Anonymity, community and identity

A while ago, I got a bit of a bee in my bonnet about anonymity online, and why it sucked. This was in the wake of the ‘Civil Serf‘ (remember her?) kerfuffle, when a blogger working in government said some things she shouldn’t have done, thinking she was protected by anonymity. She wasn’t of course, and got found out.

Generally speaking, I’m in favour of people being transparent online about who they are: it builds trust and adds credence to what people are saying. There are exceptions of course, for whistleblowers and political activists, for whom being open about their identity could be dangerous.

For me, the Greater Internet Dickwad Theory usually holds true:

Internet dickwad theory

I was reminded of the topic a few weeks back, when I posted about forums, and specifically 4chan. 4chan is a remarkably popular site, and also a remarkably foul one, which is why I’m not linking to it (not because I disaprove, just that I wouldn’t like to be responsible for someone having their internet access taken away from them). It’s an ‘image board’ – basically a pretty simple forum where people post images or text in thread discussions. Sophisticated it ain’t.

What sets 4chan apart from many online communities is that anonymity is not only tolerated, but encouraged. This freedom to post without reprisals results in some truly shocking things being said, but for those with the constitution to sift through it, also some genuinely creative stuff. Quite a few of the popular internet memes started on 4chan – including LOLcats and Rickrolling. Fine, hardly the stuff of huge cultural significance, but creative and cool, and worthwhile.

Anyway, there’s a great article about 4chan, and its founder, Christopher Poole (aka ‘moot’) in Technology Review, which you really ought to read in full:

Support for anonymous communication often comes down to a standard set of arguments: people should have a place where they can speak truth to power (blow a whistle on corruption, assess whether an emperor has clothes) without fear of reprisal; they should also have a place where they can be true to themselves (explore an unconventional sexuality, seek treatment for a stigmatized disease) without risking ostracism and worse. But while Poole embraces these arguments, what he says in defense of the anonymity on 4chan is at once less high-minded and (in ways he is only slowly coming to understand) more far-reaching: “People deserve a place to be wrong.”

The article links to Poole’s talk at the Ted conference, which is both interesting and short:

Identity is a massive issue, particularly for government, and especially where services are being delivered. Yet in terms of the fluffier, engagement stuff I wonder whether we need to be too bothered about anonymity in every case. I’m obviously not recommending that we use 4chan as a consultation platform. Although… no. It wouldn’t work. Would it? No. Definitely not.

Maybe it’s easier sometimes to keep the barriers to entry as low as possible and be prepared to have to sift through an awful lot of stuff to find the gems. Put the burden on the askers, not the answerers.

13 thoughts on “Anonymity, community and identity”

  1. Good stuff, Dave. I always wondered if the virtually total rubbish you get on YouTube comment threads was driven by the anonymity, compared to the virtually entirely sensible comments you tend to get on blog posts, especially when you host them on a corporate platform.

    When I went to see the The Student Room recently, Jamie there was telling me how anonymity seems to make the community more supportive and constructive, oddly. Certainly, compared to the other network its members use – Facebook – where everything you do is attached for eternity to your real identity.

  2. Dave, useful and timely. I think there are issues here which are really down to “horses for courses”, and for which general rules are hard to define. as the previous comments suggest (and I very much agree), there will be social media interactions where a degree of real or perceived anonymity is going to help people “open up”, or deal with issues in a very clearly non-judgemental way. However, in terms of, say, local authorities using similar media as a community engagement tool, there are usually going to be different standards.

    People rightly expect a degree of accountability behind what they get from services paid by tax/Council Tax etc, and there fore need to have access to some sort of identity for things like detailed follow up, complaint, redress etc (not a compleet or very good list, but hope you get my drift). If all they are dealing with is a faceless, nameless avatar in the form of a corporate logo, we could be setting back the cause and course of open communication. There’s also big issues for local authorities themselves within all of this, around reputation management. It is something that some are more sensitive about than others, but most will expect some form of assurance that when their staff are blogging/tweeting/posting etc on issues related to their daily work, they are on-message, saying things they are authorised to say etc. Plus, of course, there is a need for people to be assured that they are dealing with an authoritative, informed voice behind the logo, and not someone who is pretending, or making it up as they go along.

    I know that a few commentators feel that social media only really works well in a viral and slightly anarchic way, but when I look, for example, at many of the things on, say, Twitter, that get people excited enough to retweet etc, they have at their root very accountable, far from anonymous, and directly attributable sources, such as pages from press web sites, or the like.

    Social media as an information tool probably has a lower set of necessary standards than its use as a community engagement tool, where the focus is going to be on multi-way conversations, rather than generally one-way information broadcasting. The difference probably isn’t stark, though.

    And of course, local authorities probably won’t be able to insist on a quid pro quo. They are bound to be dealing with public who prefer to remain at least superficially anonymous on some issues. But that’s cool, IMO, if it is helping an enquirer, commentator or customer iin the community to use their anonymity to help them open up about an issue in a way that using their own name might inhibit.

  3. And my apologies for the typos in my previous piece. It was types with a sandwich in one hand.

  4. Entirely related to context. People have a need to keep some networks separate. i.e. when I was a new mom – anonymous networks were really important. I didn’t want to be held accountable in my personal, credited networks for the stuff I said about my husband (not as supportive as I expected), my mom (why did she say that??), my mother-in-law (least said the better), my doctor (quack), how I was feeling about my new role (would my son find it later?) – and so on. So I needed the support of an anonymous network. Couldn’t exactly share that kind of stuff on Facebook without major fallout. Probably shouldn’t have shared it here.

    I think there are forums where people turn into dickwads – e.g. online comments on newspapers. And support forums where anonymity is vital.

    Councils need to think about these different needs when engaging with people online, too. Don’t expect people to share with their Facebook friends how they’ve used parenting support services or accessed benefits (some might, I sure wouldn’t). But they might share that kind of info in an anonymous forum without turning into dickwads.

  5. Enjoyed this post Dave. I have read *lots* about anonymity and online communities recently. Some research studies I came across have shown that anonymity can increase participants’ association with ‘group norms’ in online communities. Thereby strengthening online communities, as per Steph’s comment. My own research in a deprived area found that anonymity was preferred when discussing local issues, because participants feared ‘come back’, or retaliatory attacks. E.g. when discussing anti-social behaviour.

    I totally agree that from a government/Council perspective accountability and identity are very important. I know that @cusiousc is exploring all of this in greater levels of detail than most of us ever will!

  6. Lovely post Dave – thank you

    And also agree with Steph and Michelle in that anonymity can strengthen group bonds – but also push them to more polarised views.

    The main thing for me is that though anonymity clearly lowers the barrier to entry – and may mean that more stuff gets posted – I am not sure if I want the barrier to entry that low when it comes to reasoned debate. I don’t think that means you have to make identity transparent – ie you should use screenames if people prefer – but there should be the knowledge that someone can work out who is posting.

    I think this is even more important if you look at creating relationships between citizen/government – is it really reasonable to expect the state to have a dialogue about important issues without having any certainty as to how many individuals they are dealing with – let alone if they are citizens with rights within the decision making process.

    I am also increasingly uncomfortable with the engagement / democracy divide – but am in the process of getting my head together on this and will post when I have!


  7. Hey Dave

    Nice post and nice open conversational style, which (as has been said) clearly reflects your confidence in this context.

    I’m doing some work about social media with the NHS and the post reminded me that they need to solve lots of different problems if they are to achieve the engagement they seek. In particular it’s going to be a training and HR issue as much as it’s about policy and comms.

    They can set rules about behaviour on the spaces with an NHS badge, which means they need to create policies about how people are expected to behave and how to manage/moderate the discussions. This will be someone’s job who will need some specific training to help make this work.

    On the other hand they will also need to think about how to train and support the work of people going out into other spaces to try to engage with, for example, users of mental health or drug and alcohol services. Online forums for mental health service users can be highly active so it’s probably a better strategy to start engagement there rather than persuade people to join NHS forums.

    This is a traditional outreach worker’s role so is probably about making sure that safe and sensible use of social media is part of the training they receive.

    In either case the discussion is less about whether the NHS should ‘allow’ anonymous postings, and more about how it gets to grips with the specifics of social media in the many activities it undertakes. Clearly in this context social media is not a question to be answered by the comms team on its own but will probably have a equal impact on human resources and staff development policies and practise.

    Given your work in public sector e-learning I wonder whether there are learning resources being developed that address these needs?


  8. Forcing people to use facebook and have comments linked to their real name as the only option is repressive. Only people who have enough privilidge to speak out when they have negative comments about something will. It is about who has power and who doesn’t. With only facebook comments the power stays on the side of the powerful. There are things that people legitimately give voice to without facing reprisal. There are plenty of other ways and systems to manage trolls and abusive comments.

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