Often, sports bloggers struggle to balance credibility and anonymity.  Many lead normal, everyday lives, independent of journalistic aspirations and are unapologetic about their “Joe Sports Fan” approach to sports prognostication and analysis.  Many, like Midwest Sports Fans‘ Jerod Morris, argue that their writings are merely an extension of conversations amongst friends, be it on fantasy league message boards or in sports bars across the country.

When I was asked recently when speaking at NYU Sports Management Masters Program’s Consumer Behavior in Sports class whether bloggers can be taken seriously when writing under assumed names, I noted that it really comes down to what the respective bloggers’ aspirations are.  Many, like KSK‘s Matt Ufford and Mike Tunison (and others), are, in fact, journalists (or aspiring journalists) who use the online platform as another outlet to simply do what they loved – write about sports.  Tunison’s dismissal from the Washington Post when his identity as Christmas Ape was revealed, probably scared a good majority of anonymous bloggers out there.

When students asked why there is an attraction from sports fans to blogs, I noted the idea that it is an unfiltered medium where often writers can write what they see as relevant truths without having to worry about repercussions from athletes, leagues, teams and even the government – and readers appreciate that.  This prompted a question by the professor as to whether the Internet, namely blogs, should be regulated.

I cited a conversation I had with FTC Commissioner Orson Swindle (not Spencer Hall) in 2000, at the height of Internet commerce about the government regulating online business practices including privacy.  Swindle noted a few things that stuck out to me – 1.  The fact that the Internet was still relatively in its infancy and, as such, any policy or guidelines would have to be rapidly altered as technology evolved;  and 2.  Those engaged in unsavory practices would not stand much a chance in succeeding in that they would quickly be exposed in a very public and negative light, and smart consumers would quickly abandon them for more reputable sites and businesses.  As such, an initial solution was self-regulation spearheaded by industry experts.

An article in this month’s Wired (The Troubles of Korea’s Influential Economic Pundit) reminded me both of that conversation, and its relation to sports blogging today.

The article told of the outing of a popular anonymous economic blogger in South Korea who was arrested and accused of instigating fear in the country’s markets and costing the government $2.2 billion, despite the fact that most of his prophesies were dead-on accurate.  The interesting tid-bit was the fact that the author was a self-educated “economist” with no formal advanced training on the subject.  Sounds a lot like anonymous, amateur sports bloggers “posing” as journalists, doesn’t it?

What really struck me in the article, however, was the historical comparison to anonymous pontificating.

Anonymous Internet posters are often denounced as hit-and-run artists who intimidate the polite and the sincere. Indeed, online spaces that are rich in anonymity and poor in moderation risk devolving into a cesspool of trolls, flacks, and flame warriors. But here and there, the Internet elevates anonymous voices who speak unvarnished truths that would have gone unrecognized had they appeared below their authors’ real names. Zero Hedge’s Tyler Durden, TheFunded’s (formerly anonymous) Adeo Ressi, and the irascible Bike Snob NYC are all credits to the equalizing power of anonymity.

This phenomenon predates the Internet by centuries. In 16th-century England, a band of heretics moved an illegal printing press around the countryside, publishing a series of anticlerical pamphlets under the name Martin Marprelate. In Rome around the same time, the Italian public took to criticizing the powerful in long, humorous, unsigned verse, surreptitiously slapped up on the base of a statue in the Piazza Pasquino, a tradition that continues to this day. Two hundred years later, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison aired early arguments for the founding of the US in the Federalist papers under the handle Publius. The last time the US fell under a Minerva-scale pseudonymous sensation was in 1996, when Joe Klein’s Primary Colors — a novel signed Anonymous — satirized the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton (in the guise of silver-tongued governor Jack Stanton). The narrator nailed such particulars as Clinton’s “furrowed brow, pouty-mouthed, elementary-school-penitent look.” The book sold about 3 million copies.

Park updated this tradition for the Internet, where archival facts are available on demand, the stream of international news never stops, and sites like Wikileaks and Cryptome make anonymity available to anyone with an ax to grind, a secret to share, or a document to leak. Like the pamphleteers of earlier days, Minerva established himself as a consistent character on the public stage. His writing was distinctive enough for readers to feel they knew him, while the vagueness of his identity allowed them to idealize him as a sage who would guide them through the crisis. The Minerva case is a reminder that anonymity has uses beyond the incognito bashing of enemies. A carefully crafted pseudonymous voice can seem to come from a hidden spring of wisdom — enunciating what everyone wants to hear and what no one is willing to say. But the illusion is fragile. When the person behind the name is revealed, everything comes crashing down.

“When the person behind the name is revealed, everything comes crashing down.”  This may be the case when dealing with national economies, but in the sports sphere this isn’t necessarily the case.  With Tunison, while he was fired from the Post, his site remains among the most popular among fans, and he was able to parlay his recognition into a book deal.

The article also notes FiveThirtyEight/Baseball Prospectus‘ Nate Silver:

Occasionally, a writer can export his credibility from his online persona to his real one. In early 2008, Nate Silver had a double identity, analyzing baseball statistics under his real name and polling data under the handle Poblano. When Poblano’s predictions began to gain a following, he revealed himself, noting, “It just ain’t very professional to keep referring to yourself as a chili pepper.” Soon his FiveThirtyEight became one of the most prominent political blogs in the US.

Silver, the great exception, took control of his own outing, never lying to the public about his true identity and possessing real credentials to back up his virtual authority. His pseudonymity worked as marketing, but the world probably would have paid attention had he written under his own name. Park, on the other hand, was totally dependent on being unknown.

At their heart, most pseudonymous identities are collaborations between the author, who provides the outline of a persona, and the audience, which fills in the blanks. The result is a sort of virtual superhero, an oracle more accurate than any mortal could hope to be. Compared to the elusive mastermind of the collective imagination, the real author inevitably disappoints.

In summary, there is a relevance to anonymous blogging in advancing conversation that is already happening that might be ignored by the “mainstream media.” There is also a reminder to anonymous bloggers that the more popular they become, the more the public will clamor to discover the “man behind the mask” – for better or for worse, and, thus, posting in public and often popular forums should come with the understanding that eventually the author could be expected (or insisted upon) to own up to their words in a public manner.