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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Comments
30 comments so far

I guess I don’t understand. Tech, where I blog, has few anonymous bloggers. It’s a respected pasttime, and as long as you do it on your own time, and don’t blog company proprietary information, is encouraged or at least tolerated. Why is it such a problem in finance?

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

It’s a problem because of compliance requirements, communications with the outside world have to be pre-approved (by the compliance dept) and retained in most juridictions. That severely limit what you can say, for ex, if some journo write a dumb story full of factual errors, unlikely that compliance will let you respond. But many finance people are on twitter in passive mode, i.e getting info/links but not talking back.

Posted by alea | Report as abusive

An excellent, even-handed post Felix. Thanks.

Posted by ReformedBroker | Report as abusive

Thanks, Felix. A very balanced and thoughtful post.

I would just add that operating under a pseudonym online allows one to build a distinct identity over time, one which readers and followers can distinguish both by personality and opinions. Whether they know my true identity or not, readers of my blog and my followers on Twitter have a very distinct image of me. It also means that any credibility, authority, and responsibility for what I say attaches to me, or my persona, over time. This is light years away from anonymous commenting, and bears little relationship to it.

I just hope the irresponsible, petty behavior of certain so-called journalists does not poison the online atmosphere to the extent that pseudonymous commenters like me remove ourselves from the discussion permanently. From what I have seen, this would lead to a substantial and deleterious diminution of the level and quality of discourse on financial matters.

Posted by EpicureanDeal | Report as abusive

I don’t think compliance has a whole lot to do with it. So perhaps you’re not speaking for your company, and maybe you don’t even write about it specifically (I don’t), but no regulation says that you can’t give your personal views on the industry.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

What’s with the apparent ramped-up talk of pseudonymous finance bloggers today? Did someone get outed in the twitterverse?

Posted by Sandrew | Report as abusive

EpicureanDeal and Alea hit the nail on the head. I am not anonymous on twitter and i don’t have a blog, but i do think that for finance/economics and politics, web2.0 and blogs and facebook/linkedin/twitter are gonna kill bloomberg terminals and deadtree media forms. I laugh when i see der kinder learning penmanship/handwriting, being like cavepainting/carving compared to the tech world they’ll work within (given WWIII does not occur). Attributed and unattributed epistles both contribute to the truth being known, and while this is threatening to the existing elite, I expect the elite of 2030 will be less skittish and will have learned how to harness it better than the current crop. Giving attributed opinions is better in terms of building your own brand/reputation, which can (and will) be searched/judged by peers, employers current and future, as well as (likely) descendants. Being aware of the latter is salutary to the pedigree of what one will put out there, imo. Carry on.

Posted by frank_mcg | Report as abusive

yes, Sandrew, someone did get outed. I immediately unfollowed the offending journalist, and kicked her off my lists.

Posted by frank_mcg | Report as abusive

I see. While it’s odd for Felix not to give his readers the benefit of context, I suppose it makes sense in this case–wot not to abet the outing. I’ll endeavor to remain ignorant of the detai–

Crap. Curiosity won and I peaked. That frisson is powerful stuff!

Posted by Sandrew | Report as abusive

Sandrew – Yes Heidi N Moore outed a twitter follower and her logic for doing it just doesn’t make sense. There was no news value in it. I couldn’t figure out if Heidi was just being petty because she didn’t like the twitter disagreeing with her view. Either way we all know what Felix is talking about here so why doesn’t he just come out be more direct about who he’s talking about?

I agree with Felix- I don’t want to know who my unnamed followers are but I enjoy and appreciate their views. I hope Heidi’s irresponislbe actions doesn’t scare away great voices.

Posted by teribuhl | Report as abusive

Ah if only Reuters had spell check or edit in their comments for people like me who can’t spell. Let’s try again:

I agree with Felix- I don’t want to know who my unnamed followers are but I enjoy and appreciate their views. I hope Heidi’s irresponsible actions does not scare away great voices.

Posted by teribuhl | Report as abusive

@Curmudgeon

You certainly do not seem to be understanding what Alea, Felix, myself, and countless others are and have been trying to explain (and we may not understand how it works for tech employees).

Here is another explanation that expounds on what Alea was saying: http://fridayinvegas.blogspot.com/2011/0 2/whats-in-name.html

I’ve written on this in further detail, as well: http://stonestreetadvisors.com/2011/01/3 1/survey-anonymouspseudonymous-blogging- tweeting-good-or-bad/

As TED and Felix and everyone else with half a brain have said, if Financial (legal, accounting, whatever) professionals/academics were not present in the blogosphere and twitterverse the level of discourse would decrease substantially, to the detriment of The Public at large. Anyone who claims otherwise is delusional.

Posted by Anal_yst | Report as abusive

My company, Zintro (http://www.zintro.com) provides both anonymous and named (not anonymous) connections between professionals and subject matter experts. We provide a set of tools to ensure that dialog between parties is fully compliant (FD, NDAs, etc.). Even so, it is very important that networks like ours are closely monitored. We take this responsibility seriously and it has worked very well to-date.

Posted by Slewtan | Report as abusive

A journalist, as a result of the occupation, is in need of a public persona, his/her role in the internet is different than someone who is merely about the internet reading and responding to ideas. As much as Ms. Moore wants to know more information about us, I have an equal feeling of indifference.

For example, I don’t know Mr. Salmon, I have no clue who he is, I’ve never met the man, I’ve never seen anything other than a photo on the internet. I value his opinions no more or less as a result of those facts. I value them for their validity and aptitude, regardless of the name attached to them.

Was Mike Tyson a good boxer because we called him Mike Tyson? Is Tom Brady a good quarterback because we call him Tom Brady? Did BTK kill people because we called him BTK or what about when we called him Dennis Rader or when his kids called him Dad?

I feel a little lost here, like everyone knows something that I don’t. Can you remind me of when names are important rather than what people say and do?

I did a facebook search for my given name a few years back and there were something like 500 people with my same name. Do you know how many Twitter users are named DoubleDeuce? One.

Posted by DoubleDeuce | Report as abusive

@DoubleDeuce – Man, you’re missing out if you’ve never watched any of Felix’s videos and his octopuslike gesticulations with his arms!

But seriously, it seems like this is really just another version of Davos (and the video that Felix made with Chris Hayes yesterday), it’s clear that there are plenty of people who know who each other are. As Alea (himself/herself) have said in response to Heidi Moore, the folks at FT Alphaville knows Alea. It seems like (from the random snippets I’ve seen between TED & __phlox) that they know each other beyond just the pseudonyms and so on and so forth.

I am not trying to defend what Ms. Moore did but it’s clear that there was a wide circulation of people who knew __phlox’s real name (therefore it wasn’t as if __phlox was Deep Throat actively hiding their true identity) and since no relationship existed between the two of them (i.e. confidential source, etc), while it was uncouth of Ms. Moore to out __phlox, I’m not sure Ms. Moore crossed any journalistic boundaries here.

Posted by GregHao | Report as abusive

Pseudonyms free sentiments from the burden of being associated with their authors, which aids in breaking down the barriers to honest discourse.

They also open the circle to participants whose professional obligations would otherwise preclude their involvement. Why anyone – especially a journalist – would seek to effect a real-time reminder to insiders of the risk they take by participating as community members is baffling.

The only acceptable excuses for unveiling someone’s identity to the public when it will put their career in peril are they’ve either committed some sort of crime or expressed they don’t care. The suggestion you’ve never promised you wouldn’t out someone does not change the nature of the action – it is intended to be and should be labeled as nothing more than a burn in response to a few ostensibly annoying tweets.

I’m speaking out of turn, but my gut tells me phlox was sacrificed just so Heidi could make a point, and her use of the label “self-important” to refer to Twitter’s freshly departed suggests more about the altercation than she probably intended.

Posted by Pietro_F | Report as abusive

@greghao – I followed _Phlox and have no idea who he/she is. I don’t see any supporting evidence that the twitter follower’s identity was widely known. You have no idea if _phlox has helped Heidi on a story before and thus would have been a confidential source.

Posted by teribuhl | Report as abusive

@teribuhl – I actually came quite late to the whole bruhaha on twitter as I was busy with the real world so had to do much backtracking and maybe missed quite a bit.

While you’re right that I personally have no idea whether phlox was a source to Heidi Moore, my statement was merely rehashing of Heidi Moore’s own tweet here: http://twitter.com/moorehn/status/322123 32369158144 (well, actually it was a tweet from even earlier but this is a good approximation).

Posted by GregHao | Report as abusive

@ Double Deuce – exactly. It’s pretty obvious that “Felix Salmon” is a pseudonym anyway – it’s just not as blatant as “Kid Dynamite” “Anal_Yst” “Epicurean Dealmaker” or “Curmudgeon”… but seriously? “Felix Salmon?” Come on – obviously fake.

(/sarcasm)

Posted by KidDynamite | Report as abusive

@KidDynamite — Obviously. In fact, following on your own suggestion of Jack Sturgeon and Felix’s example, I am thinking of adopting a piscine pseudonym. Alternatives I am considering include The Epicurean Sea Bass, The Nietzschean Tilapia, and The Walleyed Kant.

Any thoughts?

Posted by EpicureanDeal | Report as abusive

@Anal_yst, I do agree that the loss of such voices would be unconscionable. Coming from a different background, I simply don’t understand why industry insiders need to be pseudonymous. The practice seems a product of its environment.

@KidDynamite, I have a minor reputation in the tech industry. I enjoy reading economics and to a lesser extent finance, and I use a pseudonym so as not to water down the focus of my, um, brand as it were.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

SEA BASSSSSSSSSSSSSSSs! The Epicurean Sea Bass does have a certain ring to it.

Posted by KidDynamite | Report as abusive

Just catching onto this debate, only because I follow the outer (who is still ranting and raving about this topic). Even if the outee is as awful as alleged (I have no idea), the outer hardly seems lilke a classy journalist herself. Not only is she brutal re: her victim, but also toward anyone who expresses a different viewpoint. Lots of people are afraid to post on the web under their names, not because it would get them fired, but because it would affect professional opportunities or privacy. Maybe I don’t want my clients or potential employers to see my bikini photos or rants against Sarah Palin. This all gives women a bad name. You don’t see male journalists getting this personal. Anyway, with all of the real professionals around, who wants their financial news accompanined by all of this drama?

Posted by EatSG | Report as abusive

Why would a journalist engage a troll? Let’s face it, people who have real jobs but are also tweeting, blogging and commenting(including me) are crazy, pseudonymous or not! They are like the ones who used to write letters to editors when people still read newspaper. And let’s not be too hard on the journalists. Seem like a difficult job, and most media companies are downsizing. First year analysts make more money.

Posted by dealjunkie | Report as abusive

@curmudgeon

In Financial Services, most firms prohibit employees from speaking in a public forum on any topics that may possibly even tangentially be related to the firm’s business. This, I suppose, is driven by a (not necessarily warranted) paranoia and fear about the dissemination of information, proprietary or otherwise.

For example, one of my former employers would likely take great issue were I to tell the public how dysfunctional their IT systems, procedures, and generally corporate culture is (and trust me, it is, at virtually every firm). Were I to make these comments under my real name I’d be fired immediately. Under a pseudonym, I can make these comments (generally I would not name a particular firm, especially since these issues affect most of them), and as a result, The Public learns valuable information it would otherwise never know.

As it’s been explained to me, The Outer in this situation is trying to make a case that firms should vigilantly discipline if not fire all employees that engage in pseudonymous tweeting/blogging. I’m no psychologist, but this seems to be driven in no small part by some sort of insecurity, jealousy if not hatred that via new mediums, professionals can speak directly to the public, that is, journalists are no longer the sole vessel through-which important news/information makes its way into the public view.

If that is in any way the case, I think its quite silly, since Journalists (the good ones, at least) provide a very valuable service to society! I’ve worked quite successfully with a handful or two of Journalists for mutual benefit, as have many others with whom I speak. Its not an us v. them battle, as The Outer seems to believe.

Lastly, as others such as @dealjunkie, above, have pointed out, what on earth does The Outer think she has to gain from this? Why bother engaging those who you perceive to be trolls? I’ve received hundreds if not thousands of hateful comments over the years and you know what? You just ignore them, or if you like to have a little fun, respond back to them in a sarcastic/snarky manner. There is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to be gained from going after someone like this. If you don’t like someone, just ignore or block them, its as simple as that.

You don’t see Gretchen Morgenson or whatever other popular main-stream financial journalist respond like this to criticism, not even close!

Posted by Anal_yst | Report as abusive

Perhaps there is a way, but I can’t see how _broadly_ restrictive policies on blogging can be justified by “compliance”.

Aren’t most compliance “issues” fairly narrow, relating to the issuance of public securities and, say, disclosure of material non-public information? There issues have nothing to do with “blogging” per se, either, as someone would be ‘on the hook’ for information divulged inappropriately no matter the media/medium (and if I remember right, including “anonymous” disclosure, if you should have known that you might be overheard or whatnot).

It does seem that the answers lay elsewhere.

Posted by AmicusAlso | Report as abusive

@ AmicusAlso: “Aren’t most compliance “issues” fairly narrow, relating to the issuance of public securities and, say, disclosure of material non-public information?”

no – not at all. It’s all about the firm’s reputation. Anything anyone says can be often be misinterpreted or twisted in such a way that can be negative for the Firm’s reputation. Hence, only certain mouthpieces are allowed to speak

Posted by KidDynamite | Report as abusive

It could be partly about reputation. But “compliance” is generally understood to be about compliance with security laws and various regulations.

“Compliance” with a policy that has a blanket ban on blogging is something else, a different usage of the term, if that is what is meant.

If something is deliberately misinterpreted or twisted, it doesn’t matter who says it.

Reputation should be about honesty. True or false: too often it’s taken to be covering up the truth.

There should be a lot more free flow of information about the financial industry than there is, arguably. Why there isn’t more and why so many feel it’s just a smart calculation either not to bother or to do it pseudo is more than a case study in firm reputation.

Posted by AmicusAlso | Report as abusive

As a professional, I must agree with Anal_yst. Along with the worry about getting fired or reprimanded at work, public tweets could affect professional relationships. The Outer went and called law and accounting firms to see if they prohibited employees from joining twitter, but that is besides the point. She should have asked a bunch of professionals whether they would join twitter in the first place. Many of my friends and colleagues are even scared to even join sites like LinkedIn or Facebook because anything posted could work against them…let alone twitter.

The free market should resolve whether tweeters operating under pseudonyms have value. If a someone is unreliable or shady, people will eventually unfollow or block them.

The Outer received a flood of hate tweets and had to lock her account, which is unfortunate and probably not good for her career. But I think she brought it on herself.

Posted by EatSG | Report as abusive

AmicusAlso, lets say I write about flybynight.com and say in my personal opinion they are a crap company and are going down in flames. At the very same time, some random other bloke out of the many thousands who works with the same bank is shorting them. Turns out that flybynight.com loses Mr Innocent Old Codger his son’s college fund and he sues my bank and as part of the due diligence they find my post. Why would the bank want that pain? Why would I?

Personally I think you can usually tell who are competent and who are not and in what area. I didn’t need to know Omer Rosen’s name to know he was talking crap. Nor did I need to know Ms Moore….

curmudgeon, finance seems to be unique in that people can never seem to have just made bad bets nor are they allowed to be incompetent. They are always all-knowing, perfect future predicting fraudsters when you lose money. If I buy a Zune then not alot of people are going to have much sympathy if I turn round and sue Microsoft because they didn’t disclose that I must be a moron to buy a Zune. Thats the difference.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive
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