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

A New York Times decision to name Scott Alexander, the author of Slate Star Codex, raises questions about who deserves pseudonyms, journalism in 2020 and where we place value when it comes to news stories.

AccessTimeIconJul 1, 2020 at 5:54 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 14, 2021 at 8:58 a.m. UTC

What's in a name? The power to render someone mute.

Last week, Scott Alexander, the author of the influential rationalist blog Slate Star Codex (SSC), abruptly shut down (perhaps temporarily) his blog in advance of a New York Times (NYT) story on him and SSC that would include his real name. “Scott Alexander” is the pseudonym he has written under for years. As a practicing psychiatrist, he said, what amounts to “doxxing” him would damage his livelihood. In addition to professional repercussions, Alexander said in his final blog post explaining the situation 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 decision was based on a strict "real name" policy, Alexander wrote. 

The situation angered the blog’s fans, but also raises larger questions as to whether and when journalists should respect pseudonyms, who qualifies as a public figure and the impact reporting has on those who do not.

Perhaps the most recent high-profile example of this was in a Washington Post article describing what happened when a woman, not a public figure, showed up at a 2018 Halloween party thrown by a Washington Post cartoonist. She was dressed as journalist Megyn Kelly, but in blackface. When the woman told her employer about the upcoming article, she was fired. The decision to even proceed with an article, much less publish it, was controversial. People questioned the news value, including current and former Washington Post journalists, according to Ben Smith’s reporting in the New York Times. 

Back to Scott Alexander: His post prompted CoinDesk Executive Editor Marc Hochstein to make our editorial policy 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 post, CoinDesk’s Alyssa Hertig published an article on the many members of the cryptocurrency community who use pseudonyms, and use them for good reason. Engineer Kee Hinckley, one of those Hertig interviewed, put it best: 

“Here lies the huge irony in this discussion. Persistent 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 via email about his experience, when it might be appropriate to unmask somebody, and whether writing under a pseudonym allowed him to explore ideas in more depth and candor. We respected his pseudonym. 

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

I started Slate Star Codex seven years ago. I previously had another blog under my real name, but I had a few bad job interviews where the interviewers hinted that I might not get the job because I was blogging. So I decided to delete it and start over with an anonymous blog.

What advice would you give to people writing on the internet today about operational security? How do you keep your identity private while also sharing your writing and thoughts?

I failed terribly at keeping my identity secret, because everyone who read my last blog knew I was the same person writing the new one. I survived this long because most people had goodwill and never translated this tacit knowledge into Google-able results.

Are there circumstances under which you believe it would be appropriate to unmask an online persona?

This is a tough question, but I place it in the same realm as other tough questions like, "Are there times when violence is appropriate?" or "Are there times when the government should suppress speech?" There might be, but it needs a higher burden of proof than just "I don't like this person."

Have you heard from the NYT since the conversation with [reporter] Cade [Metz] described in the farewell post?

No, but I know Cade is still interviewing people for the article, which I take to mean he's still expecting to publish it.

How do you respond to the people who say, "Your real name is already out there"? I know the blog post addresses it but it'd be helpful for you to lay out for our audience.

There are a lot of people who have had naked pictures of them leaked online who would still be entirely justified not wanting those pictures in the New York Times. I admit my security has been bad. But so far most people who google my real name don't find my blog. People who do the opposite can find my real name with a little Internet savviness and a minute or two, and maybe the extra difficulty just makes me feel more secure without really keeping me any safer. But that extra feeling of security is still important to me.

How has the ability to write under a pseudonym influenced your writing? Has it allowed you to explore ideas in more depth or candor?

I think so. In particular, I've written some frank things about psychiatry and about my experience in psychiatric residency that I wouldn't have written if I knew my residency director could google my name and find it.

You're known for enjoying pushing the Overton Window and questioning the wisdom of the mainstream. Some argue this leads some marginal folks to dangerous places or gives them permission to dig deeper into the internet's darker corners. Is that a fair critique or how do you conceptualize/consider that portion of your audience? On the other hand, could you share some experiences of readers who were positively influenced by your work, such as how you've encouraged people to engage in Effective Altruism?

I try to avoid edginess for edginess' sake, but sometimes I genuinely believe people are wrong about something. A couple of those times, time has proven me right. In general, I'm nervous about demanding people consider the effect their writing could have on the worst possible reader. I'm remembering someone who warned me that talking too much about the negatives of AI could lead people to assassinate AI researchers. By those standards, you can never talk about the negatives of anything. I think the duty of a writer is to tell the truth as they understand it, while being appropriately careful, and trying to urge consideration and multilateral action instead of violence. If you try any harder than that to optimize for having the exact right effect on terrible people, you're writing propaganda.

Did you see an opportunity here to "Streisand Effect" your blog? I believe you have said in the past that traffic is down but that you'd also like to pivot out from your day job and do SSC-style work full time. So is there any fairness to a cynical view of your blog takedown as a way to relight the spark in the SSC community?

No, I didn't do this, and would lose respect for anyone who did. I'm not sure what kind of evidence you want me to give. But if you want, you can confirm with Cade that I begged him, at great length, many times, over the course of days, not to use my real name in the article. I gave him a warning that I would delete the blog if he used my real name, in order to pressure him to reconsider, and I only deleted the blog after he refused.

"We do not comment on what we may or may not publish in the future," said Danielle Rhoades Ha, vice president of Communications at the New York Times, in a statement sent to CoinDesk. "But when we report on newsworthy or influential figures, our goal is always to give readers all the accurate and relevant information we can."


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