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.