Trust, Anonymity and Authenticity

Anonymous #7

Over the last week, well – over the past few months really, I’ve had a few thoughts swooshing around in my head about my use of a pseudonym rather than my ‘real’ name in social  networking or rather on blogs and Twitter.

I use my real name on Facebook, Google Plus and LinkedIn but felt that on Twitter and on blogs I would be too exposed. My desires to explore the medium of social networking both personally but also to increase my professional knowledge and to identify myself as a ‘social worker’ led to my initial reluctance to add my name to my posts.

I have checked out my employers attitudes to my writing which seems to be along the lines of absolutely maintaining confidentiality and not bringing my employer into disrepute but these would be bounds I would keep to regardless, not least because I am bound by a code of conduct by my profession which extrapolates out to all areas of communication including social media.  My managers know I have a blog. They know something vague about Twitter in that it exists but they may or may not read my posts. There are definitely some people in positions of authority both in  my local authority and in my NHS Trust who know exactly who I am and that I use Twitter – although we rarely ‘converse’ directly.

I can’t help feeling that I would be more comfortable attaching my name to my posts if the GSCC had some clear and specific guidance regarding social media but I understand that they are about to be disbanded and this role will remain within the means of the College of Social Work to take forward. And they must.

I see some very concerning uses of social media by people who claim to be social workers and it makes me worry if, by not giving my actual name (which would be checkable against the GSCC as I am a registered Social Worker) I lose some of that trust and authenticity that is so important when sharing information online.  When I see someone with ‘social worker’ or ‘student social worker’ in their twitter profile describing a visit they have attended or encouraging people to expose more personal information about them into a public forum, I worry that by remaining anonymous, I lose some of the trust that people may have in me.

I’m also meeting more people in face to face settings that I have previously only known on Twitter. Obviously, it’s impossible to hide my identity there and there’s something wonderfully refreshing about being able to be open about who and what you are, do and say.

So what am I afraid of? Having established that I feel I operate well within guidelines provided by the GSCC and my employer why the funny cow name and face rather than my real ones?

Firstly I don’t want anything to detract from the work I do on a day to day level. While I would never discuss people I work with in these media, would people whom I am working with who find me and follow me, worry that I might? What would I do if someone I worked directly with ‘followed’ me? Would this be a concern or not? While I’m clear that Facebook requests are refused without second thought – where do the Twitter boundaries fall?

I don’t want to be a ‘star’ social worker (I’m not, by the way, saying I would be if I were to attach my name here but I am turning my hand increasingly to writing).  I want to be a social worker that promotes the profession positively and yes, I’ll have some conversations on Twitter about whether Pandas are better than Crocodiles but that shouldn’t impact on  my professional status. Indeed, the way the world is going, I feel it is increasingly difficult to divide ourselves into ‘work’ and ‘free time’ entities.  We become the mass of what we do, how we communicate and moreover how we are perceived.

I see doctors,  nurses and occupational therapists increasingly using their own names in these fora and I do wonder if I have been overcautious and I would actually gain far more by ‘coming out’ than I could ever potentially lose.

I’m moving away from ‘anonymity’ as a default and my defence of pseudonymity  is fading.  I feel comfortable standing publicly by the words I publish and I write as if I had my name attached in any case.

However, I am aware than once I cross ‘that line’ I can never go back.

I’d be interested in the thoughts of others. As is probably obvious, I am moving towards a public identification of my writing online but would welcome thoughts, comments etc before I finally make the ‘leap’.

This is a way that the world is changing. I think a point comes where in order to gain trust you may well need to have a name attached.

20 responses to “Trust, Anonymity and Authenticity

  1. interesting, I too use a pseudonym, although if anyone knows me in real life, they’d work out am me, from the kids and pets….! I’m anon because of our work. I too, I hope, stay within the code of conduct, not just on twitter but day to day, and I do not discuss specific work/cases. I chose to be anon because I have, via another social media site, been ‘harrassed’ by local press, when a big, in their opinion, story was breaking regarding social workers, as I was open and public about my profession. I was able to make my profile there private and only accept people I personally know, but on twitter I cannot have that option. I could protect tweets, but feels like that defeats the object of twitter. Anonymity -ish, feels like the ‘safe’ way to go, giving me a degree of control about what is out there, and who knows who I am…

  2. Jackie Rafferty

    I think it was you who posted the link to the piece in the Guardian on Internet Trolls this weekend which made the case against anonymity which made some interesting points about trust under anonymity. It was an enjoyable exercise getting to know you via Twitter before I met you but I have had a much richer picture since doing so. As you write more under your real name it is going to become apparent from your style that @ermintrude2 and @xxxxxxxxxx are one and the same. Have your fears been realised by other practitioners who use their own name? Whichever you do you have my respect and I suspect also others who know the pink spotty cow in the flowery hat

  3. Like you I work in local govt, but have an on-line persona (part of authorised private work I also do). A key consideration for me is one of politics. Working in Planning (poss the same in Social Work), I find it’s hard to have an opinion about professional developments without that spilling into being a political view. Being in a politically restricted post (though I believe all local govt workers need to be careful about how and where they express political views), I am very nervous that if I express an opinion about government planning reforms, that could put me in breach of my contract if those comments can be linked to me. So for that reason I will be maintaining a pseudonym. However, if I get made redundant and have to focus on private work for all my income I suspect I would be more open, but it then becomes a commercial consideration.

  4. You won’t be surprised to hear that I get the anonymity thing. My own reasons for the pseudonym are both professional and personal. They essentially boil down to enjoying social media but needing
    1) a way of enjoying its sillier side without impact on my organisation
    2) a way of engaging in political issues that is entirely separate from my professional life, and
    3) a way of occasionally venting frustration without people who know me in “real life” feeling worried or thinking that they need to do something.

    • …I increasingly feel like I should come out.

      I find a tension between what I want to talk about and the need to stay anonymous.
      More than this, it is the honesty and connection of social media that I really value. By staying anonymous I feel I am missing out on some of that … and being a massive hypocrite.

  5. I’m not sure that anyone else can advise you in this situation. How you progress from here has to reflect your own personal comfort levels. And strategies you have in place to ensure your previous concerns (employer, risks to self, etc) are all managed appropriately.

    I do wonder if there is a developmental process at play, because I believe that integrating the ‘online’ and ‘offline’ identities may reflect a certain ‘growing-up’ of our digital identities?

    I think part of this is the recognition that it is okay to be playful under our own names, that being professional online does not mean being PO-faced! Please, don’t lose the Ermintrude avatar!

  6. I choose to use a persistence pseudonym because I also blog about my own mental health and I’d rather my patients did not read that. However the field I work in, it would be rather easy to identify me if you were overly keen to do so. A very well written post, have posted it to G+ too.

  7. Great piece – and all the points are relevant to the identity/anonymity/pseudonymity debate. If I can add my tuppence worth, there are a few things that I see about this issue:

    1) There are no hard and fast rules – for a lot of reasons, not least that this is something fundamentally new, and no-one knows where it is going or what the impact of anonymity and pseudonymity will be. We can guess, we can speculate, we can theorise, but no-one knows for sure.

    2) That means that whenever we set standards or guidelines, we need to understand that they need to be flexible, and need to evolve to meet the developments both in technology and it its use. We also need to be able to be tolerant (if possible) over mistakes and mistaken ideas – we’re all learning as we go along.

    3) As I see it, ‘real’ anonymity or ‘effective’ pseudonymity is generally only a temporary solution to a particular problem. Eventually it will be ‘broken’, whether technologically, accidentally or intentionally. We need to be prepared for that, and not get too upset when it happens. It may be that an ‘enemy’ reveals who you are, or it may be that you decide that you yourself want to reveal who you are.

    4) If you choose to mix your online with your offline persona, and let people who know you online meet you offline, then that process of having the pseudonymity/anonymity broken is likely to be faster. A purely online pseudonymous identity is more likely to be maintainable for a longer period.

    These are big issues, and we need to be careful about them. I’ve had a number of pseudonyms over the last few years, for different purposes, but ‘professionally’ I made the decision to be ‘myself’ online most of the time a couple of years ago. That in itself has implications – but I’m in a profession (academia) where there’s much less risk in my identity being revealed. For many it’s crucial to be able to keep the offline and online identities separate – and that’s why I believe that people should have the right to control the link between online and offline IDs. That’s a theoretical right, of course, because eventually the links will be revealed, but it’s a right that can make a difference at times when it’s needed. The obvious ones that come to mind for me are whistle-blowers, people operating under oppressive regimes, victims (and potential victims) of abuse and so forth. There are more.

    Finally, yes, anonymity has a down-side – trolls are just part of the picture – but I think the upside is greater. The freedom that the internet can bring would be much reduced if we followed Facebook’s ‘real name’ policy to its logical conclusion, and demanded people be identified (or at least identifiable) on the internet at all times…

    Paul Bernal (yes, that’s my REAL name)

  8. There’s a level of delusion if you think you’re ever truly anonymous. Remember that time you thought you would just pop down the shops in your tracky-dacks and no one would notice? Deluded. When you put your credit card number into that website and you felt totally safe from scams? Deluded. Then you put some photos on faceb00k and thought no one else would use the images? Deluded. I don’t mean to sound harsh. Try to be anonymous if you like, but don’t delude yourself. You’re smarter than that.

  9. Tarsem Singh Cooner

    I recently used Facebook as a site for learning to help final year MA and BA students explore issues in relation to using social media. I was particularly concerned about addressing three areas:

    1. The amount of information publicly available about them (as students) to the general public.

    2. What messages the above information portrayed about them.

    3. Exploring the pros and cons of maintaining and then using social networks created in University for future informal/formal professional development work.

    What struck me at the beginning of teaching was the varying levels of awareness amongst students about the impact that these issues could have on their professional and personal use of social media. Anonymity as a right for service users and boundary issues of personal and professional “spaces” was explored over a three week period using an enquiry-based learning approach. There are a number of really interesting outcomes, the one I’d like to share here is that students during this learning process started to critically assess their use of social networking sites in a way that they had not done before. The use of pseudonyms, the amount and type of information that should be shared, who “owns” the information once posted, the ethics of using social media etc… were all issues explored. Over 90% of students on both cohorts reported using Facebook regularly, social media is here to stay, and exploring the issues raised by this blog post are critical in preparing current and future social workers for this new reality. Should the new College of Social Work provide a steer for Social Media use, or are the BASW code of Ethics enough to guide our online practice? My own view is that perhaps a formal steer would not be a bad thing.

  10. Stay anonymous. We aren’t mature enough for you to be “real”. Your employers won’t stand up to the Daily Mail/similar. Your integrity shines through, you don’t need a “real” name.

  11. Anne Cooper

    I stayed fairly anonymous for a while before I decided to ‘come out’ and as you know I have stayed out. Don’t get me wrong – being out means there are certain things that I can’t do if I was anonymous. But to be truthful I prefer having a more integrated me with my personality out as often, I have learnt through experience, this why people tell me things and link with me – people like finding connections, things in common etc. Its all about choices though. I actually don’t believe there is a right and wrong so long as you are the right side of the professional line (which you so clearly are!). Many nurses I speak to want to remain anonymous. Others see the value in the interaction that deepens in my opinion with openness. But like all choices there are upsides and downsides! Just like most things in life!!

  12. Christopher Poole once said, provocatively “Anonymity *is* authenticity.”

    I don’t know if he was familiar with Shakespeare but Romeo and Juliet met at a masquerade party which were popular during the Elizabethan era. The playwright used them a lot. Oh look someone said it better than me:

    “When people are disguised, however, they are less prone to the prejudices already held against them for being who they are to begin with. Women can be men, poor can be rich, and vice versa. But the masks must come off, of like in Twelfth Night, society will turn upside-down and situations will arise that are unable to be solved. Masquerade seems to be an enjoyable entertainment, but it is just that. It doesn’t really change the way things are. It does not change the normal or the safe. It does, however, allow for a safe place for entertainment, exploration, and folly.”

    Personality is prismatic. White light goes in, rainbow colours come out. Each contexts gets at a different aspect of us. The context we find ourselves in right now is not sufficient to get at the richness of our character with all its nuances so we use masks to draw out those latent traits. The question is will they eventually be reconciled on one master balance sheet like a tax return at the end of year? And if so who should do the accounting?

    James Mayes made this comment on Twitter:

    Facebook = a rich media DNS for people?— James Mayes (@James_Mayes) February 16, 2012

    Astute observation especially if you know how flawed DNS is. Google would love that title.

    So sometimes the best way to get at the true nature of someone is to abstract them from their prior context. This way they are free to say what’s on their mind and if other people are thinking it too then what goes unsaid gets said sooner and everyone benefits. You should keep using pseudonyms if you see fit but remember you are still responsible and may have to claim ownership eventually. And if you don’t tell your story the way you want it told others will tell it for you.

    Relatedly see Ted Nelson’s Project Xanadu:
    This was the guy who envisioned the web back in the 60s and claims HTML and the WWW are “gross oversimplifications” of his original idea.

  13. Great reflection. I too have been through this process as an Alcohol and other Drugs worker and educator writes and tweets about harm reduction. I initially operated my blog and associated social media accounts under a pseudonym, however after being inadvertantly being ‘outed’ by a colleague had to think about how I was going to manage my public profile. I have since added a page to my blog telling readers who I am while also including a statement seperating my online activities and opinions from those of my workplace. I have to say that so far I would consider my ‘outing’ as a positive experience, howwever I can think of a range of scenarios where this may not be the case.

  14. There are personal as well as professional reasons for tweeting pseudonymously, of course. The fully ‘integrated’ me doesn’t separate my professional interests from my political concerns or from my nerdy pursuits, and all are woven together with an unending flow of thoughts, feelings, and motherly gushingly about my children. So I tweet about them all in a mish-mash from one place and under one pseudonym. But my colleagues, friends and – above all – my children deserve to be free from any public link with the ‘other’ bits of me (or even the bits they know), so tweeting and blogging under a pseudonym is a modest protection for me as much as for them. In particular I don’t want my children to become a ‘target’ in any way for someone who disagrees with my thoughts.
    Nor do I want colleagues ever to feel under pressure to justify or defend something I have done, but that wasn’t in an official capacity.
    As to authenticity, I am very careful not to claim that I am tweeting from an officially ‘qualified’ position.

    I tweet mainly about what I know, and when I don’t know something I say so. If I think it’s possible someone could infer a professional knowledge I don’t have, I make it clear that I don’t have it. I hope my ‘voice’ is distinctive and carries its own authenticity.

  15. What a fascinating issue. I think the real risk is via the professional / vulnerable client relationship. For your own protection and that of your clients it may be best to keep a distance: the same goes for the teacher/pupli doctor/patient relationship

    However for the rest of us much is to be gained from knowing who you really are (and who knows, you might work for one of our clients). I have made many friendships via Twitter that have developed into LinkedIn and physical meetings

  16. ermintrude2

    Thanks everyone for your comments. I haven’t responded individually yet because there’s so much there but I really appreciate the advise and points of view. I will try and respect individually but it is unlikely to be before the weekend. Much food for thought!

  17. Pingback: Trust, Anonymity and Authenticity in the use of social media as a social worker. Are there standards? | Mobile Social Work |

  18. Pingback: Trust, Anonymity and Authenticity | privacy and identity |

  19. Pingback: Trust, Anonymity and Authenticity in the use of social media as a social worker. Are there standards? « Mobile Social Work

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