I've been watching with interest a recent kerfuffle involving a relatively new blog in the sciblogosphere, Academic Jungle, which is written by the pseudonymous blogger GeekMommyProf.

Prof-Like Substance has already written a good summary of recent events, so I won't duplicate his efforts. Instead, I'll duplicate his text! (Bracketed bold text inserted by me):

GeekMommyProf started a blog about a month ago, which burst onto the scene in a hurry. Most blogs (including this one) toil in obscurity for a while, eventually gain some steam and get enough readers coming back to get talked about a bit here and there. In the process of earning your blog chops, you make mistakes and write some stupid [stuff], but no really notices because, again, there are like 6 people who read it. But GMP started off with an uncharacteristically large readership for an independent blog when she hit the ground running and so when she made a mistake people noticed.

At her one month mark, she has written a post in which she suggests that the response from Isis and others [i.e. Zuska] to one of her early posts has left her a bit disillusioned with blogging.

GMP writes:

I was an unwilling recipient of a lot of negative attention by you-know-whos and a whole host of snide-comment writers a couple of weeks ago. They thought they saw something in one of my posts that wasn't there. This generated bursts of traffic on their sites and mine, resulted in a storm of unpleasant comments, judging and patronization galore. Everyone had a bone to pick. It was a couple of exciting days and gratuitous venom in the scientific blogosphere.

Well, as someone who has recently been on the receiving end of such negative attention, I can say that I completely totally understand GMP's perspective here. It totally sucks, especially when people run away with something you either did not say or did not intend to say. It totally sucks when people use your blog as a platform from which to shout their thoughts and opinions. It makes you wonder about whether or not this blogging thing is really worth all the headache and heartache.

Zuska has said (expletives edited by me):

Those of you who get all whiney and defensive whenever anyone dares to point out that you have stepped in the dogsh$t. Stepping in dogsh$t is an accident and it is something that all of us do upon occasion. Now, when you step in dogsh$t, do you want to just go blithely prancing about the place, spreading the dogsh$t hither and yon, stinking up the place to high heaven? Or do you want someone to point out that, jesus h. christ, there's a great big steaming heap o' smelly dog turds trailing off your right shoe, why don't you go scrap 'em off? Or better yet, just get yourself a whole new pair of shoes, for sure Isis can recommend something stylish.

It is of course the prerogative of Zuska or other individual to decide whether or not GMP or anyone else seems whiney. Additionally, Zuska takes exception to GMP's description of her experience as a "witch hunt." Perhaps this was the wrong analogy to use, but I certainly understand the sentiment.

Isis commented:

I grow weary of the whining from many in the blogosphere that I somehow have the power to destroy poor mortal bloggers. I started on blogspot just like many others.

But I don't think that the real issue here is whining. I think the real issue here is bullying. It appears as if GMP agrees with my assessment, as she has noted:

But these pile-ons are nothing specific to me. Apparently, the blogosphere is alive with the sounds of bullying. While I think bullies are a vocal and obnoxious minority, their effects can be so strong and so negative that they completely overshadow the majority of positive interactions one enjoys.

Plenty of people have written before about the many complications that arise through the use of pseudonyms in blogging, as well as the complications that arise through interaction in the blogosphere in the first place. It is often hard to remember that you are arguing with a PERSON instead of your computer screen, pseudonym or not. Does this mean you always have to be nice? Of course not.

In a separate thread and kerfuffle, Drugmonkey wisely mused:

Furthermore, a blog persona is a constructed persona. There is no obligation that it hew closely to one's IRL persona.

And here is where the power of the pseudonym and the power of the blogosphere come into play. Isis, Zuska, and others have social capital on the sciblogosphere. It is clearly not necessary to have a pseudonym to construct a persona (I'd admit that I have a certain online persona that is in some ways different from my real life personality), but I would argue that the pseudonym facilitates that construction. And that social capital contains a lot of power.

By analogy, I would draw the reader to a recent post by scibling Eric M. Johnson of The Primate Diaries about social capital and the emergence of cultural patterns:

...To explore this question Horner and colleagues conducted a series of trials at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center's Field Station near Atlanta, Georgia. The experiment involved two separate groups of female chimpanzees as the models (n = 4) while the rest of the troop was divided between the groups as test participants (n = 10). The models were selected to have very different social ranks, such that Model A in both groups was older, held a position of high status in the troop, and had previously been observed introducing novel behaviors. In contrast, Model B was younger, held the lowest rank in the troop, and had no previous experience introducing novel behaviors. Based on these criteria, Model A held the characteristics of prestige in chimpanzee society while Model B did not.

Figure 1: (A) trained models retrieve a token from an experimenter standing between the receptacles outside the enclosure fence; (B) models deposit their token into their respective receptacles; (C) a food reward is thrown to the model by a second experimenter standing on an observation tower.

Eric continues (emphasis added by me):

Model A and Model B were then trained to perform identical behaviors with a single variation (see figure above). In Group 1, Model A was taught to collect plastic tokens and place them in a spotted container in order to receive a food reward. In the same group, Model B was taught to deposit identical tokens into a striped container located 10 meters from the first and would also receive a food reward. In Group 2 this was reversed so that Model A used the striped container and Model B used the spotted one. The question was, would the rest of the troop follow the example of high-ranking Model A, low-ranking Model B, or would it be evenly divided since both received identical rewards?

In three experimental trials on separate days Model A and Model B each collected and deposited their token only once while the rest of the troop watched. Each participant was then allowed to copy one of the two models until all chimpanzees had accomplished the task. Group 1 and Group 2 were separate from each other and did not see either the models or the participants from the other group perform their task. The results clearly demonstrated that, in both groups, participants preferred to follow the example of the high-ranking Model A by a significant majority. These results remained consistent both between groups (p < 0.0001) as well as between individuals within groups (p < 0.05). When given the choice between two similar tasks, chimpanzees overwhelmingly chose to follow the example of the most prestigious model.

While this isn't a perfect comparison, I would argue that Isis is Model A, the dominant individual who has a position of status within the social group. GMP is Model B, the younger less experienced and lower-ranking individual in the social group.

For all the talk of power and privilege that I read coming from Isis, Zuska, and others - many of whom I have lots of respect for - they seem to forget that on the sciblogosphere it is often they who are in the position of power and privilege. Isis may have started in a little corner of the blogspot universe as she says, but that is not her social reality anymore. She has, to borrow a phrase from the primate literature, become a dominant individual in the dominance hierarchy of the sciblogosphere. The same can be said, for example, of Zuska.

Recently, I was the target of similar public calling-onto-the-carpet. It was explained to me that, as a male, I was in the position of power and privilege over other individuals (in this case, females). Even if it was never my intention, and even if it never even occurred to me that this could be the case, simply by virtue of the fact that I was born a male, I had the responsibility to discuss certain topics in sensitive ways. What I intended as humor was interpreted as offensive. What I intended to be an objective discussion of a small amount of research was interpreted as a selfish apology for certain cultural patterns perpetuated by human males.

And here is why I think the constructed online persona makes the whole social interaction so much more complicated. I'll use an example of pseudonymous blogging, but the same could be said of non-pseudonymous bloggers: let's say Isis's real life name is Jane. When Jane reads a blog post, such as the one by GMP, she has a certain set of cognitive and emotional responses. And then she responds to it, through commenting or through writing a blog post of her own, but, critically, even if it is Jane who is typing, it is Isis who everybody else is listening to. Jane may not have the power to "destroy poor mortal bloggers," but I would argue that in certain circumstances, Isis might.

Well, Isis and Zuska, just as I have a certain responsibility given my position of privilege as a male, I think you too have a similar responsibility by virtue of the fact that you have a certain amount of power and privilege because of the social capital you enjoy on the internet. Everyone does not participate equally in the creation and maintenance of cultural patterns in the sciblogosphere, as the chimpanzee study illustrated by analogy. Those who are in positions of power can set the tone and best practices for how we behave in the sciblogosphere.

In a very real sense, I think you do indeed have the power to "destroy poor mortal bloggers."

[Update: This post from omgomgomfg makes some similar and interesting arguments. And this one. This one too. Obviously these are not new problems.]