers went down than anything else. I’ve been anonymous, pseudonymous, known by my married name and my given one. It gives me at least a little bit of perspective over the current debate over identity online, and it makes me uncomfortable to see me mentioned, even in passing, as a good “open identity” idea to emulate.
I, truth be told, never gave much thought to what it meant to be visible online before my editor, reading an article I’d handed in for my third op-ed, asked me if I was sure I wanted to publish it. Had I really thought about what I was saying, and was I okay putting it online? She closed the file and told me to think about it for a day before making my decision.
I did think it over. I thought about what I was saying, but I also thought about what I had already said over the last 18 months of courses and teaching and work and outreach, and realized I wasn’t saying anything I hadn’t already said elsewhere. I was okay putting it online. After all, I was writing an op-ed for a university paper; how many people really read those, anyhow?
A few weeks later, another column ended up, along with my headshot, on the dartboard outside the offices of a department at that university, and I realized that at least people on campus were reading what I wrote. Honestly? I laughed when I heard that, I was delighted over the hate mail my editor received, and I felt like I was doing something right.
I moved on from there to graduate school, which came along with writing for higher profile blogs on both bio and broader medical ethics. The idea of not writing under my given name was never even broached; I was developing an academic presence in a field known for controversy—and I admit that I relished the attention controversial posts received. (I sometimes think bioethicists seek validation in decibels, or at least in the number of opposition papers aimed at you.)
And then things collapsed around me; when I applied to other graduate schools, I was told, in confidence and by several different people at several different schools, that I would never work in bioethics again. My name and my record were too linked to things that had nothing to do with me, but would taint me via association.
Shortly after that, I ended up on Twitter, mostly as a lark. Some of you likely remember my first icon: one of my cats, not me. I used my first name, but I didn’t have a picture of myself online, and I didn’t closely tie my Twitter handle to my website; I never posted what little blogging I was doing to Twitter.
I don’t recall precisely when I decided to link my blog to Twitter. I was drawn back into blogging about bioethics by Twitter, so I would guess it was probably some time in early 2012. As for my face being out there, that came shortly before Science Online 2013, when attendees were asked to have a recognizable icon. (For a while, I seriously thought about bringing a cutout of my cat’s face to wear.) My full name didn’t get added to Twitter until last week, when people were confused about what that last name was, and I realized it wouldn’t hurt to be slightly more clear.
But here’s the thing: I really don’t have anything to lose by being Kelly Hills on Twitter. I don’t have anything to lose being open in criticizing Nature, or telling Science Online where I think they’ve gone wrong, or with anything else. What was of value to me has already been taken away. So Henry Gee can’t really threaten to put me on a hit list or take me out or destroy my career when that’s all already been done to me. In fact, given that I’ve been accused of throwing servers (that were on fire!) off of buildings in some sort of malicious revenge scheme, Gee’d have to do a lot worse to even get me to blink.
This isn’t to say that I haven’t been threatened, but it is to say that I am privileged in a way that most people aren’t, regardless of their race, class, or status: I have nothing, and that makes me a very difficult person to threaten.
I, if nothing, am your cautionary tale. I am the one that should be pointed to when people say be careful, because I am in the place you end up when the narrative spins out of your control and the idea of controlling damage is as laughable as your reputation.
We often talk about privilege as a good place to be, and most of the time it is. But there is privilege from being so far beyond damaged that you no longer have to care, and it’s not a good privilege. I am privileged in that I can say what I think, but that’s because there are no longer any consequences for me in the particular places where I use my voice.
I am nothing but sympathetic to those who feel that their lives, their careers, their reputations, require some degree of caution when they are online, and as such choose to write either anonymously or pseudonymously. They’re doing a delicate calculus, attempting to balance incredibly contradictory and competing needs, and I would never presume I know what’s better for those people, and I rail against the idea that I should be held up as any example of good because, if you really want to, you can find out my middle name. If anything, where I am now—that you know who I am—is an act of defiance. It’s a giant “bring it” of bravado in front of “what else do I have?” It’s trying to make the best of a bad situation, and it’s the sort of thing people should be able to choose, rather than face with resignation.
This post came about both from discussions happening over Henry Gee, a senior editor for Nature, outing a pseudonymous blogger, discussions of what it means to boycott Nature, and a really excellent series over at Hope Jahren’s blog on real life identity and the internet.
And just for the general record, it’s not all been bad. I’ve made friends and met some amazing people I wouldn’t have met in a million years otherwise, including my fiancÃ©.