“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.
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.
“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.”
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.)
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.”