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anonymity in online community engagement

Anonymity in Online Community Engagement – There’s No Such Thing As A Little Bit Public

Matthew Crozier

Matthew Crozier

Matthew is a founding director and CEO of Bang the Table.

I regularly carry on about the importance of anonymity in online community engagement or participation process. Just imagine my excitement when I came across a wonderful example to illustrate my case.

A user of one of our sites, who shall remain anonymous for the purposes of this blog (naturally), posted a formal submission to one of our clients. The client (also nameless but a Government agency) had invited submissions but at the same time had told the community that submissions would be available on the public record.

The submission made by the client was, shall we say, radical in nature and it was put, along with all other formal submissions, on the website for others to read and comment on. Excellent and transparent practice and people really did come and read them. Over 8000 downloads of submissions were made indicating that this was viewed by the community as a valuable resource.

The problem arose when this individual found that a Google search of her name produced the submission. She was not happy, not happy at all. The agency removed the submission on her request but of course by this time Google had found the submission and cached it so it was (and is) still available. As best we can tell there is now nothing that can be done until Google re crawl the site and remove the listing which may take several months.

The moral of this sorry tale is that the web ensures that public is now very public, there is no middle ground nor anywhere to hide so:

  1. Don’t make a formal submission under your own name that you would not be proud to make in public at least not without expressly stating it is not to be made public
  2. If you are shy or have legitimately held views or opinions that you are not keen to be associated with, for whatever reason, use an anonymous forum to express them (there was one available in this case).

Now some (the Michael Atkinson’s of this world) will shake their heads and argue that we should all be prepared to stand by our views but that is not really how the real world works. For many of us our jobs preclude being publicly on the record being critical of Government or advocating certain policies. Most people working in Government or with Government fit this category and there are lots and lots of us. Others may be reluctant to make a stand that goes against community norms or accepted wisdom, and one can understand why, imagine being the only person in your street supporting a development proposal that others are actively campaigning against.

All these people need anonymity to allow their voices to he heard. Without it they will stay silent because otherwise a simple Google search might find them out.

Photo Credits: Eyesplash

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Published Date: 6 April 2010 Last modified on May 30, 2017
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  1. I find it interesting that you support online community anonymity. I've done some research and written about the subject of anonymity in communities as well, and my conclusion has been that any kind of online anonymity is in the end more or less an illusion for precisely the reason you outlined in the above sad story: someone always knows or can reveal the true identity of the responder.

    When my company has implemented online communities, the question of anonymity often comes up, and we tell our clients it sets a bad precedent to allow anonymity. In general, anonymity or pseudonymity lay the foundation for user abuse and a false sense of security. Even when posting radical and possibly inflammatory ideas, having to post one's own name will lead the user to take more care when crafting their message, and make them consider the impact of their statements in depth instead of simply reacting to something.

  2. Matt Crozier says:

    Hi Courtney – yes I am aware that not everyone agrees on this one. You will see from some of my previous posts that over 95% of our users and contributors choose anonymity – we believe this is a powerful indicator of preference. We also have reason to believe that this allows many more people to join in and to be judged on their words rather than their status in society.

    Certainly in small communities of practice this doesn't necessarily apply but for broad public engagement we believe it to be an important safeguard.

    When we first started we went with anonymous because, frankly, there was no way of verifying who anyone was. When I want to be anonymous on a site where people are not meant to be I simply invent a persona. How do you manage this behaviour? We found it was next to impossible to verify the identity of users without demanding credit card details which is too high a barrier to participation. If identities are not verified you might as well be open about the anonymity of the site.

    Finally, this user abuse you speak of simply doesn't happen much and we deal with any that does occur through active moderation. All the evidence we see is that people value the reputation of their chosen user name highly and behave accordingly.

    I'd love to discuss this further. You can email me at if you want to get in touch.


  3. ReemA says:

    hey Matt, Just so you know, you can use google webmaster tools to request that cached pages be removed. It's happened a lot with my councils with papers etc being published with people's details on them, and they're usually removed within a week.

  4. Matt Crozier says:

    Thanks Reem, I will try that.

  5. Thanks for sharing this wonderful blog.