When Slate’s Ashley Feinberg revealed that Mitt Romney was operating a Twitter account under the name Pierre Delecto, pundits rushed to interpret hidden meaning behind his 10 boring tweets.
It’s not exactly Publius (the collective pen name of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay when writing The Federalist Papers). Everything Pierre Delecto said or endorsed through his likes could have been easily tweeted on Romney’s “main” account with no real repercussions for the multimillionaire senator from Utah and former GOP presidential nominee.
As such, “Pierre” doesn’t appear to be motivated by any grand Machiavellian strategy to undermine Romney’s opponents. Maybe Romney simply wished to sound off once in a while without having to worry about every political blog dissecting his opinion.
Many view the writing under an assumed name as inherently cowardly or duplicitous. But while the content of Mitt’s self-serving tweets may be rightly mocked, don’t even senators deserve an outlet to vent their bland takes without having to justify their every ephemeral reaction?
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For most of human history, attribution was the exception to the rule. The oral tradition held no copyright, and folk stories belonged to everyone. Even after the printing press allowed for the monetization of the word, writing under one’s own name was considered tacky or egocentric, and people avoided it out of duty to God and good taste.
You may not be familiar with Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, but you’ve read him as Lewis Carroll, one of the greatest children’s authors ever. He was so embarrassed by the kid stuff he wrote for fun that he begged his close friends not to reveal his authorship of “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.” Emily Dickinson once wrote: "How dreary to be somebody! / How public, like a frog / To tell your name the livelong day / To an admiring bog!"
Others avoided attribution out of fear for their own skin: Criticizing power has always been, and in many places around the world continues to be, dangerous. In 1663, London printer John Twyn’s head was placed on a spike and displayed over Ludgate for the crime of printing an anonymous pamphlet that criticized the monarch. Two decades later, John Locke published his “Two Treatises of Government” anonymously and swore his friends to secrecy. “Cato’s Letters,” first appearing in 1720, was a pseudonymous work that influenced the Founding Fathers, three of whom went on to write those Federalist Papers as the aforementioned Publius.
“George Eliot” (actually Mary Ann Evans) was able to challenge sexual norms of her era when writing with the authority of a man’s name. Jonathan Swift, because his livelihood as a clergyman made him reliant on the politically powerful, took great pains to maintain his nominal anonymity as a writer throughout his life: Though his “Gulliver’s Travels” and “A Modest Proposal” are widely published under his name now, they skewered the church and aristocracy of his day, and one ("Gulliver's") was published under the pen name Lemuel Gulliver and the other anonymously.
While pseudonymous engagement has enabled many to speak truth to power, Pierre Delecto's oeuvre is so banal that it would be a stretch to place him in this pantheon. But it is the very mundanity of the tweets that speaks to Pierre’s importance. What hope do the rest of us have if a senator can’t like Chris Cillizza tweets without worrying about its effect on his public persona?
Politicians and other public figures mostly choose to forgo the luxury of anonymous expression, but for the first time in history, the rest of us plebs are at risk of losing our anonymity as well. Doxxing and the practice of snitching to employers have raised the stakes for public engagement, and thoughtless remarks from the distant past can come back to bite us, as journalists have recently discovered. In other words, you are your timeline, and anything you say can be used against you in the court of public opinion.
A quote often, but perhaps falsely, attributed to the 17th century French Cardinal Richelieu goes, “If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged.” Thank God he and his aides lived four centuries too early to bend the Wayback Machine to their will.
In my book, “Hacking the Future: Privacy, Identity, and Anonymity on the Web,” I published stories from anonymous voices that included whistleblowers, activists, a comedian, a researcher, a mommy blogger, a doctor and many more everyday folks who choose to write online under a pseudonym. They arrived at this choice for diverging reasons, but their motivations shared a common quality: They all felt that they couldn’t truly be themselves while using their own name.
The privacy that pseudonymity provides is a form of personal agency, allowing us to try on different identities like outfits, role play as different characters and adapt to different social situations. Young people especially need their own Pierre Delectos in order to test the boundaries of social acceptability without risking permanent reputational damage.
We publish our thoughts on an internet where every message is archived, where one’s words can be twisted in bad faith or misconstrued in good faith, weaponized against us by outrage machines, or punished by future laws that don’t even exist yet. We all deserve to have our own Pierre Delecto, even if we’re just using it to yell at the TV.