What It's Like To Get Outed On The Blogosphere

The famous blogger was on the computer in his mother's basement when he got the news. A rival had uncovered his true identity and would soon reveal it to the world.

And so John Blevins gathered his kids and went to lunch.

Blevins, a professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston, has used the nom de blog "publius" for more than five years, currently with the popular group site Obsidian Wings. He was back in Kentucky visiting family when he became the center of a blogo-storm and a vibrant debate over pseudonymity that captivated all who pay attention to such things.

The liberal publius, who started writing during the 2004 presidential primaries "to spare my wife and dog from the rants," had been engaged in a spat with conservative blogger Ed Whelan over something to do with a joke once made by Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Publius quoted and then endorsed a post by someone else calling Whelan a "legal hitman." Publius went on to say of Whelan: "He's a smart guy with outstanding legal credentials. He just enjoys playing the role of know-nothing demagogue."

At this, Whelan went public with his assailant's identity. (Note: Whelan has since apologized. Blevins has since accepted his apology.)

Hair Balls caught up with Houston's new (sort of) most-famous blogger yesterday afternoon.

Hair Balls: How has your life changed?
John Blevins: It's just been really weird more than anything else to see my name everywhere. I think any potential problems will come down the road. My fear is things like how my students would react, how my family would react. Those are things I just don't know yet.

HB: What could happen with your family?
JB: It sounds weird, but I don't think there's a single member of my family that even knows that I do it....I'm the only Democrat in the family, and it just creates some awkwardness, particularly with certain members.

HB: So you're not looking forward to the next family gathering?
JB: It would make Thanksgiving somewhat less pleasant.

HB: How will you address this with your students?
JB: I'm just not going to bring it up. My view of the classroom is that it should be non-political. If someone asks me about it, I'll acknowledge it, and say I'm happy to talk about it after class during office hours, but I don't really want to get into it in class.

HB: Will this affect your writing?
JB: I hope not. It's hard to say. I read some bloggers who said their writing did not change afterward. My fear is that I'll be a little more cautious, and I hope that I'm not.

HB: Whelan confused pseudonymity with anonymity. What's the difference?
JB: Anonymity, I think, is someone who shows up one time, can hurl a bunch of insults and just completely disappear. But writing under a pseudonym is different. I mean it's really no different than writing under a brand name. I have been using this name for five-and-a-half years, and I've invested a lot of time into my reputation. If I say something stupid, I know I'm going to get called out for it. That has happened many times, and so I think that imposes discipline...I read a comment somewhere that said "Oh well, he can just go start a blog under a different name if he wants to and disappear." But then I'd be starting from scratch again.

HB: How did you build a following?
JB: The blogosphere has changed. Back when I started in very early 2004 there were a lot more, I guess you'd call them solo practitioners, just writing about stuff. And you had to get breaks, basically. There were a few big bloggers, and I would write for a little bit, then I would send my links out to well-known bloggers begging them to, you know, acknowledge me, and a few of them did. Once you get people there, then if they like your writing they'll stay and spread. So it's just getting over that very first hump that is the key...

You spend a lot of hours at night, especially in the early stages, trying to write interesting stuff, and hoping people will read.

HB: How important is pseudonymity to the blogosphere?
JB: I think that it adds voices who couldn't otherwise be heard. There are a lot of people who can't put their name to things they write, for probably even better reasons than I had. If this norm doesn't exist, and if this norm isn't protected, they're never going to write, and the public won't have the benefit of their voices.

Would you have started blogging without it?
JB: There's no way. When I originally started I was working as a [judicial] clerk, and I would have never done anything to draw attention to the chambers. And the same deal even if I had waited until [I moved to my] law firm. So yeah, if this norm didn't exist, I would never have started. That may not be such a bad thing, depending on what you think of my writing.

HB: Do you think your attacks warranted an outing?
JB: I think Rick Moran at Rightwing Nuthouse had a good post on this. If you spend more than an hour in the blogosphere, you'll see much harsher things said. So by the standards of what happens in blogosphere I didn't think it was too harsh.

Would you have outed yourself eventually?
JB: I always thought there would be a day down the road where I would....But I think that choice belongs to the individual writer. The choice is what's important.

HB: Did you pick "publius" because of its history as a pseudonym? (James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay used it to pen the Federalist Papers.)
JB: I would love to take credit for thinking of all this. I didn't. But, you know, that name has a rich tradition, and it allowed some of these arguments to be made more effectively than they probably otherwise would have been.

HB: Any idea how Whelan found you out?
JB: My guess is just someone who knew who I was and disagreed with me politically emailed him after my post, but other than that I don't really know.

HB: Do you have advice for the remaining pseudonymous bloggers out there?
JB: Be aware that the risk is out there, and be careful of who [knows your identity]. But my hope would be that they choose to write and continue to write. The silver lining of this incident is that hopefully pseudonymity will be even more protected because everyone came out so strongly in support of it. I think that people now will think twice, hopefully, before outing someone because of the negative reaction to it.

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Mike Giglio
Contact: Mike Giglio