Friday, February 1, 2008

Signed content

There's a discussion ongoing on the PubLib email list, in which various people are arguing that for content to be meaningful, it must be signed.

The librarian in me goes "There's a point." The rest of me, though, cringes.

Here we enter into a delicate point: this is my professional blog, I don't bring portions of my personal life into it, but it's an awareness that comes from this that makes me cringe. So, let's look at this in very generic terms...

1) I am a member of a particular religion.

2) My religion is sometimes misunderstood, and sometimes discriminated against. (This covers rather a lot of religions, actually.)

3) I discuss and follow my religion in various circumstances - both within my particular personal religious community, but also within the broader community of my faith (and sometimes, outside it). I'm aware of variations between different parts of the community, and what a reasonable range of variation is - and what stuff is clearly not common.

4) I have formal training in my religion that enables me to perform various religious, teaching, and other duties. (Unspecific, but I can't get much more detailed without being explicit what religion we're talking about.)

5) I'm not an expert on the whole religion, but I'm a careful writer, and take pains to be clear to give citations to other sources, and to general common experiences.

I'm pretty clearly a potential authoritative voice on some topics. But here's the rub: if I use my legal name or another identity tied to it, I also reveal my religious preferences, interests, and other topics to all and sundry.

Why is that a problem?

The problem is that 'all' includes a lot of people.

It includes random strangers. It includes my next-door-neighbor. It includes prospective employers. It includes random internet people who dislike what I say on a forum for some random reason, and who take it to my employer (with whatever ammunition they can pick.)

Sounds silly? Teresa Nielsen Hayden's had it happen with Tor Books several times (here's one example), and she is a moderate and thoughtful writer, well respected in the online community for her moderation (and moderation techniques.) Irrational people do not behave rationally, and there *are* irrational people in the world. I do my best to treat them with kindness, but that's easier to do when they aren't trying to get you fired or otherwise make you miserable.

I might well eventually want to share some of this information with my co-workers, if we start having more extensive conversations about our weekends than "Oh, I had a good time with friends." But I want it to be part of a face to face discussion, not something they stumble across online, possibly out of context.

Let's expand this out, a little. There are people who have extensive experience with chronic illnesses. Requiring a legal name can open them up to any number of employment-related concerns. (Yes, discrimination based on chronic illness is not legal - but it happens.) Mental health issues, sexual health (and sexuality in general), and gender identification concerns all are other things where people may have a great deal of relevant experience and authority - but where details are things they want to keep separate from their work life, or share very deliberately and with appropriate context and background.

While some people are comfortable associating various information with their legal name, not everyone is. The people who can be public may not be better informed, or better communicators about it, or have more directly applicable experience than the people who don't want to be public.

If we want better information - not just 'better verifiable information - that's a problem.

The question of context:
That's the other part. The pseduonym I use for religious discussion online, I've had for over 7 years. I've written at least 100,000 words on various topics (and possibly several times that). Anything I might write now with my legal name would not have nearly the obvious amount of context and background material for evaluation.

(That is, in fact, one of my professional issues, and one of the reasons for this blog, where I do use my legal name. I've been online and active and doing lots of interesting things - but you can't see it from the legal name side.)

End result?
I do think that some way to determine a writer's background would be a good idea - but whatever system there is has to not only accomodate formal (schools, degrees) training, but informal, material covered by outside certification (doctors, lawyers) but also experiential data (material from people with a particular experience, condition, etc.)

I'm not sure there's a way to do that, and verify the data, and protect privacy. But *speaking* freely, and having reasonable access to say "Hey, this info is not so good." in online discussions without abrogating privacy seems essential. I'd rather wade through poor information (and teach others how to do so) than take that away.

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