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The case for anonymity in online forums

The debate about the impact of anonymity in online forums particularly with regard to public sphere issues remains unresolved.

After speaking at NSW Sphere the other week I checked the tweets made during my talk and found that a key point of disagreement was my suggestion that public forums should be anonymous.

On Bang the Table all our users have the option to be anonymous. At the outset there was some debate about this. There seemed to us to be a lot of merit in the argument that an individual should be willing to own their opinion rather than hiding behind an anonymous label. However, with time and experience (we have now run over 100 public forums) we have come to believe that anonymity in a public forum is important for a number of reasons:

  1. Anonymity removes a major barrier to entry for most people. How do we know this? Because the proof is in the pudding… over 95% of our forum users choose a username that protects their anonymity.
  2. Anonymity breaks down power relationships between interlocutors. We have observed conversations between 50 year olds and 13 year olds that would never take place in a face to face environment.
  3. Anonymity allows an individual to express an opinion without the fear of intimidation. Cyber bullying is a serious issue but is a personal matter. Anonymity greatly reduces the ability of anyone to bully or humiliate anyone else within a forum.
  4. Anonymity allows an individual to express an opinion that may be contrary to that of their employer.
  5. Anonymity allows an individual to express an opinion that their position may not otherwise permit.

Many of the arguments I have heard for identifying participants in a forum or other online participation event revolve around the issue of personal responsibility reducing poor behaviour. In the 100 or so forums we have moderated I have seen little evidence of this. The truth is that most people behave well no matter how they are identified. As moderators we can take care of the few who don’t.

The other key issue is that we have no way of showing that people are who they claim to be unless we demand credit card details. That would seriously limit participation.

I had been meaning to do some research and to provide a more reasoned explanation of this position but have thankfully been saved from this by finding someone else had done the job for me. This was posted to a GovLoop forum by Lucas Cioffi, the CEO of AthenaBridge Inc a provider of online participation services in the US.

Anonymous comments are necessary and should not be discouraged.

Here are some reasons why:

  1. There’s no enforceable solution that would work on a national level which can ensure that someone’s user name is the same as their legal name.
  2. The dialogue would instantly be less inclusive because people are not used to using their real name online in discussion forums– this immediately raises a red flag and rumors start flying (refer to panic about White House collecting email addresses)
  3. Our country has a rich history of brilliant political authors writing with pseudonyms– those people had strong reasons for doing so and those reasons are just as important today.
  4. Allowing pseudonyms decreases the risk of cognitive biases such as the “yes-man syndrome” where people agree with leaders even though the leader’s ideas are not strong.
  5. Some people won’t participate because they cannot contradict the position of their employer. This limits out expert opinion.
  6. Merely suggesting that users should use their real names will automatically place pseudonyms in second-class status and will engender the harms listed above.
  7. A persistent reputation system that rewards good ideas and punishes misbehavior can solve for all the advantages of using real names, such as developing person-to-person relationships and discouraging abusive speech.
  8. Strong, fair, transparent moderation systems should be our focus because they are absolutely necessary and can solve for abusive speech.
  9. An idea should stand on its own merit; if it depends on the credentials of the author to be credible it needs more work. Building a community online that does not rely on credentials gets us much closer to a true meritocracy of ideas. Giving equal status to pseudonyms puts the focus on the idea rather than the author– this can stimulate a more honest discussion.
  10. Features which develop and sustain a sense of community (such as group features and person-to-person messaging) should be our focus rather than this issue anonymity because such features will build resiliency and community norms which, in turn, are essential for fair moderation.
  11. Requiring real names will have no effect on some people who are going to use a pseudonym anyway. Having them break the rules the first minute they sign up can start them off in a negative mindset accentuate their negative behavior.
  12. While we can hope for the best, we have to work in the world that we live in. If an American has a name like Hussein (or many others) they will be discriminated against whether we like it or not.
  13. When people exercise the freedom of the press or the freedom to assemble, they can do so anonymously. Requiring real names limits free speech.

So there you have it. I hope some of the folks from NSW Sphere will chime in here so we can debate this issue in detail. I know some sites like the Vic Parks We Plan blog allow users to be identified. This tends to work well for limited communities, though I still wonder if this might be off putting to less confident or qualified contributors.

Photo Credits: dollen

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  1. Anonymous says:

    This is an important topic and I agree pretty much with your views. I think the context of the engagement is a large consideration. We ran an anonymous chat session with the CE at work – the discussion topic related to the results from the staff survey, responses to which were also anonymous. It worked in part because staff felt they could say things without fear of retribution from managers etc. On the flipside it was difficult for the CE to respond and take action on specific issues raised because people were not identifying where they worked. This was countered by posted being encouraged to email the CE separately. We also had people using multiple pseudonyms which could get interesting if they start agreeing with themselves to generate momentum for their views!

    These could be issues to consider when planning a public engagement activity. There could also be legislative requirements for people to say who they are and provide addresses etc.

    Fergus (or is it?)

  2. Hi Fergus

    Thanks for that. Your point about legislative requirements is an interesting one. Legislation has not really kept up with the information age and still predicates on written submissions. We tend to advise that a forum should be regarded in the same way as a public meeting for the sake of reporting and that there should be clear signals to the community as to where they need to make a formal submission (we integrate this on site).

    One of the things about legislative requirements is that while they state that submissions must be treated in a certain way they do not (at least in the cases I have seen) prohibit information from other sources being treated equally seriously.

    We try and deal with the issue you raised of multiple sign ins by verification emails and policing IP addresses. Not fool proof I know but then neither is taking submissions or holding meetings. Ultimately the way in which you interpret the data is the real protection. That is why we advocate e-participation not e-democracy.


  3. Pia Waugh says:

    Hi Matt, having participated in many different online communities for almost 10 years, with every possible barrier crossed (gender, age, culture, idealogy, geopolitical, etc), my belief is that pure anonymity isn't useful and is usually where you will find abuse. I think the idea that "anonymity prevents cyberbullying" is a dangerous one, hence my lengthy response below 🙂

    The thing is, you are not talking about pure anonymity. Your first point talks about "95% of our forum users choose a username that protects their anonymity". A person using a regular username is a certain level of anonymity, but it is a persona, a nickname. It may protect their real name but it is a regular presence that can be engaged with, and in worst cases abused. Copping abuse behind a username hurts no less than copping abuse to your real name 🙂

    I know many people by their persona alone (through IRC, Twitter, blogs) and I can have a friendship with them through those personas/nicks because behind the nick is a real person. You can't interact with an anonymous user because there is not persona/nick to interact with.

    A nick does provide some of the benefits you mention. I know of women in the ICT industry who use ambiguous or male nicks (particularly in the gaming community) so not have their gender known or used against them (be it inappropriate comments or whatever). They may use a nick to protect specific elements of themselves, however they are not anonymous as their use of the nick is a persona which creates its own footprint. If someone decides they don't like her for whatever other reason (gaming scores, comments, etc) she can still be bullied with the nick.

    In relation to your point on power relationships, it isn't the use of nicks that breaks down the barriers, it is being online and interacting remotely, and the ability to simply talk to someone else if you aren't given the respect of being an equal participant.

    Basically what I'm saying is a nick provides some benefits (the opportunity to hide some details of the self such as gender, employer, position) however it doesn't however mean you are not open to bullying.

    I think you also need to keep in mind the context of your work. That the forums you work with are a particular cross-section of society and a series of topics less likely to see serious bullying. The audience and topics are more likely why you see little bullying than the use of nicknames, as there are other forums where people using nicks have terrible bullying issues.

    Your work is also reasonably new. The worst in communities I've seen when they are quite established but don't have a goal, a purpose, and turn to bickering and then arguments. All your forums have a specific goal, and though there is a community building around each project, they are quite directed communities as opposed to an interest group or self created group.

    Part 1/2

  4. Pia Waugh says:

    The best way to create a contructive online community, which in itself avoids bullying is to establish a few key elements:

    – Strong leadership – a person or group or people who herd cats, keep things positive and constructive, and set the direction of the project through leadership and consultation.
    – A good tone – the tone of a community can be managed through a good code of conduct or other widely understood 'rules of engagement'. The tone is also influenced by the leadership of the community.
    – Something to do – by having something to achieve people can usually find what they have in common rather than their major differences to achieve something together. Without tangible goals I've seen many communities fall into a cycle of negativity.
    – Empowered users – your project needs to empower users to be active in contributing and potentially directing the outcomes of the project. If your users are disempowered, they will either drift away or become jaded by and hostile towards the project.

    These three things you have and they contribute much more to your positive experience than the use of nicks 🙂

    Part 2/2

  5. Grant says:

    Hi Matt.

    I too was one of the folks questioning the anonymity line. My first response is similar to how Pia opens her comment above – what you're advocating isn't "pure" anonymity – pseudonyms != anonymous.

    The critical thing is that there is some kind of persona attached to a comment that is consistently used, not that a person's full name is used.

    Perhaps in future talks you might choose to distinguish "anonymity", the word you used at Public Sphere, and "pseudo-anonymity", which appears to be what you're advocating. I suspect that you'll get fewer back-channel challenges then 😉

  6. Hi Pia and Grant

    I like this idea of "pseudo anonymity" and Pia's key elements for constructive contact.

    I also think there is a difference between socially based sites where people interact day after day around no particular issue and sites like ours where many users come online to have a say on a particular issue and are not hanging out in the space.

    The impact Pia refers to that cyber bullying might have on a pseudomym that you live in every day may not apply to one used only occasionally. I'd love to see some research on this. I did hear of a study done with school children by Macquarie University but I have been unable to track a copy down.

    Cheers all


  7. […] which are more equal. The power attached to position can often overwhelm the logic of an argument. Divorcing the comment from the commentator removes this power. The interpretation becomes all about the “text” and the merits of the line of […]

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