Tuesday, November 27, 2012

On Anonymity

People sometimes ask me, "Froog, why are you such a slippery fellow? Why do you conceal your identity and contact information from the myriads [Well, 20, at the last count. - Ed.] of admiring followers your blogs attract?"

Well, self-preservation is a prime reason. A lot of young Chinese Netizens are of the fenqing tendency - rabid, xenophobic nationalists who despise foreigners in general, and particularly those who have the temerity to make any public comment on matters relating to China. A lot of these folks are formidably resourceful in the techniques of the 'human flesh search' - tracking down people's real world identities and locations from the clues they leave about themselves online. Many of these people are tedious and unpleasant in the extreme; more than a few are outright psychotic, and potentially dangerous.

So, I cloak my identity to spare myself possible grief from online nutjobs who might take offence at something I say. Now, you might think Barstool Blues here is a pretty uncontentious sort of blog, but my other outlet, Froogville, is occasionally rather less so. I use the same alias for all my online activity; and I sometimes use it to comment on far more popular - and more overtly political - 'China blogs' that attract a good deal of attention from dingbats of this sort. So, no joke: physical protection is a serious concern.

Well, that and attempting to save myself from embarrassment with friends and acquaintances - and employers! I do post quite a lot of very personal, potentially compromising revelations on my two blogs; on Froogville, in particular, I quite often discuss my work. So, there's an element of using the cloak of anonymity to preserve personal - and financial - relationships as well.

I put quite a bit of effort into this. It's not just a matter of always referring to myself by the name Froog. Almost no-one - unless they're famous - is referred to on my blogs by name; I either avoid referring to people directly, or - for those friends who make fairly regular 'appearances' on here - I use initials or nicknames. I also throw in a fair bit of misdirection about my activities: lightly fictionalizing events to make them less easy to recognise, attributing stories that happened to me sometimes to other people (and vice versa), distorting time references by implying that a recent occurrence happened some weeks back or that something that happened a month or more ago happened just last night, and so on.

Perhaps there's a component of shyness or modesty - or anti-narcissism - in my shunning of 'publicity' as well. I never introduce myself as the author of these blogs. If other people do so, I deflect the conversation elsewhere. If people suspect my Froog identity and challenge me on it, I'll deny it.

Blog writing, for me, is an acutely private hobby; and I like to keep it completely separate from my real life.

It's the polar opposite of dear old Jim Boyce, creator of the capital's pre-eminent bar blog, Beijing Boyce. He parades himself so openly on his blog that it becomes difficult to distinguish the blog persona from the actual man.

And he's a staunch advocate - often, indeed, a somewhat self-righteous-sounding one - of non-anonymous blogging. He maintains that it creates 'accountability'.

I find that an unconvincing claim. 'Accountability' in the online world consists in having to retain the confidence of your readers. If you write something that disappoints or offends them, something that they feel is biased or inaccurate or self-serving, they will criticise you in your comment threads (and perhaps elsewhere online too). And, if their disgruntlement is great enough, they will vote with their feet by ceasing to visit your blog. That is accountability. Letting everybody know who you are - so that obnoxious drunks can abuse you in bars or send you snarky e-mails - is masochism.

JB has different concerns, and chose differently to me. I respect that. His blog is utterly unlike mine (it's a public information service, with a very large readership), and making himself into a public figure has helped both in building the brand awareness of the blog (ah, that alliteration: kind of irritating, but oh so memorable!) and in forging relationships with the F&B professionals that he writes about.

Of course, the downside of revealing your identity when you operate as a bar or restaurant reviewer is that it will tend to compromise your independence, your ability to experience a venue as other punters do, your freedom to critique something uninhibitedly. I believe JB is pretty assiduous about not trying to exploit his profile to gain preferential treatment and not letting bar owners ply him with freebies, but... it must be difficult to maintain such ethical probity all the time. And it doesn't seem to me like a good idea to put yourself in the position where you have to make that constant effort. It must get exhausting

I imagine it must be a bit constraining on your ability to be brutally frank in a review, too, if the owners know you, are perhaps even friendly with you. I certainly find it hard to write about bars where the owners know that I am Froog (although, currently, that's only two; so, not too much of problem). 

Being a publicly identifiable bar blogger brings a lot of problems to Mr Boyce, I think. It must impinge to some extent on the freedom with which he can operate as a reviewer. It exposes him to potential hostility from people he does review poorly. And it creates doubts in the minds of some of his readers about his ethics or his impartiality. When set against that, his 'accountability' argument seems even more hollow.

JB often gripes about the hostility his blog sometimes arouses, and about unpleasant encounters he's suffered with jerks in bars. I feel sorry for him, and yet... well, he brings it on himself by making himself such a public figure, by putting himself in the firing line like this. If you can't stand the heat, and all that.

Even if I were writing a blog like that, I think I'd keep my name off the masthead. It's not about 'accountability'; it's about preserving something of a private life for yourself.


KingTubby said...

FROOG Pearl River Lager is unquestionably the worst beer in the world.

Re: anonymity. I would welcome a FQ threat as it would give my servants an opportunity to display their martial art skills. Those who lack the dojo discipline and dedication would just as happily hand out a really good kicking at tubbyland passport control.

In my bloglife of four years, I'm pleased to note that I've probably made more loawai mortal enemies.

One shouldn't discriminate.

Froog said...

Worst Beer In The World could be quite a vigorously contested competition, KT. I've always considered Coors Light to be well up there. And the small-bottle 'Tsingtao' we get in Beijing is mostly quite foul.

On this blog I probably have indeed ruffled more feathers amongst foreigners - having ruthlessly savaged most of the more 'popular' venues at one time or another, as well pouring scorn on broad demographics such as Mandarin students and Young Americans.