Estimated reading time: 1 minute, 58 seconds

Public Writing: About that Anonymity Thing…

Estimated reading time: 1 minute, 58 seconds

So I was just thinking about something. People who teach writing tell me that they get to know each student’s voice with time and can easily detect if someone has helped a student or if they have copied or such.

Then I remembered the exercise/activity we did once in ccourses where we tried to blog in someone else’s style…which means we read each other’s blogs often enough to recognize a “style”. Some people have really distinctive styles, others less so. When you co-author with someone you also learn a lot about their style and sometimes some parts of an article have different voice. Sometimes not.

Anyway so here’s an interesting situation. You conduct a (semi) anonymous survey with open-ended questions. I say “semi” coz I always offer people the opportunity to say who they are if they want to be quoted by name. I think it’s both respectful of the person (they get to own their own words) and also allows me to follow up and clarify if needed. And yeah i do social research coz i am curious so i also just like to know who said what and stuff 🙂

But so I was reading through a survey response today before reading the last question that identifies the person. And I found myself guessing who it might be based on the actual sentiments and the writing style of the person. I actually guessed wrongly, but I guessed “close” (this won’t make sense to anyone but me – so ignore it if it throws you off).

But my point is this:
A. If someone follows your writing, if you write as frequently as I do, can a survey response of mine be truly anonymous to a researcher who knows me? One who knows my writing style AND my views on many things? (of course i answer lots of surveys for ppl who don’t know me at all…)
B. If someone sees an anonymous quote presented, could someone guess who is being quoted if they know them and their writing?

This guessing of course was possible way before the internet but i think the internet, particularly social media and forms of public expression make us more connected to or familiar with other people’s writing styles.

And so am wondering how this affects anonymity in research for people who are so digitally out there…

8 thoughts on “Public Writing: About that Anonymity Thing…

  1. Happy Women’s Day Maha. By my clock there are still 27 minutes left:-)

    I would guess picking out the nuances in someone’s speech would be easier for writers and instructors who read a lot of student work. Could even add a “characteristics of individual voice” to a writing class. How about gender? Are there different markers for male and female expression?

    Wonder if it is even possible to be “neutral” the human voice expressed in writing? If someone was boring I might exclude them from my survey along with people who are more agreeable–who wants to hear from them anyway? But really, the hardest part is to get anyone at all to fill in surveys so we need to love anyone who does and care who exactly it is.

  2. i think about this, sometimes…less about the writing style issue (though a decade ago, i outed an imposter identity on a BabyCenter board b/c i recognized that two identities mutually blowing up an issue were actually one voice) than about the fact that research that allows people to be truly anonymous (in the voice sense) finds out very little about their particular perspective and world.

    which is fine, for some kinds of questions, but for the kinds of questions which count the most in terms of making new social perspectives visible and helping others understand particular identity positions, raises issues. those who are at risk from existing societal structures or ills are those whose perspectives are NEEDED in order to address those structures and ills and inequalities via narrative research. real responsibility for those of us who engage in that work.

    1. Which brings up the issue of… Can we do participatory research that allows marginal/vulnerable people to take charge of their stories while still allowing them the opportunity not to be identified when it is risky? This was one of the questions we tackled when we thought of doing impostor research and it actually stopped us from moving forward coz we realized there were some things we wouldn’t share if we were to be identified – coz it could hurt us and others in our lives.
      Which also reminds me of an issue of “trust” between researcher and participant. If someone I trust like you interviews me, I am more likely to say more and trust you with how you would analyze it…than someone else. What happens when you collect the data then someone else analyzes it…someone who doesn’t know me or that I don’t trust. I want to write something about this more fully…reclaiming our narrative or our data…which… One could do in a confidential interview thing but not an anonymous thing (eg survey)

    2. Thanks Maha for pointing me back to this interesting discussion. There are different levels of anonymity. Researchers who interview participants will almost know their identity and something about their background but may anonymise the interview content by mutual agreement with the participants. There are issues that people won’t raise without anonymity eg in organisation-based research and there are aspects that remain unresearched for reasons of identity and power eg

  3. Really interesting post. This issue is also pertinent to peer review, whether in the case of conference submissions, journal papers or grant applications. Even when submissions are anonymised it’s often possible to identify the authors, particularly in small subject domains or communities. I’m not sure if there’s anything that can really be done about this but it does raise issues about the alleged impartiality of peer review.

    I think the issue of co-authoring is also really interesting. Beyond the confines of my blog, the majority of my written output is co authored. I’ve written with some of my co authors for years and we’ve developed a seamless writing and editing style. However writing with new co authors always involved a process of learning and tacit negotiation to settle on a style that works for all. I’m always curious to see how my written voice changes depending on who I’m co authoring with.

    1. Lorna – yes yes yes to all of that! I will also share w u an article I wrote re peer review where I make that argument (in my case, if you read MOOCs and Egypt, u know it’s 99% me talking). Will share on Twitter

  4. Authenticity and emotion seem to fit in here. Both Rebecca and me followed a patient engagement presentation given by Stanford Medical and independently identified a kind of falsehood to the “caring” messages. First was the Silicone Valley Breathless future’ism in the developer’s purposes and then their hiring of an actor to represent the patient-in-distress sample client / user. Stripped of authentic emotional character and given a script, the whole show had the flavour of a carnival shill.

    Who would want these people to help you in a crisis? All the “interaction” is at the surface, mediated and I think it’s fair to say, no deeper than exchanging superficially pleasing sounds with each other.

    To get to the “truth” we need to go deeper to identity and identifiable personal markers. But to avoid unwanted exposure we need to disguise the responder in some way–to make them generic enough to be anyone. Except now, we’ve lost their authenticity….

    Found this by accident:
    TO HERE>
    The aim of this qualitative research was to investigate how a group of science pre-service teachers created digital stories to elicit resiliency (risk and protective factors) during their teaching practicum and how their peers responded to the digital stories, uploaded and shared onVoiceThread. The results showed that the digital stories were able to convey thinking and emotions successfully at a deeper level.

    1. Thanks Scott – authenticity lost – great point! Thanks for the links (url and patient engagement)

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