Who let the blogs out?

“Remember—it’s not about me. It’s about them,” says local blogger “Ashvegas” on his Web site. But after two years of pontificating incognito, the revelation of just who this blogger is has in fact made it about him, at least for now.

Reading my journal to the world: Felicity Green, author of the blog Hangover Journals. Though she can hardly be accused of mincing words on the site today, she says that “when I was totally anonymous, it could be more authentic.” photo by Jonathan Welch

In blogging, anonymity can be gold. Writers can shred their foes without fear of their targets following them home. They can experience enhanced powers of confidence. And as Hangover Journals blogger Felicity Green puts it, shielding one’s identity can also free the writer to be more honest.

“When I was totally anonymous, it could be more authentic,” she says.

But despite Asheville’s growing high-tech edge, this is still a small town, and as Green soon found out, our bloggers can have a hard time remaining both in the spotlight and behind the veil. “Our output is on par with any other place in the United States,” says Web consultant Paul Van Heden, who runs the political blog Brainshrub. “One of the first things I learned [from] blogging was the importance of thinking about what you post in a small town.”

Indeed, for local political bloggers, the terrain can be even rockier. Professional conflicts of interest, the need to protect political connections, and a simple desire to preserve the social niceties can all discourage bloggers from peeling off the digital mask.

Screwy no more: Gordon Smith, aka “Screwy Hoolie,” ditched his pseudonym in August. “I wanted my name to be associated with my words,” he explains.

“It’s kind of like putting on a superhero suit without worrying if they are going to find out who your secret identity is,” says Gordon Smith, who until recently blogged under the name Screwy Hoolie. Last month, Smith ditched his pseudonym on the blog Scrutiny Hooligans; although he says he was never truly anonymous, he feels that posting under his real name makes him more accountable.

“It was just a journey for me of growing my courage,” says Smith, “and getting to a place where I wanted my name to be associated with my words.”

Besides, he notes, people at blog conventions and meetings were introducing him by his online moniker, and “I don’t know if I want to be known as Screwy for the rest of my life.”

But other Scrutiny Hooligans contributors remain nameless for fear of the consequences of exposure.

“The anonymous blogger at Scrutiny Hooligans, if he ever gets outed, he will just quit blogging,” Smith predicts. “Because he can’t get outed—his job will not allow him to do political blogging.”

Similarly, the local blog Not Thomas Wolfe disappeared in August after only one high-profile month online. The anonymous bloggers, who styled themselves “pro-development liberals” dissatisfied with local news coverage of City Council meetings, quickly made a splash serving up some choice words about Council members.

The site also began seeding other local sites with its link, commenting on posts, and directing readers to Not Thomas Wolfe. But when Smith noted during an online conversation that comments supposedly made by different people were all coming from the same IP address, the site posted a hasty adios and vanished.

“I guess it scared the bejesus out of them,” Smith observes, adding that while the address alone wouldn’t identify the writer, it did make it clear that whoever was behind Not Thomas Wolfe was using several names at once to pump up online conversations, a practice bloggers call “sock puppeting.”

The farewell post from Not Thomas Wolfe explained that some of its writers had “jobs that kept them from speaking freely.” It went on to say, “Being watched online by private citizens is even more chilling to most people than knowing the Department of Homeland Security is spying on you, especially in a small town.”

The blogger in our midst

Sniffing out writers’ identities is part of the whole blog game, says Smith, especially if their posts are controversial.

“There’s always going to be people trying to figure out who you are,” he maintains. “The biggest one is AshVegas: Who is AshVegas? That’s what everyone wants to know.”

Who, indeed.

Asheville Citizen-Times Multimedia Editor Jason Sandford has been blogging under the name “Ash” for two years. He’s the driving force behind Ashvegas, having posted there more than 3,000 times, according to the site’s own count.

Sandford’s blog entries often consist of photos he’s taken around town; plugs for the Concord, N.C.-based band The Avett Brothers; or one-offs about various news items. But his stock-in-trade is snarky, sarcastic criticism of WLOS-TV’s evening news coverage: “What I view as a parody or snide take on the local TV news,” he told Xpress.

Still, Sandford maintains that there’s more to his missives than just wisecracks. “I think my blog offered some little discussion on what WLOS was doing and how they were doing it. [Print media] have that discussion every day in the pages of our product; WLOS does not,” he says. (In fact, Ashvegas has also tossed a few compliments—and complaints—at Xpress.)

He’s coming out: One of Asheville’s top blogs, Ashvegas, regularly skewers the WLOS news team under the cloak of anonymity. Now the author, Jason Sandford, is ready to reveal himself. photo by Jonathan Welch

From the start, says Sandford, he told his bosses at the Citizen-Times about his project. When he launched Ashvegas, reports were coming in from around the country about bloggers getting fired. But Sandford says his bosses were OK with the arrangement, and there’s been no professional conflict or fallout. “I showed them the blog; they’ve been aware of it, and it’s been fine.” (Executive Editor Susan Ihne declined to comment.)

No sooner did Sandford fire up Ashvegas, however, than speculation began about who was behind the blog. Questioning eyes turned toward the Citizen-Times newsroom early on, but conjecture that the mystery blogger was Community News Editor Melissa Williams prompted her to post a denial on the Ashvegas site.

“It was a fun thing; I just wanted to keep the mystery going,” says Sandford. “It’s kinda funny that nobody really outed me. It’s like everybody kind of liked the mystery too.”

But he believes his regular WLOS rants gave the television station’s staffers an extra incentive to try to expose him.

“There was a hard-core group of people out there, especially initially, who really wanted to find out who AshVegas was. And I mostly think those were people who were connected with or who worked at WLOS, because they were my main target.”

WLOS General Manager Jack Connor told Xpress that while he’d heard Ashvegas mentioned in passing, he hadn’t actually seen the site until the day we spoke. “Clearly, the Internet is the most democratic form of communication ever,” said Connor. “Certainly, he has a right to his opinions, whatever [they are].”

And when someone did get close to unmasking him, notes Sandford, he responded in various ways, ranging from playfulness to outright denial. Yet the fact that he organized regular gatherings under his nom de blog and took no pains to hide his face when shooting pictures at downtown events suggests that he knew it was only a matter of time before the rest of Asheville knew what the blogging community already did.

But why now? “I think it’s time [to] just wave to everyone and say, ‘This is me,’ he told Xpress. “Ashevegas is the biggest small town in America.”

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19 thoughts on “Who let the blogs out?

  1. Gordon Smith

    To clarify:

    “adding that while the address alone wouldn’t identify the writer, it did make it clear that whoever was behind Not Thomas Wolfe was using several names at once to pump up online conversations, a practice bloggers call “sock puppeting.”

    I did not accuse NTW of sockpuppeting. We merely noted that there were comments coming from the same IP. This could have been two different people using the same server. Our policy is to post the information, so readers can be informed regarding their fellow commenters’ possible arrangements.

  2. Jer

    Great article. Regarding the Ashvegas posts about WLOS, the station does seem to have some very sensitive people on its staff, as their responses to criticisms posted on Ashvegas have shown. But it should be noted that Sanford has proven to be just as quick to congratulate the station on a particularly strong report.

  3. ashvegas

    Brian, thank you for a thoughtful article on the local blog scene.

    to clarify: Melissa Williams is the former community news editor at the newspaper. She now works for the Asheville Police Department.

  4. I’m proud of Jason and Gordon for standing behind the opinions they express on their blogs.

    In my experience, anonymity in the blogosphere can result in a loss of basic human civility. Anonymity gives some people the freedom to be nasty and say things they would never say to someone in person.

    Not that these guys ever did that.

    Nice photo, Fliss!

  5. The Power of Promo

    Besides a few production people…no one at wlos read ashvegas.

    The reporters didn’t. The producer’s didn’t. Heck, management didn’t even know it existed, lol.

    The reporters just knew that Ashvegas existed, and that they said mean things about them, and in fact the head of our promo department figured out it was jason last year after he signed his name at some blog convention, so the secret was already out, it’s just that nobody (besides me a few other people here ) cared.

  6. arratik

    I don’t know… I heard one of the WLOSers refer to Darcel Grimes as “Diva Darcel” on-air once about six months ago.

  7. Huw Richardson

    Congrats to Jason and Gordon for going public with themselves. Yes, anonymity has some benefits, but I think if there’s something you can’t say b/c of work or position – and the something is important – maybe your in the wrong line of work.

    And thanks to the MountainX for the blog-ville coverage!

  8. Deborah Potter

    Ashvegas is by far the most entertaining and must-read blog to come out of WNC to date. I don’t get all the praise about other local sites — although I am too much of a Southern lady to name names in public forums (although I will say that many WNC blogs are about as much fun to read as having a hangover.)

    Having worked at both WLOS and the Asheville Citzen-Times — and having worked closely with Jason long before the launch of Ahsvegas — I find his critique of the local TV news hilarious.

    The photos on Ashvegas are incredible and the content always eclectic. Although I have noticed that Ash has toned down his commentary concerning WLOSers as of late — is that because he knew the XPress was going to “out” him?

    Come on Ash! Back to your roots brother!

    I always knew Jason was the author of the best blog in town — because we parked our cars in the same lot for two years. I was intrigued by his tag — so it made sense that he was the genious behind such a great blog.

    Some journalists CAN keep their mouths shut!

    Ashvegas RULES!

  9. I start each day reading these Asheville blogs on a news feed. Ashvegas, Scrutiny Hooligans, Hangover Journals, Edgy Mama, Blog Asheville, etc. In these Asheville blogs you get an ‘up to the minute’ cross-section and feel for the pulse in Asheville and beyond. Always good to see them get their due.

  10. Thanks, Susan! Sorry I haven’t been posting much lately. Some alternative newspaper has been keeping me busy!

  11. Deborah Potter

    Don’t you hate pants? — I was confuused by your message until I re-read my post. I certainly didn’t intend to take a shot at anyone — It was just a bad choice of words. I am also a big fan of Hangover Journals if that’s what you meant.

  12. It was a fun article and I’m pleased to have been included, although I think, by rights, that there should now be an entire photo editorial on Asheville Bloggers Pets. Why let Django get all the glory? Gordon has dogs too!

    Sorry you don’t like my blog, deborah, can’t be all things for all people, it is true. And thanks, oh pantsless one, for the defense.

  13. Deborah Potter

    soja — I’ll leave it up to Jason to decide if he wants to put that in a public forum.

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