Anonymous financial professionals online

By Felix Salmon
February 1, 2011

One of the most exciting aspects of the financial blogosphere is that we have unprecedented levels of access to the unvarnished analysis and opinion of financial professionals, rather than always having to have those opinions filtered through the news judgment of journalists and their editors.

It’s the nature of the financial-services beast, of course, that it tends to fire employees who turn out to have been blogging anonymously — this is a very real risk, even for bloggers who are careful to cover their tracks and all anonymous bloggers are well aware of that fact. As such, most of the people who find themselves blogging anonymously are not particularly happy in their jobs and in fact might well be happier if they got fired and then found a less restrictive job.

There’s another layer of anonymous bloggers, too: people who just like a layer of privacy between their online and professional lives. If you really want to find out who they are, then you’ll probably be able to do so, but it’s much harder the other way around: if you know who they are, you’re very unlikely that you’ll find out about their secret authorship through some kind of Google search.

Finally, there are people who started off anonymous and who slowly, over time, “came out” in public to a greater or lesser extent. Rortybomb and Abnormal Returns are now completely open about their identity; Yves Smith makes little secret of hers; Calculated Risk let himself be outed by the NYT when Tanta died (and outed her at the same time).

My attitude to all these people is the same: I have no desire at all to find out who they are in real life and in fact in most cases would actively prefer not to know. I don’t like being put in the position of guarding a secret and would much rather just be able to respond to people on the basis of what they choose to make public. There’s a certain titillating I-know-something-you-don’t frisson to finding out the identity of a prominent anonymous blogger, but it wears off quickly and soon becomes a burden, placing uncomfortable constraints on what you can write about that person.

It’s hard for a financial professional to get noticed as an anonymous blogger: your job is likely to eat up enormous amounts of your time, for one thing, and it’s only natural for readers to discount anything anonymous on the internet. But people like TED and Notable Calls have carved out highly-respected niches for themselves and certainly make the blogosphere a richer place while running substantial personal risks; the last thing we need is anybody making their lives harder by embarking on a campaign against bloggers who wish to remain anonymous.

What’s true for blogging, of course, is even more true when it comes to Twitter. It’s incredibly easy to set up an anonymous Twitter account and the world is much richer for them. Again, some anonymous tweeters come out after achieving success and prominence, others have to remain secret for professional reasons. But there’s no good reason, short of uncovering scandalous illegal behavior, to out an anonymous tweeter against their will. There are millions of anonymous tweeters and a large number of them are annoying — but life’s too short to follow annoying people. Much better to simply unfollow or block them than to out them.

That said, what goes for blogging goes for tweeting too: if you risk being fired if your employer finds out about your Twitter account, then, well, you’re running a risk of being fired. If the need to express yourself is greater than the need to keep your job, then even if you take precautions there’s always a chance that you’ll annoy someone and suffer serious consequences as a result. And anybody in such a position should probably best tell no one of their Twitter identity. The upside is decidedly limited; the downside is potentially huge.

Update: I chose my words badly, here; I meant pseudonymous rather than anonymous.

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