Anonymous contributions

Jeremy Gould – barcamp impresario, Ministry of Justice web dude and blogger – raises the issue of anonymous contributions, both within blogs and comments on other blogs:

I was thinking about this last week when I came across a new blog by a civil servant who chooses not declare their identity. Its entertaining and a pretty accurate description of life inside a Whitehall department. But two problems come to mind:

  1. It will be too easy to say something inappropriate on the basis that no one knows who you are, and
  2. If the blog gains traction you can bet your bottom dollar that people will do their best to work out who it is – and eventually they will, causing problems for the author.

Interesting stuff, as this issue has been raised by quite a few people I have talked to about my plans for an online collaborative social network for the information authority. People say they would like to be able to post on the communities anonymously, in case their bosses are lurking, presumably, about stuff they wouldn’t like to be associated with their names.

I’m against it, and I will push for there to be no anonymous functionality in the new platform. There are several reasons for this, on top of those Jeremy identifies:

  • It gives an excuse for a potentially valid point to be ignored. It could be perceived, for example, that if the person contributing the idea is ashamed to be associated with it, then why should it be pursued?
  • The social graph is based on identity. The way social networks work is because we know and trust who people are. Anonymity takes that away.
  • Anonymous posting removes the responsibility for your actions – having stuff posted with your name next to it will make you think twice before posting
  • The need for anonymity is almost certainly a symptom of some wider problem which really ought to be addressed – why the fear in speaking out?

I found this article by Ben Macintyre in The Times interesting:

People behave badly when they think they are invisible. Masked balls were an opportunity for licentious behaviour in a buttoned-down society because (supposedly) no one knew who was who. People who would not dream of being rude in day-to-day transactions feel no such constraints behind the wheel, because the four walls of the car offer the illusion of anonymity; in my experience, drivers with tinted windows are far more aggressive than those without.

Bearing all this in mind, my view is not to provide the ability for people to post anything anonymously. Instead, make it clear how you can be contacted through the back channel, maybe an email or phone call, for ideas which a person might want to have aired but not attributed to them. It might be important to get information out, in which case quote an anonymous source, but make the it the exception rather than the rule.

9 thoughts on “Anonymous contributions”

  1. I’ll give you a real example where leaving your real name could be a problem. Barclays recently introduced a new PIN Card Reader for people to access their accounts online. For me it did not function and I was hacked off waiting 45 mins to get through to their call centre. I found a site that was discussing the issue and left a comment under my own name.

    I also had mentioned to my bank manager that I didn’t like the new system and that I wasn’t alone judging by what was being said online.

    The next day he called me back to let me know he thought my comments were unfair.

    Now I’m sure my lovely bank manager won’t hold it against me, but I’ll never really know until I need to ask a favour. Maybe I should have made my comment anonymously…

  2. All the points you make are good, but my concern is really the sense of security people get when they think they are anonymous.

    The media, in particular the tabloids, are littered weekly (if not daily) with information that comes from people who think they are talking anonymously.

    Anonymity only works if it is guaranteed – and no sensible ISP can expect to be able to keep user details private if they put up illegal, or even potentially illegal, content. I know that sounds very dramatic, but comments can so easily be libellous or slanderous.

    Additionally, conflicts of interest could expose anonymity. If you post something on, say, a website run by one government department, who says favours can’t be called in from another?

    Anyone who truly needs or wants to contribute anonymously will set up false accounts linking to false emails and false websites. This requires a lot of hard work on their part (the level depending on how paranoid they are and how much trouble they plan to cause). But this level of work is needed if you want to be anonymous – a simple ANONYMOUS tick box can just create a false sense of security.

  3. I think your points are well made. I’ve so far resisted supporting a facility for anonymous contributions on the IDeA CoP platform for local government communities. I attended a facilitator’s workshop just before Christmas where this requirement came up (and the ability to post comments to other users’ blog entries anonymously).

    I can understand that some people may wish to submit a non-attributable item or comment, but I do worry that this facility could be abused if it’s made an officially supported feature of the platform – e.g. a ‘gripe channel’.

    I’ve suggested a compromise to those users who are presently lobbying for anonymous postings – give details of the post to the community facilitator and he/she will publish the item on the user’s behalf (e.g. with a preamble along the lines of “This issue has been raised by a member of the community. Please let me have your comments”. I know this still doesn’t guarantee total anonymity since apart from anything else, the facilitator knows who the person is, but I would argue that if something is so sensitive that you can’t share it with a trusted member of your own community, then you probably shouldn’t be publishing it all.

  4. I still don’t get the big problem with anonymity.

    Yes, an anonymous comment carries less weight than one attached to a well-known and respected person. So what?

    Yes, anonymous comments are more likely to be abusive, but the blog owner can allow registered users to post and pre-moderate anonymous ones, but I don’t see the need for the site owner to post on their behalf as Steve suggests. Sorted already.

    Yes, the poster may have a false sense of security but if someone simply prefers some anonymity as opposed to be afraid of being tracked down throug court action then it isn’t an unreasonable step to take by using a false name.

  5. The issue for me is that of trust. The whole point of social web based initiatives are too try and increase the levels of trust between the organisation engaging in the medium and those interacting with it. If the organisation is being open and transparent, and providing a platform for people to air their views, how can there really be trust if one side refuses to reveal their identity?

    As I and Steve pointed out, mechanisms can be put in place to get around the identity issue if it really is a problem, and the message is one thought worth passing on, but this really should be an exception.

    Of course, one of the risks of any organisation engaging with these tools is that negative comments will come out. The management of that risk is to ensure that criticism is handled positively.

    Perhaps it’s as much about perspective as anything. Anonymous blog comments are one thing, making comments within a professional online network might be quite another.

  6. I can see that anonymous postings might be relevant to open forums, but my earlier response – and the subsequent post by Dave – refers specifically to virtual ‘communities’ where the development of trust is a key ingredient for a successful community. In my opinion, anonymous postings reveal lack of trust, and providing this as a supported ‘feature’ for the community is sending out very mixed signals to the community. A bit like holding an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at your local pub!

  7. I’m no expert but isn’t the AA a good example where anonymity is assured so that people feel more free to talk? Although many members may use their real name in person they are guaranteed anonymity outside the “fellowship”. The problem of an online community is that your comments last longer than the echo in the church hall or whereever the AA is meeting.

    Shane – I edited your comment just to make your link inline – it was throwing out my beloved page layout! DB

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