Wednesday, March 26, 2008

ON ANONYMOUS BLOGGING

There's a fair amount of drama going on at The Chem Blog, with chemistry graduate student and popular anonymous blogger "Kyle Finchsigmate" announcing first that he was going to retire, and then demoting (advancing?) himself to "emeritus blogger" to continue writing in his rather inimitable style. Kyle was considering retiring because his identify has been outed in his department (and consequently elsewhere) and he was not comfortable with the attention.

I enjoy reading Kyle's blog and have always done so, and I doubt how many people would have the gumption to express themselves in the way that he does and still preserve a significant amount of intellectual substance and solid information. At the same time, I do find myself cringing once in a while at his novel use of expletives. That said, at least for me, the entertainment gains from reading his blog outweigh the displeasure I may sense in myself on reading what my inner "offense-meter" thinks is a disproportionate amount of profanity or irreverence. But that's not the point. The point is that on the whole, Kyle has always been honest about what he thinks, and that is something that everybody should value.

However, being a star does have its problems and I think Kyle is suffering from typical celebrity troubles. First of all, when you write in the risque language that he does, there is going to be a relatively higher proportion of people feeling offended; it's an inevitable collateral effect. Secondly and more simply, as Kyle's celebrity status improved and hundreds of people started reading his blog, the sheer statistical number of people that could be offended went up. With Kyle's cover blown, this became a particular problem.

Anonymous blogging does have its pitfalls. The advantage of being gung-ho and writing whatever you want about whoever you want, even if done honestly, can be outweighed by the possible consequences if discovered. In this information age, I think it's hard to stay completely anonymous for long. As your blog becomes more and more popular, the chances of getting outed naturally increase (Consider the 'Fake Steve Jobs' who was actually surprised that his his outing took that long).

That's one reason I decided to have a non-anonymous blog. Right at the beginning, I decided that I would not write about other scientists, my own work or my own advisor. Of course it's not very easy because it's human nature to be constantly tempted to point fingers at others and engage in gossip, as well as put in plugs for one's own work. At the very least, it's quite easy to be full of praise for someone, but in the world of science even such an action can have unintended personal consequences. It also seems clear to me that you face a larger risk even with run-of-the-mill writing if you work for someone who is high-profile and famous. Speaking for myself, the only time I have criticised someone is in case of blatant fraud or obviously questionable work where many others have raised similar issues.

But blogging non-anonymously and responsibly and yet effectively is nevertheless possible, and is demonstrated by one of the best examples of such writing that I know- pharmaceutical scientist Derek Lowe's In The Pipeline which is one of the most widely read scientific blogs on the internet and has been a finalist for Best Science Blog. Especially being in industry, I would think that Derek carries a larger than usual burden of making sure he does not become a liability. I believe he has succeeded admirably in always writing entertainingly and quite provocatively, and yet avoided getting personal or offensive. His posts stimulate and inform without offending (at least largely; there is always going to be somebody who can get offended by anything). Harvard graduate student Paul Bracher's now sadly defunct blog was another example of provocative and yet gentle writing; it was interesting how even that gentle writing got Paul into trouble with commentators sometimes. The point is, you always have to be ready for some backlash, no matter what kind of blog you have.

In any case, that's Derek and Paul. Kyle's different, and why not? In the end blogging is a personal activity and personal choice. Even if I am writing for others, it's my blog, and I should have the freedom to express my views the way I want to. It's Kyle's choice how much risk to bear. It's inevitable that he shoulders more risk with his particular style, and in my personal opinion, he could sometimes tread a little more softly as a small price to pay for less risk. But again, it's his blog, and if he changes himself too much for the sake of propriety, then it wouldn't be Kyle Finchsigmate's blog anymore, would it?

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1 Comments:

Blogger Sqrl/TA said...

Just read Kyle's latest post, and it seems like too 'rant-y' to be taken seriously. Blogging like that about science just seems very risky, even if anonymously. I have heard the same things that he is saying from people in pharma, the FDA and academia ( in seminars) presented in a much more calm and analytical manner. He seems to project himself as a lonely critic of pharma's business model, while it seems to me, everyone and their mother is re-thinking it.


And as you said, Derek's blog is much more enjoyable and thought provoking, but it could be an age+experience thing.

6:37 AM  

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