Serfs and villeins

11 March 2008

Just over a month ago, I almost wrote a post to respond to Jeremy Gould’s question, How appropriate or helpful are anonymous comments? In his post, Jeremy expressed concern about anonymous commenting – and was clearly coming down against them, and linked that thought to the slightly different one of anonymous blogging, using the now infamous Civil Serf as an example.

Since fairly obviously this is an anonymous public sector blog, it’s pretty clear that my instincts aren’t quite where Jeremy’s are.  But I felt that the rather thoughtful comments he got on his posts made most of the points which needed to be made, so I didn’t pursue it – though it did prompt me to have a look at Civil Serf and so form a view of it (though a view limited to that single occasion and with inevitably imperfect recollection).

I think there are some pretty clear rules of the game here, most of which are not specific to the public sector – though the iron law applies, here as elsewhere, that something happening in the public sector is intrinsically more newsworthy than the same thing happening in the private sector.

There is an entirely reasonable expectation of confidence about the internal operations of the organisation.  Not all of them, not about everything, but any organisation needs some shared assumptions and expectations about what is internal and what can be shared externally.  The argument that more should be shared externally doesn’t change that:  the question of degree is not the same as the question of principle.  We wouldn’t expect a manufacturing company to be happy to cede decision making on the timing of new product announcement to the whims of bloggers within the company, and it doesn’t seem reasonable to expect ministers to be any more tolerant of civil servants opinionating about future policy announcements.  For civil servants, particularly those working directly with or close to ministers, an acceptance of constraints on what would otherwise be perfectly legitimate political activities is a basic part of the deal.  Anybody who doesn’t like that is free to follow Clare Short’s example and switch trades.

On the face of it, the problem with Civil Serf is that she went over that line.   Simon Dickson takes that as a symptom of a wider civil service malaise, but – for once – I don’t think the civil service machine needs to shoulder even most of the blame.  There needs to be more passion, more evangelism and more expression of both, but the fate of Civil Serf tells us less than it appears about how far that is possible.

In other words, this isn’t really to do with anonymity (though the sense of anonymity might have made her braver), it’s to do with content.  But there is an important distinction here:  this blog, like Civil Serf, is not anonymous (in the strict “anonymous coward” sense), but pseudonymous.  There is an identity behind what I write here and in comments on other people’s blogs which is real and consistent.  It has in a small – vanishingly small – way, a reputation, and that reputation matters to me (and would matter to me even if nobody else ever read a word of what was written here).  That picks up on thoughts expressed in comments on the best moderated and self-moderated blog I know:

Persistence is a big deal. A new participant can come in with a pseudonym, and will be judged, over time, by the quality of his ideas and comments. This requires an investment in that pseudonym, which acts as a kind of brake on bad behavior and shoddy arguments. “I don’t want to make that lame argument here, these guys will see how lame it is and think less of me.”

Pseudonyms can be useful precisely because they focus on what is said in one place and can disconnect it from what is said in another.  I do not speak here for my employer, my government or my country.  Pseudonymity reduces the risk that anyone might think that I do.  It is intended to underline a distinction, not form an impenetrable disguise – which is just as well since I have no illusions about how impenetrable the disguise really is.

Civil Serf’s problem was not that she was pseudonymous, it wasn’t even particularly that she was negative and critical.  It was that she was not pseudonymous enough, that she did not extend the gift of pseudonymity to the topics and people that were her subjects.  So on this, I agree with Jeremy:  there is no surprise and no injustice in what has happened here.

One comment

An excellent piece. You are absolutely on the money about pseudonyms. I have no problem with anonymous commenters or bloggers in particular. But I do think it depends on the arena and subject. Consequences can be that anonymous participants to a conversation are not taken seriously or ignored. At the end of the day civil serf is an individual, entitled to her view. But as she is probably experiencing now, it can be uncomfortable if you don’t at least observe the accepted guidelines.

by Jeremy Gould on 12 March 2008 at 8:07 am. #