Marc Hochstein is the executive editor of CoinDesk.
This week has brought what many would call the blogosphere’s equivalent of the torching of the Library of Alexandria as an unintended consequence of an outdated media practice.
Scott Alexander, the perspicacious polymath behind the influential blog Slate Star Codex, deleted all his posts – seven years’ worth of sprawling, insightful and often funny essays on everything from medicine to economics to politics to culture. (Cryptocurrency users may recognize the name; one of Alexander’s most famous posts inspired the MolochDAO blockchain project, and he’s friendly with Gwern, author of the seminal “Bitcoin Is Worse Is Better.”)
Why? According to Alexander, whose byline is his first and middle names, a New York Times reporter working on an article about him discovered his surname and the newspaper insists on printing it, as a matter of policy.
In a sort of farewell-for-now post, Alexander explained he had kept his full name private for two reasons. First, his day job is as a psychiatrist, and like many practitioners he prefers his patients know as little as possible about his life outside the office. More to the point, he has been the target of death threats and a prior doxxing attempt over the years, and a regular commenter on his blog was SWATted.
So while Alexander’s identity is not as closely guarded a secret as Satoshi Nakamoto’s, he had reason to believe that signal-boosting his surname in a national newspaper would put him and his loved ones in physical danger.
The deletion was an attempt to prevent this from happening, Alexander wrote. “If there’s no blog, there’s no story. Or at least the story will have to include some discussion of NYT’s strategy of doxxing random bloggers for clicks.”
The episode makes me glad CoinDesk maintains a forward-thinking approach to pseudonymity. I now think it’s important to give the stance the meat of a deliberate, no-doxxing policy.
Identity and reputation
Part of this is for practical reasons. Many of the influential figures in our space (software developers, for instance) are known by their internet handles. If we demanded to know their real names every time we interviewed them, we might not get them to talk on the record, or at all.
Yes, I believe it is possible to conduct an “on the record” interview without revealing or even knowing the subject’s legal name. “On the record” really means the interviewee has skin in the game; that person is attaching words to his or her reputation along with the well-known pseudonym.
For 20th-century journalism, that translated into citing real personal names where possible to keep stories’ sources and subjects accountable, that they were unable to hide dishonest actions behind a veil of anonymity.
But the internet, and the crypto community in particular, have shown that in the 21st century you can build a reputation without showing your face or a driver’s license. “Real names only” policies served a purpose in the days of newsprint, but even G.K. Chesterton knew that some fences can outlive their usefulness.
I was delighted a few years ago when a colleague profiled the iconic Bitcoin Sign Guy without disclosing his identity (though BSG later did so on his own volition). I have no issue quoting the crypto researcher Hasu as Hasu and running his op-eds with Hasu as the byline. Hasu has established credibility, more than some people who use their real names.
None of us would be here were it not for Satoshi, whose identity will almost certainly never be conclusively determined, and neither does it need to be.
Journalistic expediencies aside, Alexander’s concern about physical danger is amplified in crypto. “Being your own bank” comes with risks of theft and violence. We have seen prominent members of the industry SIM-swapped, SWATted and even kidnapped. This risk will only increase if bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies go up in value.
Privacy and consent
Ultimately, it comes down to values. One of the core values of the audience CoinDesk serves, one that we wholeheartedly embrace, is privacy, often defined as “the power to selectively reveal oneself to the world.” Publicizing someone’s personal details without his or her consent, using the megaphone of a large media platform, is taking that power away. If you’re going to do that, you’d better have a damn good reason.
There might occasionally be such a reason. A proven scammer’s identity would be fair game, for example. If I ever find out who has been impersonating me and other CoinDesk staff members on social media purporting to sell coverage for cash, believe me, doxxing will be the least of their worries.
(Also, individuals are different from businesses, and I have lately started pushing reporters to find and spell out companies’ full legal names. For one thing, this helps us avoid puzzling sentences that claim someone is “partnering” with a protocol – sorry, PR people, you can partner with Red Hat, you can partner with the Linux Foundation, but you can’t partner with Linux. Using legal entity names also helps with accountability when, for example, a startup announces a partnership with a major financial player that we then learn has never heard of the project. A firm’s headquarters location is another detail worth routinely noting, and if this seemingly prosaic information is kept under wraps, we should regularly point that out.)
Outing an individual’s identity against their will, however, should be a rare exception for circumstances where the public has a compelling interest in knowing. There may be gray areas and tough calls here and there, but “human interest” doesn’t cut it.
While I’m at it, I might as well draw a line in the sand. CoinDesk will never, ever try to stoke outrage or ruin harmless, obscure individuals’ lives or careers by unnecessarily revealing their identity. We will respect the identity that has a reputation in our community unless there is an overwhelming public interest in unmasking it. The Washington Post hit a new low last week in the ghoulish genre of personal-destruction journalism. We have better things to do.
For the philosopher Hannah Arendt, privacy was essential to human life. “Everything that lives,” she wrote, “not vegetative life alone, emerges from darkness and, however strong its natural tendency to thrust itself into the light, it nevertheless needs the security of darkness to grow at all.”
For people to question, grow, think and grapple with the world around us, we need places where we can explore ideas, places that don’t have to be attached to our real names, for a variety of reasons.