‘I Failed Terribly at Keeping My Identity Secret’: Scott Alexander on the Value of Pseudonymity

What’s in a reputation? The energy to render somebody mute.

Last week, Scott Alexander, the writer of the influential rationalist weblog Slate Star Codex (SSC), abruptly shut down (maybe quickly) his weblog prematurely of a New York Times (NYT) story on him and SSC that would come with his actual identify. “Scott Alexander” is the pseudonym he has written below for years. As a working towards psychiatrist, he stated, what quantities to “doxxing” him would injury his livelihood. In addition to skilled repercussions, Alexander stated in his last weblog put up explaining the state of affairs that:

“..[S]ome people want to kill me or ruin my life, and I would prefer not to make it too easy. I’ve received various death threats. I had someone on an anti-psychiatry subreddit put out a bounty for any information that could take me down..”

The NYT determination was based mostly on a strict “real name” coverage, Alexander wrote. 

The state of affairs angered the weblog’s followers, but in addition raises bigger questions as as to if and when journalists ought to respect pseudonyms, who qualifies as a public determine and the impression reporting has on those that don’t.

Perhaps the latest high-profile instance of this was in a Washington Post article describing what occurred when a lady, not a public determine, confirmed up at a 2019 Halloween get together thrown by a Washington Post cartoonist. She was dressed as journalist Megyn Kelly, however in blackface. When the girl informed her employer in regards to the upcoming article, she was fired. The determination to even proceed with an article, a lot much less publish it, was controversial. People questioned the information worth, together with present and former Washington Post journalists, based on Ben Smith’s reporting within the New York Times. 

Back to Scott Alexander: His put up prompted CoinDesk Executive Editor Marc Hochstein to make our editorial coverage clear: We will respect pseudonymity. 

As Hochstein writes, “We will respect the identity that has a reputation in our community unless there is an overwhelming public interest in unmasking it”. 

Following that put up, CoinDesk’s Alyssa Hertig printed an article on the various members of the cryptocurrency group who use pseudonyms, and use them for good motive. Engineer Kee Hinckley, a type of Hertig interviewed, put it greatest: 

“Here lies the huge irony in this discussionPersistent pseudonyms aren’t ways to hide who you are. They provide a way to be who you are. You can finally talk about what you really believe; your real politics, your real problems, your real sexuality, your real family, your real self.”

I spoke with Scott Alexander through e mail about his expertise, when it is likely to be acceptable to unmask any individual, and whether or not writing below a pseudonym allowed him to discover concepts in additional depth and candor. We revered his pseudonym. 

Give me some background on Slate Star Codex, and why you began it?

I began Slate Star Codex seven years in the past. I beforehand had one other weblog below my actual identify, however I had just a few dangerous job interviews the place the interviewers hinted that I may not get the job as a result of I used to be running a blog. So I made a decision to delete it and begin over with an nameless weblog.

What recommendation would you give to individuals writing on the web at this time about operational safety? How do you retain your id non-public whereas additionally sharing your writing and ideas?

I failed terribly at conserving my id secret, as a result of everybody who learn my final weblog knew I used to be the identical individual writing the brand new one. I survived this lengthy as a result of most individuals had goodwill and by no means translated this tacit data into Google-able outcomes.

Are there circumstances below which you imagine it will be acceptable to unmask a web based persona?

This is a tricky query, however I place it in the identical realm as different powerful questions like, “Are there times when violence is appropriate?” or “Are there times when the government should suppress speech?” There is likely to be, but it surely wants a better burden of proof than simply “I don’t like this person.”

Have you heard from the NYT for the reason that dialog with [reporter] Cade [Metz] described within the farewell put up?

No, however I do know Cade continues to be interviewing individuals for the article, which I take to imply he’s nonetheless anticipating to publish it.

How do you reply to the individuals who say, “Your real name is already out there”? I do know the weblog put up addresses it but it surely’d be useful so that you can lay out for our viewers.

There are lots of people who’ve had bare footage of them leaked on-line who would nonetheless be solely justified not wanting these footage within the New York Times. I admit my safety has been dangerous. But up to now most individuals who google my actual identify don’t discover my weblog. People who do the other can discover my actual identify with a bit Internet savviness and a minute or two, and possibly the additional issue simply makes me really feel safer with out actually conserving me any safer. But that additional feeling of safety continues to be necessary to me.

How has the power to put in writing below a pseudonym influenced your writing? Has it allowed you to discover concepts in additional depth or candor?

I believe so. In explicit, I’ve written some frank issues about psychiatry and about my expertise in psychiatric residency that I wouldn’t have written if I knew my residency director may google my identify and discover it.

You’re recognized for having fun with pushing the Overton Window and questioning the knowledge of the mainstream. Some argue this leads some marginal people to harmful locations or offers them permission to dig deeper into the web’s darker corners. Is {that a} honest critique or how do you conceptualize/contemplate that portion of your viewers? On the opposite hand, may you share some experiences of readers who have been positively influenced by your work, akin to the way you’ve inspired individuals to interact in Effective Altruism?

I attempt to keep away from edginess for edginess’ sake, however generally I genuinely imagine individuals are incorrect about one thing. A few these instances, time has confirmed me proper. In normal, I’m nervous about demanding individuals contemplate the impact their writing may have on the worst potential reader. I’m remembering somebody who warned me that speaking an excessive amount of in regards to the negatives of AI could lead on individuals to assassinate AI researchers. By these requirements, you’ll be able to by no means discuss in regards to the negatives of something. I believe the responsibility of a author is to inform the reality as they perceive it, whereas being appropriately cautious, and attempting to induce consideration and multilateral motion as a substitute of violence. If you attempt any tougher than that to optimize for having the precise proper impact on horrible individuals, you’re writing propaganda.

Did you see a possibility right here to “Streisand Effect” your weblog? I imagine you could have stated up to now that site visitors is down however that you simply’d additionally prefer to pivot out out of your day job and do SSC-style work full time. So is there any equity to a cynical view of your weblog takedown as a method to relight the spark within the SSC group?

No, I didn’t do that, and would lose respect for anybody who did. I’m undecided what sort of proof you need me to offer. But if you would like, you’ll be able to verify with Cade that I begged him, at nice size, many instances, over the course of days, to not use my actual identify within the article. I gave him a warning that I’d delete the weblog if he used my actual identify, in an effort to stress him to rethink, and I solely deleted the weblog after he refused.


The chief in blockchain information, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the very best journalistic requirements and abides by a strict set of editorial insurance policies. CoinDesk is an unbiased working subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

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