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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Mysteries of PittGirl

Posted By on Wed, Nov 19, 2008 at 9:31 AM

The sudden disappearance of The Burgh Blog ruined a lot of people's Tuesday mornings. And among some bloggers I know, there are already discussions about what it means for the Burghosphere. Is this the end of a golden age? Why have a handful of prominent local blogs shut down lately? What does it say about Pittsburgh's online community? It's the old regional neurosis again: Why are all the bloggers leaving?

I'm sorry to see Burgh Blog go too. But I take some consolation in thinking this outcome was inevitable. In fact, I tend to believe PittGirl killed the blog for some of the same reasons that helped make it popular in the first place. And if this saga does say anything about Pittsburgh, it shows how far people here will go to protect "one of our own."

I don't think there's any big mystery about what happened here. Judging from today's Post-Gazette article, somebody out there was able to piece together PittGirl's identity. Even though that person swore to keep the secret, PittGirl apparently realized the next person who did so might not be so accommodating.

Why was anonymity so important? You can find a clue in this interview PittGirl gave to Pittsburgh magazine:

Pittsburgh Magazine: Just to get this out of the way, I have no interest in finding out who you really are. It's too much fun this way, love the mystique. But let's deal with the elephant in the room. What's with the anonymity?

PittGirl: I guess it is twofold. One, I have a job and that job puts me in contact with lots of people in the city. Including some of the people I write about. Secondly, I love being able to truly speak my mind and I couldn't do that if I put my name and face out there.

I'll be honest: That's not the most ennobling defense of internet anonymity I've ever heard. And a few haters out there have criticized PittGirl for taking the piss out of people -- including those she apparently works with and around -- behind their backs. Then again, at least one of those critics stayed anonymous too. And the point is: Rightly or wrongly, PittGirl got to enjoy the best of both worlds. So did her readers.

In fact, when you think about it, the surprising part isn't that PittGirl was close to being outed. The surprising part is that it took so long. But then, there were people willing to play along, including many professional journalists.

That Pittsburgh magazine interview, for example, essentially begins with the interviewer agreeing not to dig too deeply or ask uncomfortable questions, because they're having so much fun together. Probably more interviews begin that way than many journos would want to admit. But what's strange here is that the whole post-the-IM-chat conversation gambit essentially publicizes the fact. The whole interview screams, "See? I get it!"

That pretty much sums up PittGirl's treatment by local media, even as they added to her celebrity. I can't think of too many cases in which the Post-Gazette has done a 600-word Q&A -- plus prominent mention in multiple follow-up pieces -- with someone whose identity it refused to disclose. And it's not because nobody over there knows who she is. I know of at least one reasonably high-ranking Post-Gazette editor who has met PittGirl for lunch.

In fact, this may be PittGirl's most impressive accomplishment: Her popularity was such that she got some of the city's most prominent media outlets to play by the blogosphere's rules.

I'm not trying to raise some big ethical stink here. We're talking about pigeons, not the Pentagon Papers. (And I'm not above keeping that sort of secret myself, as at least one or two other local bloggers can attest.) But not everyone is as willing to sacrifice their curiosity -- or to keep secrets -- as some local journalists were. The "mystique" as Pittsburgh magazine put it, was part of the PittGirl appeal, and her persona. Her blog played on it all the time. But for some people, inevitably, the "mystique" is going to be accompanied by a desire to have the mystery revealed.

Sooner or later this was going to happen, and it speaks to a small-town neighborliness -- on the part of media too -- that it took so long. But as PittGirl herself seems to have realized, even in Pittsburgh there's a point at which you can no longer have a reasonable expectation of privacy. And by the time you're giving interviews to a city's leading daily newspaper and its leading monthly magazine, that point is already in your rearview mirror.

Every public figure realizes that you don't get to choose the extent of your celebrity. Once you put your name -- or even a pseudonym -- out there, it no longer belongs to you alone. For example, I know of at least one local journalist who, because he made a flippant reference to PittGirl's blog, had his sexual orientation became a subject of derision in its comments section.

No doubt the commenter who did so thought the journalist's private life was fair game, because journalists live "in the public eye." Maybe so. But given those rules, it's hard to see how anyone thought The Burgh Blog itself could last forever.

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