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The Effect of Pseudonymity on Blogger Credibility

February 23, 2011 circa July, 2010

A modified version of this story is now live on Scientific American’s guest blog: You’ll believe anything you read online, won’t you?

In July, 2010, one corner of the blogosphere erupted with the seething, burning rage that online communities seem to have a unique ability to muster.

The spark that lit bloggers’ fuse was a decision by SEED Media Group decision-makers to allow a team of writers from PepsiCo Inc. to operate a blog about nutrition and global health on its popular blogging network. Many of ScienceBlogs’ other writers felt this choice had leapt across the ethical line. Some thought the Pepsi-authored blog wasn’t labelled clearly to let readers know what they felt it was – advertising in disguise. Some felt that by staying, their reputations, and their credibility, would be diminished.

While SEED did eventually reversed its plan, the damage had been done. The network began haemorrhaging writers, losing nearly a quarter of its roster before the week was out. Blogging as a platform flies on wings of trust, and it seemed that ScienceBlogs – one of the first, and certainly the most prominent science blogging network – had flown too high.

The fiasco – dubbed Pepsigate as the saga unfurled – revolved around two major issues: traditional notions of the advertising-editoral divide that have plagued publishing for ages, but also a new struggle stemming from a lack of understanding of how readers assess the credibility of blogs. Knowing how readers decide to believe a blog post could help make sense of Pepsigate, and whether or not giving a clearer biography of the Pepsi blog’s authors would have made any difference.

Seriously. Do it.

One recent study by Thomas Chesney and Daniel Su tried to dig in to the factors people use to judge blogs by focusing on pseudonymous* blogging and the impact it might have on perceived credibility.

Chesney and Su gave 269 undergraduate students – 182 in the UK, 87 in Malaysia – a fake story chronicling a blogger’s discovery of, and subsequent battle with, nail fungus (ew?). The posts were identical except for the blogger’s biographical information running along the top. Here, the researchers had three types of bio: 1) a pseudonym only 2) a pseudonym, age, and sex, or 3) the blogger’s “real” name, age, sex, email address and photograph.

The students rated the blogger’s perceived credibility, successfulness, trustworthiness, and reputation, along with whether they thought the writer had “an interest in important affairs,” integrity, and had “information of superior quality.” Each of these terms was judged out of seven and combined to give a one-number measure of the bloggers perceived credibility, with one being believable and seven being a skeezy dirtbag.

It turned out, much to the surprise of the researchers, that having a full set of biographical information, or having nothing but a nickname (KrystalKidd, or another similarly creative pseud) made absolutely no difference on how credible the students thought the blogger was.

“I wasn’t expecting that at all,” said Chesney, a researcher at the University of Nottingham. “I thought it would make difference, this idea of having not just a name but also a photograph, but it didn’t. There was no difference.”

Pseudonymous bloggers were rated with a 4.40 +/- 0.93, pseud, age and sex earned 4.28 +/- 0.79, and fully identifiable bloggers got 4.26 +/- 0.89. In other words, all three set-ups left the bloggers somewhere in the middle of the seven point scale.

Whatever the reason,” said Chesney, “the implication of [the study] for bloggers is that, should they wish to publish anonymously, they can do so without a loss of credibility.”

But in my mind, this is only one possible way of looking at the results. Yes, it could be that people are sympathetic to anonymous bloggers. Or, maybe it’s just that the level of trust for blogs isn’t up for discussion. So it might not be that bloggers aren’t losing credibility by being anonymous, but rather that even by having a photo, an email address and all the rest, bloggers just aren’t capable of gaining any points. Chesney said he’s sympathetic to the two different interpretations.

I think that’s exactly right. This study doesn’t shed any light on which of those it is, but it could be either,” he said.

Chesney said there is at least one strong reason why the results may not be perfectly applicable to blogging today, however. He said the research was conducted in around 2006, “before it became known in the mainstream that news organizations were willing to look at blogs, Flickr streams, and microblogs as valid information sources.”

He said that at the time, it might have been that, despite their growing prominence, “blogs perhaps were not seen as something worth attention.”

But, Chesney and Su’s findings seem to fit within previous research into the perceived credibility of websites in general. The pair wrote that in a study by Eysenbach and Köhler, which looked at how people get health information online, that “few participants were able to name the website where they had eventually found information, and none of them had checked any ‘disclaimer’ or ‘about us’ section of the websites they looked at.”

The research, along with a pinch of extrapolation, suggests editors, publishers and others working online professionally need to be particularly wary of who they’re putting behind a keyboard, as readers seem to not really care about the source of the information they are reading. And, as with learning bad science from movies, people quickly forget where they get a piece of information.

With the default credibility of blogs running so low, and there being little a blogger can do to improve it, they need to be especially protective of any gains they manage to make – a lesson SEED may have learned just a little too late.


*The authors study refers to anonymous blogging throughout, but technically the study seems to refer to pseudonymous blogging – blogging under a nickname. Anonymous bloggers would be completely unidentified. For a discussion of some of the pros and cons of pseudonymous blogging, see this post by Scicurious.

Thanks to Psychasm at LabSpaces for pointing me to this study.

Thomas Chesney and Daniel K.S. Su (2010). The impact of anonymity on weblog credibility International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 68 (10), 710-718 : 10.1016/j.ijhcs.2010.06.001

15 Comments leave one →
  1. February 23, 2011 8:21 pm

    Mmm, interesting.

    I think this post is also interesting in terms of pseudonymity – trying to play on a form of philosophy of science as if it makes them more reliable See also

    • February 23, 2011 8:52 pm

      That blog does seem particularly interesting, as if they think are providing a pure objective view of the topic by refusing to acknowledge their own status as a lense/filter.

  2. February 23, 2011 10:27 pm

    Nice. Also, I can’t find the post either. It seems to have disappeared.

  3. DrugMonkey permalink
    February 23, 2011 11:54 pm

    I am almost certain “Glenn Beck” is his real name. So, you know….

  4. Paul Frank permalink
    February 24, 2011 7:10 am

    From a stint is sales I understand credibility is a complicated phenomena, and I’m inclined to think it is an interactive factor that is not simply additive. Concerns about the author are only triggered only when other issues come up in the information consumer’s mind. Anyway, a bunch of studies are needed on this topic, and this is a start.

  5. February 24, 2011 5:48 pm

    Speaking not only as a pseudonymous blogger myself but as one who frequently cites and thus must gauge the credibility of other pseudonymous bloggers I think the answer lies in the (consistent) credibility of one’s content rather than the credibility of one’s associated name.

    To this extent the political blogger Duncan Black became credible under the pseudonym “Atrios” for approximately the same reason the then-minor-publisher Benjamin Franklin became credible under the pseudonym “Poor Richard” 200 years ago.

    And once credibility develops it tends to be auto-correcting for the same reason you indicate in your paragraphs about the minute you lose credibility you’re toast. Possibly even more quickly than if you were a named and known individual since one is liable to become attached to and be more forgiving of an “actual person” as opposed to the more content-focused output of a “faceless” writer.

    Anyway, I’m confident that the bloggers who bailed on ScienceBlogs in the face of Pepsi-gate would have fled no less quickly had they been pseudonymous. A reputation for credibility is a very difficult quality to develop and a terrible thing to waste.


    p.s. I’d add that to the best of my knowledge, in the five year’s I’ve been blogging and the nearly 10 I’ve been pseudonymously online few if any once-disgraced anonymous bloggers manage to re-emerge under new pseudonyms. Certainly not within their original topics. Definitely not to the same levels of prominence.

  6. DrugMonkey permalink
    February 25, 2011 1:03 am

    So have Brayton, Myers, Laden and Orac lost their credibility since they stayed at ScienceBlogs?

    • February 25, 2011 1:12 am

      I think you misinterpreted my point about tying this study in to Pepsigate.

      What I think the research really shows is that for the average browsing reader, the one who will come across your story from Twitter, Stumbleupon, Reddit or any other source (outside of the small bubble who actually cares about all of the e-drama), they will hardly even notice – let alone care – whose blog they are currently reading. They will read the post, and decide what to make of it based on the content. And then they’ll probably forget where they read it anyway.

      My point in tying it to SEED is that for those who happens to be in charge of giving bloggers a platform and the increased exposure, like being on ScienceBlogs does, they need to EXTRA careful, extra vigilant, and extra ethical. If they *know* people don’t look at biographies or check authors credentials, then putting up an advertorial, like was the plan with PepsiCo, is an even stronger breach of their obligations to their audience.

  7. February 25, 2011 4:26 am

    I think Figleaf is entirely right. I don’t tend to credit truly anonymous writers that much but pseudonymous ones have a reputation to build and defend.

    • February 25, 2011 11:32 am

      I’m not really sure where I personally fall on the line – I’ve been online for over half of my life, much of that time spent with anonymous or one-off pseudonymous people – so I think my personal trust of anonymous writers may be skewed a bit high.

      But, I think both your, and Figleaf’s stances, fits within the research. You assign named and pseudonymous writers the same credibility up front, and the only way for it to improve is growth-with-time. One isn’t de-facto more credible.

  8. February 28, 2011 4:31 am

    That’s interesting. I’m not too surprised though. I’m not an undergrad, but if I just read one article on a blog I don’t know, I usually don’t pay much attention to who has been writing this. (Come to think of it, haven’t checked for your name and bio either.) It’s only if I have the intention of actually using some information that I’ll do more checking. So I’m not certain the study they’ve done reveals a lot besides limited attention.

    • February 28, 2011 11:50 am

      I think you’re probably right, but the study wasn’t determined to check the mechanism – it just showed that the students ignored the authors credentials. The real weight comes for, I feel, those who are in positions of power, and how they use this information about reader behaviour to decide who to give access to a larger platform. I think it also serves as a warning to bloggers to not treat their online reputation lightly.

  9. kanschat permalink
    December 29, 2012 11:15 am

    Reblogged this on kanschat und kommentierte:
    Studie: Pseudonymität mindert nicht die Glaubwürdigkeit


  1. La crédibilité — Vol. 2 – Brasse camarade

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