The following is my contribution to Hope Jahren’s roundup of commentaries from scientists who use their “real” names in online settings. I solemnly swear that we started working on this before it turned out to be so very, very timely. You should go read all the contributions!
I can’t recall exactly why, when I decided to start a blog over the holiday break in December 2006, I put my real name on it. I think I had some vague, naïve sense that attaching my own name to my online writing would hold me accountable to some degree of professionalism and quality. I do know that I was operating under the assumption that no one would ever read the damn thing, anyway. (Even though—let’s be honest—I was also hoping that someone, lots of someones, would!)
Eventually I started writing about evolutionary biology, which is what I actually do for a living. My dissertation advisor somehow found the blog, and decided that it meant I should take charge of building a website for my University’s hosting of the Evolution Meetings—and this is probably the point at which Shit Got Real.
I devoted a page on the site to aggregating blog posts about the conference, including several of my own. I set up a Twitter feed for the conference, and started a personal account for good measure. This was the equivalent, in HTML and RSS feeds, of jumping up and down in front of the entire international body of my colleagues and saying “hey, look! I have a blog!”
And this turned out better than I had any right to expect. The same year as the Evolution meetings, one of my posts won me a trip to ScienceOnline 2010, where I made some of my first contacts in the broader community of popular science writers. I’ve landed a couple guest posts at the Scientific American website, and gotten pieces included in print collections of online science writing. As I was wrapping up my Ph.D., I talked some grad school buddies into joining me at a new group blog, Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!, and on the strength of that site’s success, I was offered the job of managing The Molecular Ecologist, the blog for the journal Molecular Ecology. Just in this past year, my online contacts among gay, lesbian, trans* and queer scientists came together to help with a study of sexual identity in scientific careers—I’m currently writing up the first results for publication.
Writing, outreach, and interacting with my colleagues online have been major parts of my professional development as a scientist. Blogging is all over my CV, in a dedicated section of my teaching statement, and in every “broader impacts” section of every grant proposal I’ve written in the last three years. At this point, I genuinely cannot imagine how I would do some of the most basic functions of science—finding interesting new papers, reading what other people think of research results, learning new analyses and programming tricks, communicating my own thoughts and results—without online media.
When I was a graduate student, my blog was a way to try my hand at science outreach with a low bar to entry—did I have time to write a few paragraphs about an interesting new journal article this week? Now it’s a (still, I think) relatively novel, demonstrable strength I have to offer in my hunt for funding and faculty positions. But most of this would be inaccessible if I wrote under a pseudonym.
What’s more, even if I toyed with the idea of restarting under an assumed name, I can’t think of much that I’d do differently—more cussing, maybe? (I do about as much as I want to already.) More sniping at bad science? (Really, where would I find the time?) I suspect that my profile—youngish gay biologist with a thing for species interactions, a distaste for sloppy evolutionary storytelling, and a stylistic crush on David Foster Wallace—would, in a word, out me.
I’m keenly aware that there are risks in putting my real name and face all over the Web, attached to a years-long blog archive and thousands of offhand, 140-character remarks—including not infrequent mention of the fact that (surprise!) I’m gay. Some of the risks, I’m privileged to evade. As gender-conforming white dude, I generally don’t have to worry about attracting stalkers, or field the relentless harassment that women often deal with in online settings, and (I think) I’m allowed some social space to “raise hell.” Some of the risks I minimize to the degree that common sense and my own technical chops let me. I think I mostly keep things professional on Twitter—as professional as I keep things in the lab, anyway—and my Facebook profile is (I think) pretty well locked down.
And finally, I’ve decided that some of the risks aren’t really risks: If a faculty search committee looks at my online record and says, “there’s no way we can hire this guy,” then I think I probably don’t want that job anyway.◼