Blog fans in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, saw PittGirl as their masked superhero — a comedian and local commentator who jibed the mayor without reserve and ranted freely about her hatred of pigeons.
But despite her effort to keep her real name secret, people started to figure out who PittGirl was. Feeling pressure to take control of her identity before someone else outed her, PittGirl on Wednesday posted pictures of herself on her blog and introduced readers to her real-world self: Virginia Montanez, a 35-year-old married mother of two who worked in the nonprofit sector. “My friends and family call me Ginny,” she wrote on her blog. “But you can continue to call me Your Majesty, because I’ve grown accustomed.” On Thursday morning, Montanez was fired from her job because of her online persona, she said. Montanez’s and other online coming-out stories highlight the complicated way people view anonymity on the Internet and the high stakes that come with trying to keep up an online persona. The reasons people want to be anonymous online vary. Political whistle blowers fear retribution; employees want to separate the personal from the professional; artists want their work to stand up without an attached biography; and some writers like Montanez take on a sort of Everyman quality by keeping their real names off their posts.
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But there also are reasons why a person with an online persona might want to come out of the closet. Some anonymous bloggers, like PittGirl, worry their veils of anonymity will be pulled back against their will, and plenty of news events validate their fears. Earlier this week, for example, a New York Supreme Court judge forced Google to reveal the identity of a blogger who had been posting rants about onetime cover girl Liskula Cohen on Blogger.com, which Google owns. No true anonymity That case, and similar ones before it, send the message that the cloak of online anonymity easily can be lifted, said Judith Donath, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. But it’s difficult to say whether the Web is becoming more or less anonymous, she said. “What’s increasing is the range of forums and the types of anonymous environments people have to choose among,” she said. Some sites, like Facebook, encourage people to give lots of information about their real-world selves. Blogs are more of a mixed bag, she said, where many people write under assumed names or put their words in the mouths of invented characters. But such split identities can easily be merged — either through the judicial process or by using technology. Courts have set general guidelines that a plaintiff must meet before forcing a person out of online anonymity. But the rules are still in the making and are up for interpretation, said Daniel Solove, a law professor at the George Washington University Law School and author of “The Future of Reputation.” On one end of the spectrum, a court could out a blogger simply because a legal action is filed against the person. That’s troublesome because any good attorney could leverage the courts simply to expose a person’s identity, he said. At the other extreme, a judge could say a plaintiff must prove the blogger defamed someone before forcing a company like Google to reveal the person’s identity. Technology also can be used to unmask someone. Matt Zimmerman, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for the rights of anonymous speech, said there are tools people can use to try to hide their footprints online. But none is 100 percent effective, he said. That leaves some online writers who use pseudonyms in the stressful situation of not knowing if or when their real names will be revealed. Blogging waiter wants publicity For Steve Dublanica, a New York City waiter who ragged on his customers for years through a blog called Waiter Rant, the tension of being outed gnawed at his stomach like a bad cheeseburger. Dublanica said his boss and co-workers knew of his blog. But as his site got more and more popular, people started having contests to figure out who he was. He valued his secrecy because he says it afforded him creative freedom and access to good material. “If [the customers] know you’re going to write down what they’re saying or what they’re doing they tend to act differently,” he said. Dublanica didn’t out himself because of the stress of keeping the secret, though. He got a book deal. And he wanted the publicity and recognition that came with it. “The nice thing about not being anonymous is I can take credit for all the work I do,” he said. “The bad stuff … was that it was terrifying in the beginning. You just didn’t know how people were going to treat you.” Alaska blogger outed by politician Jeanne Devon, a 43-year-old political blogger in Alaska, had her identity revealed after a state legislator published her name in a newsletter. Devon, who blogs on a site called The Mudflats, says she has mixed feeling about being forced out of the closet. In one sense, she says, she was able to be more herself while writing under an assumed name. “There are things that you know, or that you feel sort of in your heart of hearts, that you might not want to put out there in a public way” with your name attached, she said. “If people always spoke without filters, we’d learn a lot more.” She also says she has felt more support from her readers and her community since her real name was published. Some bloggers who post under their real names say that those who write under pseudonyms have something to hide or don’t want to be held accountable to their audiences. Getting ‘dooced’ Heather B. Armstrong, who was fired from her job after her employer discovered her blog, Dooce, where she posted under her real name, said there are few valid reasons a blogger should veil his or her identity. “I think if you’re doing something anonymously you’ve got some issues going on,” she said. “There’s a reason that you’re hiding.” People now use the term “dooced” to refer to being fired because of a personal blog. Armstrong, who writes about her family, says she’s received all kinds of hate mail — from people who call her kids ugly to those who tell her she’s an unfit mother and should have her children taken away from her. Being honest about her identity has helped Armstrong get through those criticisms and through other hard times. “I credit my audience with saving my life back when I had postpartum depression because of all of the encouraging e-mails they sent me,” she said. “The good far, far, far outweighs the bad, and my life has been incredibly enriched through the Internet.” Hero unmasked Montanez, the fired blogger in Pittsburgh, said she’s trying to find an upside in what’s happened to her. Her former employer, the Negro Educational Emergency Drive, did not respond to CNN requests for comment. She doesn’t like the idea of being in the public eye. She describes herself as shy and said part of the reason she wanted to remain anonymous was so she wouldn’t draw attention to herself. She also feels like her larger-than-life persona has been somewhat deflated now that readers know who she is. But now that she’s out, she figures she might as well try to capitalize on her newfound openness. “I just want to write and get paid for it,” she said.