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Friday, November 21, 2008

PittGirl and the Trouble With Being Anonymous

As most Pittsburgh bloggers have already noted, veteran 'burgh blogger PittGirl has closed up shop (although she's still Twittering). Easily the most popular blogger in the area, she was also a mystery of sorts, due to her strident anonymity. And, in the end, it appears that a potential compromise of her anonymity is what led to her decision to commit blogging seppuku.

As much as PittGirl's anonymity was the "hook" of her self-created brand, it was her writing style that kept her core fans coming back for more. (After all, a mystery is interesting, but a comedy is eternal.) So it's ironic that her anonymity -- aka the packaging that surrounded her REAL product, her writing -- would be what ends up robbing her fans of the opportunity to enjoy more of what they've come to enjoy.

It's a bit like Reese Cups going off the market because someone told them they had to change their wrappers to green instead of orange; I sincerely doubt the Reese Cup fans would stop eating their favorite candy due to a packaging change any more than PittGirl's readers would have unbookmarked her if they knew her name.

But PittGirl's decision to walk away is less about the foibles of packaging than it is about the cultural problem that led to the packaging conundrum in the first place: the need to be anonymous.

Who... ARE You?

In her case, PittGirl genuinely believed that blogging under her real name might get her fired (or, to speak the parlance, Dooced.) Whether that concern was real or perceived, it was a risk she wasn't willing to take. But why did it have to be a risk in the first place?

Why is society so uptight about what its citizens say?

Why should what YOU, the employee, say or do in public directly affect anyone's perception of your company?

Because everyone is afraid. Of what? Of everyone else? Despite the fact that we no longer have to fight one another for food and shelter, we still live in a constant subconscious fear of what everyone else THINKS of us -- and we all believe that ANY OTHER PERSON could squash our lives just by blinking.

That has to stop.

Who Do You Think You Are, Anyway?

Are we still operating in the perceptual Dark Ages, where we believe that everyone else is as perfect as they claim to be? Does showing a glimpse of humanity, a personal flaw or a whiff of disagreement with the party line automatically brand a person as "dangerous," worthy of being shunned or shown the door?

Why do we give companies the benefit of the doubt, but not the people who WORK in those companies? (And your instincts might lead you to believe that we actually do just the opposite, but if we did, why would people be afraid to post photographs of themselves at a party on their Facebook account for fear that an HR troll would find a reason to fire them as a result?)

Something tells me that PittGirl would have been ENCOURAGED to blog on behalf of her company if all she had to say was glowing and positive. So why does society only want to reward the people who DON'T encourage us to improve upon the status quo? What good is a coal mine without a canary?

And, in the extreme, what is it that any one person could possibly say or do that's SO MUCH WORSE than what any of the rest of us could say or do?

Look around. I guarantee you that everyone sitting near you right now is hiding a secret that they think would make you shun them for life, IF YOU ONLY KNEW.

Guess what, people: if we shunned everyone who had a secret, we'd all be eating alone forever.

So let's each grow some backbone and admit to a very unpleasant truth: that not everyone will like us ALL the time -- including (for various reasons) our employees, friends and families. Get over it. The ones who tell you how wrong you are from time to time are the ones you can trust when they actually tell you you're right.

And as for the anonymous folks out there, whether you're noble or trolls, here's a thought: whatever you have to say is far more resonant when you believe it enough to say it with a straight face -- preferably your own.

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  • Word.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:02 PM  

  • I couldn't resist. Smart post.

    By Blogger Anthony, at 4:03 PM  

  • There are places in this town that will fire people for what seems like idiotic reasons in this day and age.

    Several years ago, Pitt restructured its student help desk organization, and invited me to not return to work there. My boss was so mad about who was let go, and specifically cited me, she quit.

    A few years later I found out that the reason I was let go was because my web page linked to a web page that linked to a web page that had questionable content on it.

    No, really. And the people in charge of that fiasco are still in charge over there.

    Duquesne more recently has fired friends of mine for opening their mouths about their sexuality or, in one case, because she refused to date the boss.

    Yes, these could be grounds for lawsuits, but lawsuits take time and can insure you don't get hired somewhere else; so many just don't bother.

    And these are the local universities... places you'd think were "better than that".

    So, sadly, I respect PittGirl's decision to remain anonymous for fear of being fired. Especially in an economy that is tanking and jobs are scarce, this can be an entirely too reasonable fear.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:10 PM  

  • Needed said ... in a big way. Thank you, Justin!

    By Anonymous LC, at 4:18 PM  

  • Sadly while I would very much like to live in such a world, and don't really have problems with what people do with their lives, realistically I don't think enough people are ready for it that it could fly now; In a bad economy things become more socially conservative, so I suspect things will get worse before they get better.

    By Blogger shadow, at 4:25 PM  

  • Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, Cocksucker, Motherfucker and Tits.

    By Blogger John R. Carman, at 12:52 PM  

  • I want to give 10 stars to Justin's post, and 100 to John Carman's reply.

    Instead of paranoid focus on how an employee's personal life may or may not be construed to reflect on the corporate body for which he works, let's apply a little scrutiny to these managers who are so upside down in their own priorities and use of time that they spend so much time and energy obsessing over others' personal lives in the first place. Pre-internet, if a manager would have tapped my phone or hired a PI to follow me around - whether under the auspices of protecting the company's good name or not - I would have quit. AND FAST.

    I'm sympathetic to PittGirl. It sucks that she's beholden to an employer that feels to her like John Grisham's The Firm. But I think a point Justin makes is one worth elevating as high as possible in this living dialog: A company is nothing but the people who comprise it. And yet, those people are more than just employees, and this is fundamentally as it should be. That leaves us all, collaboratively, in need of some understanding of the boundaries between corporate and personal life.

    Anyone know where that's happening well, and how it's happening?

    By Anonymous Geoff Barnes, at 11:42 AM  

  • Besides the fact that I was part of the persona that was PittGirl -- I am also Mark Rauterkus and NOT Anonymous.

    Great post Justin.

    Folks, the "blow-back" situations in this town are "real." I dare say that they are not "everywhere" -- but I'm sure that they are strident here.

    It is hard to be yourself on the internet. But, it is nearly impossible to get people to do other things -- such as run for public office. There are a few "cancers" in our greater community -- and the "blow-back" cancer needs to be buffered.

    Since, "being boring" can't count as a "secret" (i.e., all harbor some secrets) -- Justin should know that I have no other secrets -- other than the one at the top of this reply. But that cat was let out of the bag a while ago.

    This should be a topic of further discussions as there are some long-term, deep-rooted, important concepts that need community-wide understanding. When we wash away the need to be anonymous, many of the other hang-ups that cripple our region are sure to diminish greatly.

    By Blogger Mark Rauterkus, at 4:24 PM  

  • Good post.

    By Blogger Matt H, at 6:44 PM  

  • Yes, these could be grounds for lawsuits, but lawsuits take time and can insure you don't get hired somewhere else; so many just don't bother.
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