Friday, February 21, 2014

The Retroactive Pseudonymity of Micole “Mely” Coffeeandink

This is the almost-final-draft of a section from a book about social justice warriors, identitarianism, and mobbing. For more information and links to other chapters, see How to Make a Social Justice Warrior.

The Retroactive Pseudonymity of Micole “Mely” Coffeeandink

To tell the story of Coffeeandink’s claim she was outed during Racefail, I have to start with a recap:

After Coffeeandink left Tor Books in the ‘90s, she and I bumped into each other at online fannish sites. We’re both fond of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so I may have noticed her next at Whedonesque, where her public profile from 2002 still has her legal first and last name linked to a “Coffeeandink” blogspot blog that now belongs to someone else. Though she abandoned the blog, that profile may be when Google began associating “Coffeeandink” with Micole’s full legal name.

At some point, she began following my LJ, so I followed hers. For several years, she used her full name, sometimes including her middle name or initial, in public posts. Most of those posts were about convention appearances so anyone could find her easily. Some were about her published work.

She connected her legal name with her LJ elsewhere, too. For the first International Pixel-Stained Techno-Peasant Day, when many writers shared their published work online, she shared on her LJ a story published under her name. The WisCon site, when mentioning what panels she would be on, always mentioned her LJ for anyone who wanted to contact her.

In 2007, K. Tempest Bradford hot-linked Coffeeandink’s legal name to her LJ at “Fantasy Roundtable: People of Color in Fantasy Literature (part 2)” at Fantasy Magazine. I noticed that for a very petty reason: Coffeeandink criticized a book by my wife. At the time, I ignored her comments because readers are entitled to be arrogantly ignorant—I’ve said my share of stupid things about work that was better than I was capable of seeing at the time—but toward the end of Racefail, I made this post in response to Coffeeandink’s misreading:

Power in Emma Bulls Territory

I’m going to do the husband thang and speak up for my wife’s book. It’s cool to disagree in the comments. No book is perfect, and most of us separate the person from the work.

Spoilers are fine in the comments, but I’ll leave them out of this post.

Referring to a Chinese character, Micole said, “The white hero takes on his magic.” That’s not how magic works in Territory. Power comes from the earth, from territory itself.

And “’s still all about the white people.” An interesting discussion could be had about whether a Jewish woman in that time was “white.”

No one in the discussion brought up China Mary. Hello! Race/class/gender issues, and historically accurate besides!

Nor did anyone discuss the second major Asian character, whose class, race, and gender issues are far more complex than the powerful male who gets all the attention at the Fantasy Roundtable.

Somewhere, I saw a quibble about pidgin in Territory, so I’ll address that, too: People spoke pidgin then and now. It’s a form of English that’s as valid as any other. Anyone who cares about black dialects, for example, should grant the authenticity of pidgin. Having Chinese immigrants speaking Standard American English in Territory would make it a farce.

Micole thought stories about Jewish characters should be about antisemitism. The story of Jews in the west is fascinating and complex, as a little research will tell you. Some places were welcoming, some were tolerant, and some were hostile. As a rule, the frontier was more liberal than the East: many of the early advances for US women happened in the American West.

Another point: When discussing this book, remember that Jesse and Mildred get equal time.

Bradford’s linking of Coffeeandink’s name at Fantasy Magazine lasted from 2007 until 2009, when Coffeeandink announced she had been outed.

During Racefail, the FeministSF site decided to record the major events in their wiki. The entry for Coffeeandink was wrongly linked to Catherynne Valente. Early in February, Kathryn Cramer saw that and corrected it. When told by the wiki editors that Coffeeandink wished to be pseudonymous, Cramer accepted their decision, though she argued there and elsewhere that pseudonymity in a flamewar was wrong. On February 6, at the Ambling Along the Aqueduct blog, she said, “The preponderance of those arguing as representatives of the Other are pseudonymous. This, it seems to me, is a big problem. Pseudonymous people are often not as they claim to be.”

And then, referring to Coffeeandink, she said, “I just found out earlier this afternoon that one of the LJ combatants, who refuses to allow her alias i.e. false name to be public used to report to and work for people she’s flamed and inflamed other to criticize. I think this is wildly unethical. Is MORE of that kind of stuff hiding under other of these aliases?”

I missed that skirmish over Coffeeandink’s claim of pseudonymity. So late in February, after she made her “Will Shetterly: Do Not Engage” post, I decided to reply in kind with one titled “looking at a few of my critics, champions of the upper class.” I wanted to spell her uncommon last name correctly, so I simply googled “Micole coffeeandink.” Her last name came up as one of the first hits.

On February 26, she emailed me, “I do not put my full name on my LJ user profile because I do not wish it to be linked to it by general Google searches.  It’s okay to name the owner of the LJ coffeeandink as “Micole”, but not as “Micole [last name redacted].”

I laughed when I read that. Claiming that using “Micole” instead of “Micole [last name]” on her profile kept her site from Google’s notice had to be a joke—at the time, Google blatantly disagreed. Her LJ was publicly searchable then, she had been using her full legal name in posts for years, and she had around a thousand followers who linked to her, often using her legal names.

And she had to know that both of her legal names are very rare. According to themeaningofnames, “The highest recorded use” of Micole “was in 1988 with 39 baby girls.” According to namestatistics, “very few last names in the US” are hers. Surely, no one concerned about pseudonymity would use either name on a public site. But I wrote back:

Huh. You’re very free with my name, and I get Google-searched, too. I realize you use “racist” differently than I do, but still, when you have items like “Will explains how racism doesn’t affect middle-class black people” when I said at that post and in many other places that racism *does* affect middle-class black people, I have trouble feeling sympathy for your desire for anonymity. Integrity is hard.

Well. I really shouldn’t become the asshole you say I am. I’ll delete your last name now.

It’s true I became that asshole, but I hadn’t yet. I removed her last name from my blogs, then posted:

Well, I think its funny

My most vitriolic critic wrote me, asking me to remove her last name from my response to her so she wouldn’t look bad when Google-searched.

You can’t make these things up.

It was a surprisingly tough call. On the one hand, I believe if you don’t have the courage to identify yourself, you should shut the hell up. On the other hand, it’s nice to be nice. So I snarled and growled a little, then deleted her name.

This seems especially amusing given the number of people in the Great Silliness who criticized friends of mine for deleting information from the web.

ETA #1: I realize that some people’s circumstances force them to choose between anonymity and silence. In those cases, which choice is right depends on what they hope to say. There are many kinds of identity. Sometimes an online name is as valid as any name you claim for yourself. It all depends on what you do under the cloak of that name.

ETA #2: I also realize that if I was a nice guy, I would’ve deleted her name and never said a thing about it. But since I’ve realized that justice is personal, I’m beginning to think being nice is overrated. I’m not going to say “it’s nice to be nice” again. I will say “it’s good to be kind,” because I deleted her name out of kindness, not niceness. Niceness is never surly or grudging. Kindness is better when it’s whole-hearted, but grudging kindness is better than none.

ETA #3: I am petty. She asked me to shield her while she attacked me, and when I did, she didn’t even thank me. I’ve encountered a great deal of upper class entitlement in my life, but hers has managed to surprise me.

ETA #4: I just googled Micole’s first and last name. The second hit connects her to her LiveJournal. Then I googled what she has publicly on her profile, “Coffeeandink Micole.” The third and fourth hits brought up her last name. Now I’m totally baffled by her request. Oh, well. We all have our quirks.

On March 1, not yet concerned about her privacy, Coffeeandink made a public announcement on her LJ about the conventions she would be at if anyone wanted to find her.

But the very next day, she claimed in “RaceFail: Once More, with Misdirection”, “Kathryn Cramer has been linking my LJ to my full name on wikis and in other people’s blog comments and has repeatedly stated that my participation in RaceFail debates was an attempt to smear the Nielsen Haydens in grudgewank.”

What inspired that, I still don’t know. Cramer hadn’t tried to link Coffeeandink’s legal name and pseudonym since being told a month earlier that Coffeeandink wished to be pseudonymous.

Referring to me, Coffeeandink said, “He posted my full name and LJ on his blog, even though I deliberately do not list my last name on my LJ.” She did not note that I did that in ignorance.

Her post includes an excellent list of reasons to be pseudonymous:

Because it is a standard identity- and privacy-protection precaution

Because they have experienced online or offline stalking, harassment, or political or domestic violence

Because they wish to discuss sexual abuse, sexuality, domestic abuse, assault, politics, health, or mental illness, and do not wish some subset of family, friends, strangers, aquaintances, employers, or potential employers to know about it

Because they wish to keep their private lives, activities, and tastes separate from their professional lives, employers, or potential employers

Because they fear threats to their employment or the custody of their children

Because it’s the custom among their Internet cohort

Because it’s no one else’s business

But she gave no advice about how to be pseudonymous, probably because the list would have to include “Don’t use your legal name on public sites where you want to be pseudonymous.”

And she didn’t offer her own reason being pseudonymous. A few months later, on May 9, in the comments at Justine Larbalestier’s blog, she admitted, “I am mostly just fighting a losing battle to prevent my mother from finding my LJ via Google.” I will always have trouble believing her mother didn’t know how to type her daughter’s name into Google, but perhaps Coffeeandink had the most internet-incompetent mother ever.

As soon as she posted “RaceFail: Once More, with Misdirection”, her readers mobbed Cramer and me with angry email and anonymous comments while distorting the facts in their own blogs in a classic child’s game of “telephone”, each sharing and exaggerating what outraged them without linking to the source. For example, Cofax7, who a year earlier on Seperis’s LJ had recommended Coffeeandink’s rationalization for outing Zathlazip, posted this with no sense of irony:

The fundamental law in online discourse, particularly in fandom, is that you do not out people. But Will Shetterly (whose writing I used to enjoy) and Kathryn Cramer (who has written meaningfully in the pursuit of government accountability) think it’s more important to cast blame, to assert grudgewank, than to analyze arguments. I don’t care what you think about RaceFail 09, or if you’re tired of it or whatever. But this is the establishment striking back at the online community, this is the frenzy of disparagement by people tied to a failing model. And this is why pseudonymity is So Fucking Important. 

Fuck you, Will Shetterly. And fuck you, too, Kathryn Cramer. I will not link to you.

So even though Cramer and I had respected Coffeeandink’s claim of pseudonymity as soon as we were aware she was claiming it, we were attacked as though we had not.

Other warriors who had participated in the outing of Zathlazip shared Cofax7’s version of the story and added their outrage to that of their friends. The flames burned higher with each retelling.

While the claim Coffeeandink had been outed sped across the warriorverse, I went to the feministsf wiki and saw how her identity was being shielded while the people she attacked were not.

The only thing I can say in defense of what I did next is I had not yet researched the psychological effects of mobbing. I didn’t know how being mobbed drives you temporarily mad. Like everyone who has been mobbed, I was torn between fight and flight.

I broke first on the side of fight. Infuriated, I posted this:

Own your shit!

Micole [redacted] is coffeeandink.

Here’s why I’m outing her. I originally hadn’t known Micole was hiding her last name, because she uses her first at Coffeeandink. Last week, I got an email from her asking me to delete her last name from my posts. I thought it was funny that she would ask me to shield her while she attacked me, but I did. What can I say? I guess I’m a bit sexist: I usually protect women when they ask me.

You can read about that at “well, I think it’s funny.”

This morning, I heard about people attacking Kathryn Cramer because she had revealed Micole’s last name at the wiki entry for the Great Silliness, aka RaceFail09. So I went to that site, and my hypocrisy circuits overloaded. If the point of the wiki is to preserve the record of who said what, it should record the facts without favoritism.

So I restored Micole [redacted]’s name there. I left this note on the Talk page: “When someone hides Micole’s identity again, I won’t correct it. I won’t begin a wiki war, and I respect the right of site owners to do what they please. But just for the record: If the point of this wiki is to share information, don’t censor the truth. Revise it when you have more information, delete what no longer seems pertinent, sure, but feminists should especially know that double standards stink.”

I should’ve expected this. The editor’s response was typical of their side of the Silliness: “Hi Will. You sure won’t start a wiki war here, because I just banned you.”

Hypocrites love to ban and censor and disemvowel. They fear opposing views, so they silence them. Free speech is not for cowards.

And now there are a flurry of LJ posts about what an asshole I am for outing Micole at the wiki. I’ll own that: I’m an asshole for truth, justice, and the egalitarian way.

If you haven’t already, check out the XKCD cartoon I posted the other day. It’s got my new motto.

And now I’m done with this group of hypocrites. There are greater ones to worry about.

The wiki editor who banned me was Liz Henry. At the time, I didn’t know she had outed Zathlazip, or I would’ve mentioned it.

Because Coffeeandink had publicly used her full legal name on her LJ for years, I thought everyone would know I was using “out” ironically.

Really, NEVER use “out” ironically on the web.

If you take one lesson from my history, take this: the web does not do context or irony.

“Own your shit!” got thousands of hits. New visitors came for controversy, not context—few bothered to read anything posted before or after it. Because I hadn’t anticipated new readers, I didn’t clarify that “uses her first [name] at Coffeeandink” meant “uses her extremely uncommon first name”, and I didn’t bother to mention her casual public use of her last name.

Within an hour, friends convinced me I had over-reacted, so I removed Coffeeandink’s last name and wrote a flurry of blog posts amid the flames. If you think I became a bit—or extremely—insane, I had. Humans break when they’re mobbed.

This is how I broke in the next few hours:

Fuck. That. Shit.

Fine. Let hypocrites hide while they attack others. I’m deleting Ms. X’s last name from my site. Life’s too short to be lectured by people who want to protect cowards.

Is hypocrisy in fashion now?

I’m being croggled by the people who defend Micole’s position. I’ve heard, for example, the stock argument that Coffeeandink is a valid identity, so what she does under that name isn’t acting anonymously. I suppose by this argument, Superman and the Green Goblin aren’t anonymous, either. But would you defend a Klansman’s anonymity?

Integrity usually calls for paying a price. That doesn’t mean you should be afraid to admit who you are. Make your mistakes in public, apologize for them in public, and keep trying to do your best in public. The coward’s way will kill your soul.

As St. Bob Dylan said, “To live outside the law you must be honest.”

Which is worse, banning or anonymity?

Another painful moment of self-awareness: I usually figure that if you’re not an asshole, you’re welcome to be anonymous—a handle is a nickname. But I don’t much like anyone who bans. Ban others and demand anonymity while you libel folks who are up front about who they are online and off? That’s the complete coward’s way. Kathryn Cramer and I disagree sometimes—dear God, who don’t I disagree with sometimes?—but she knows a basic truth: if you’re going to talk the talk, you sure as shit should walk the walk.

Is a nickname a pseudonym?

I agree that there’s a difference between being anonymous and pseudonymous.

But that distinction has limits in both directions.

On the anonymity side: sockpuppets game the gray area by using several pseudonyms to be more effectively anonymous.

On the pseudonymity side: a pseudonym is only an identity that can be put on and taken off with ease. Con artists love pseudonyms.

In the world Behind The Keyboard, nicknames are connected to faces or voices or mailing addresses—they’re ultimately legally verifiable, though you may need detectives if someone you only know by a nickname shafts you.

But in Life Online? A pseudonym is just a pseudonym, not a nickname. Log out of gmail, make a new account, and you’re a new person, walking free from all the shit you’ve made. It’s tempting to want that freedom.

But real freedom calls for owning your identity everywhere you go. No matter how bad the shit behind you is, find a way to carry it or correct it or simply admit that you’re done with it. That’s how humans grow. I’m not proud of my online shit, but I made a decision when I went online decades ago that I was going own my shit—especially when I hate having to own it.

Though I deleted Micole’s last name from my blog soon after I posted it—and thought it was still on many public posts on her LJ—people vowed to boycott my work. Far worse, they vowed to boycott the work of my friends who did not denounce me. I received an anonymous death threat in email that I deleted on the assumption it was empty outrage. I had learned a lot about threats from the KKK. Most threateners only want to terrify people.

But I also remembered that some of the WisCon warriors had gone offline to terrorize Zathlazip. For weeks afterward, when the mail carrier came, I checked return addresses before opening anything.

On March 3, Kynn Bartlett posted:

I live in Tucson, and so does he. I’ve never met him. 

But if I ever do, I’ll likely spit in his fucking face.

I knew Kynn’s name because earlier in Racefail, Kynn had gotten into a fierce exchange of insults with Darkerblogistan, aka Igorsanchez, who Kynn then outed. At the time, my sympathy had been with Kynn because Igorsanchez’s insults seemed extremely transphobic. But I had no idea what Kynn looked like. Since Emma and I were scheduled to appear at the Tucson Festival of Books that month, I took her words seriously. But if she came to the Festival, she didn’t approach us.

My past experience with threats didn’t prepare me for being mobbed online. When the price of community is conforming to what you reject, the tension between being true to yourself and wanted to be accepted is unbearable. Most people who are mobbed will conform or flee. I wanted to disappear and forget what had happened; I needed to make things better somehow.

My primary blog then was on WordPress and a copy was at LiveJournal. Keeping two blogs became a nightmare as both were flooded with furious comments from warriors, so I shut down my LJ and tried to discuss the issues reasonably at my main site.

Advice for anyone who gets mobbed: there’s no room for reason in a riot.

Coffeeandink blogged that I was “equating pseudonymity to belonging to the KKK.” She did not note I also equated it to being Superman. Someone said it was problematic to compare pseudonyms to Klansmen, and, in defense of pseudonyms, cited the US’s founders who wrote under the name of Publius. That person didn’t seem to know that the Publius writers included James Madison, who owned many slaves.

Because the warriors were attacking everyone associated with me, I made these posts:

Im leaving Shadow Unit

Someone expressed doubts about supporting Shadow Unit because of my involvement. My creative role has been slight; people who disapprove of me can simply skip my story in Season One. (People who really disapprove of me should ignore Brady, who has more of me than any other character.) Shadow Unit is much more Emma’s and Bear’s baby, with enormous help from an amazingly talented group of writers. It’ll be fun for me to approach it purely as a reader.

I have been concerned that this would happen. Some writers have conventional approaches to life, and some subordinate their beliefs in order to keep a broad audience. I fear I don’t fit in either camp. The Shadow Unit writers are having a wonderful time, and I do not want them to take a hit for me, so it’s easy to step down.

Go, team, go!

About outingcoffeeandink or anyone

This keeps coming up, so I’m interrupting my internet holiday:

Micole says at her LJ that she briefly outed two fans, then took the information off the public web. I “outed” her briefly, then took the information off my sites entirely. It’s not in a “friends only” area. It’s gone. She is as safe from me now as those two fans are from her. I will not “out” her or anyone again. Everyone’s shit is theirs to live with.

ETA: I’ve been informed that she hadn’t known her brief outing was an outing. Apologies for making it seem like that was my point: my point is that she is just as safe as those two fans are now. She will not be outed. Nor will anyone else.

Then I closed down the LiveJournal copy of my blog to simplify my life.

In the uproar, there were voices of sanity.

At Tempest Bradford’s blog, Jace said, “The issue isn’t whether or not she wanted to establish a pseudonymous identity online, it’s that she went about doing it so badly she has no right to complain when it failed.”

At Sierrawyndsong’s LJ, she wrote:

Now there is currently a huge bruhaha brewing between two authors online. One would like to remain anonymous but claims to have been ‘outed’ by another author. A flame war of massive proportions has ensued, slandering both authors, appearing in numerous blogs and blurring the lines of libel and defamation. Brilliant. Neither author is invisible online, both are published authors, both blog often and have been very vocal in a long drawn out race issue concerning SciFi writers and their writings and blogs have been linked to their real names in published and public forums. Read that again. BOTH. Of them. Period.

By the time anyone bothers to read this, I am sure the name will no longer be linked to the LJ account. However, in December 2007: The article titled Fantasy Roundtable: People of Color in Fantasy Literature, written by K. Tempest Bradford and published by Dark Fantasy, links an author’s name to their LJ account. (It is my opinion that if the article published the identity and link without the author’s permission, then Dark Fantasy and Bradford owe the author an apology and a retraction.) This same article has been used very often in numerous blogs concerning race issues in SciFi genre and has always contained the link. So, not just there, but in many, many posts, this article has made it very public who that author is in real life. Therefore, it is a MATTER OF PUBLIC RECORD. Get it? Got it? Good.

On March 4, Micole shared a post titled “Guess who managed to escalate the situation again!” to escalate the situation.

I responded with:

A reply to Coffeeandink

Coffeeandink says, “You seem to have difficulty with reading comprehension.”

True. Reading “How the internet is rewiring our brains”, I thought, “Yep. Uh, huh. That’s me. Damn. I need to work on this.” But there’s been a lot of reading fail on both sides. I’m still getting charged with crap I never said.

She says, “ You encouraged your commenters to seek out my name…”

Where did I do that?

She says “You posted my full name again and took it down again several times.”

To give her the benefit of the doubt, having information on two blogs makes correcting them both confusing. This created problems before: Teresa Nielsen Hayden once charged me with doing something I hadn’t because she confused my LJ with my main blog. Serious advice to anyone thinking about having more than one blog: Don’t. Anyway, Micole may be confused here, or I might be. Really. Don’t keep two blogs.

She says, “You claimed I had suggested a boycott of Tor.”

I claimed that her last name was relevant to the wiki because Tor was cited in RaceFail and people in RaceFail had discussed a boycott. I never claimed Coffeeandink suggested it.

She says, “[you] encouraged many of your commenters to believe I had suggested or encouraged that you be forced to leave Shadow Unit, even though I had never commented on it.”

Leaving Shadow Unit was entirely my idea. I do not let friends suffer for my shit. I walked away.

She says “You tried to out me once again on the feministsf wiki, based on the argument that no one on the anti-racist “side” was “forced” to reveal their full name…”

My belief all along: Either all legal names should be on the wiki to have an accurate account, or anyone mentioned there should be able to delete any information they wish. I don’t care that some people on her side are willing to own their shit. When they mock people on the other side for deleting information from the web and shield people on their side, they are simple hypocrites.

Which is their right, of course.

She says, “You outed me having been warned it could expose me to physical violence, sexual abuse, personal harassment, and professional and personal hardship.”

She never warned me of anything. Had she done so, I would never have made my mistake—but I would’ve wondered why her name and her LiveJournal were so high in the Google rankings, and why she used her uncommon first name on her LiveJournal instead of a handle.

She says, “You have offered several different explanations…”

True. I have more than one, and I don’t always cite all of them. If anyone has a full list of my quotes, I’ll own all of them.

On March 5, I did a Google Advanced Search for public appearances of Coffeeandink’s last name on her LJ. It appeared 162 times. Now, that would not be 162 unique times, because Google counts summary pages as well as unique posts, but that increased my amazement that anyone could consider her pseudonymous.

On March 7, Coffeeandink wrote, “I may change my userprofile name to “Mely” again.” That’s the day she acknowledged her identity had been public in a post addressed to Kathryn Cramer:

Please also explain how I was hiding my identity from you or the Nielsen Haydens in a LiveJournal pnh friended a few years ago, with a user profile that lists my very identifiable first name, in a post that is signed with my very identifiable first name.