Real names, nom de plumes and Narcissus


Narcissism is the lake which every creator traverses a tightrope over when managing their public image. More than ever, the realities of self-promotion in the twenty-first century make it almost inevitable that every author, videographer, podcaster and journalist, whether fully independent or associated with a larger organisation, runs the risk of being labelled an “attention-seeker”. Continuously promoting one’s own work, trying to insert oneself into any public debate or discussion, relentlessly directing potential readers towards the servers hosting your own domain, carries with it a strong personal involvement in the labours of publicity. By definition it instinctively appears “unprofessional” to be doing it by oneself and without the work of a PR and advertising machine or an established media outlet promoting your work. As per the dreadful case of the self-establishing “media commentator”, “lawyer” “theologian”, unmasked fraud and extremist Mo Ansar who “tweeted himself into existence”, there hangs a question of moral legitimacy over which authors should be considered worth listening to, particularly when their relevance to a conversation is one asserted solely by themselves.

Unpublished and unsigned writers, indie journalists and anyone without the backing of an institution runs an operation wide open to accusations of being one of another random voice in the street simply being amplified by an unusual desire for attention. Without the gatekeepers of editors and content managers, blogs and online platforms remain the open entrance into the world of ideas for every unchecked, unconsidered and unconsidered opinion as well as opinions which might have some value. Everyone reckons something and the blogger is assumed to be just another reckoner who has decided to aggressively assert their reckonings into public discourse without consultation or approval by the established gatekeepers. Complicating this is the question of anonymity and online personas (names like ‘Guido Fawkes’, ‘Popehat’ and ‘Armoured Skeptic’) versus named and identifiable writing under a legal name, with the middle juncture being a recognisable pseudonym – a pen name with a public face, accountable for the content published under it but without projecting the creator’s personal details into the public domain.

Publishing under one’s own name carries not only the risks associated with personality cult and narcissism accusations but the pressing concern of security. If you have a fairly unique and uncommon name as part of your public persona, it can be particularly difficult to conceal yourself from the troll underworld as many politicians and political commentators in the 2010s have learned the hard way. But why should an author seek to hide themselves with a bland or search-result-buriable pseudonym?

These jumbled thoughts were part of my reasoning as I have recently been trying to revamp HistoryJack and get it to the right part of the runway for taxiing in advance of takeoff. Soon I will be publishing an extremely long article, one fitting the length of an academic journal entry but one I expect is too journalistic and everyday-speech laden to pass any peer review. Though in the age of @RealPeerReview, one must always wonder and shudder at the thought of what is possible.

The conclusion of my recent work to make HistoryJack ready for a much wider audience is the question of whether to use my own name. I have a professional life mostly separate from writing and no desire to see it or anything else interrupted and interfered with by trolls and the legions of the damned, raining frogs and all. Likewise, the pitfalls of Narcissus made a pseudonym the more appealing – to deny my own name any glory resulting from the blog and give all the credit to a partly fictive online persona would gel more closely with the current consensus. Maximise security and minimise unwanted personal attention – what could be wrong with that? Hence, for a while, I briefly adopted a nom de plume of ‘Jack S. Willis’. Taking some ancestral maiden names and some minor tweaks on my own, I thought this would be my means to get everything written here out into the world without any annexation by or of my ordinary life.

However, for a variety of reasons, the pendulum has swung towards full disclosure and the roll of the dice on my own name. I am fortunate and more recently quite grateful to be the one and only Jack Staples-Butler in the world; registers for every English-speaking country I have been able to locate online record nobody else sharing that full name. My previous writing for Nouse, The Yorker, OpinionPanel and my broadcasting work for University Radio York was all done under my own name. Of course, this was all edited and run through the gatekeepers – nothing risky or troublesome for future professional prospects. However, what explanation could I give to any satisfaction as to why I had chosen to do all this under my own name but then fled under the cover of Mr. Willis when it came to my own original content?

The confusion in the end was too much. After making the appropriate adjustments to my personal records and putting up as many security barriers as can reasonably be expected – in reality, it is not trolls but the automated data-harvesting plagues which are the main threat – I have set everything back to my own name. From henceforth, I will be writing and publishing the HistoryJack Blog under my own name and tweeting under the Twitter account I first set up in July 2012, @jstaplesbutler. Everything I write will be done with the sincerity of a willingness to defend it from all critics and if necessary before a court – though I tentatively say that the possibility of this remains extremely remote. The New York Times test for writing and blogging, that you should consider whether you would want to see your writing printed on the front page of the Times under your own name with your profile photo next to it, is one I would happily take.

Provided they would remunerate.

… – Jack

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