Online anonymity and the noisy voices

We’ve were having a debate amongst ourselves a few weeks ago about anonymity in online community forums.

We take a fairly standard approach to the issue with our public forums. Anyone can sign up and leave a comment under a psuedonym of their choosing as long as they have a valid email address. They can choose to remain anonymous or they can use their real name as their “username”. Whether a person chooses to use their real name or not has no effect on the value of the contribution. For me it is a very much about the “text” – is the idea/position/issue supported by a strong logic – rather than being influenced by the authority of the author (age, organisation, gender etc.). But there are other models; some forums don’t ask people to sign up at all in order to leave a comment, others require evidence of authorship and for users to be willing to reveal their identity and own their comments.

The debate lead to an online dialogue in our private forum that I thought worth replicating here for broader consideration. As you will see, the dialogue took an interesting pathway from a consideration of anonymity generally to a more specific (and more interesting) discussion about the merits or otherwise of anonymity as a tool to overcome “noisy voices”.

An abiding reason for anonymity is that it is very difficult to verify identities on the web without demanding credit card details which excludes too many people. A benefit is anonymity protects users from bullying and [encourages] some.. “leveling”…(Matt)

Isn’t anonymity a bit relative when we are talking about web interactions? I think it is more of a case of what the user decides to reveal that provides clues to identity, gender, opinions etc. To a certain extent, anonymity is at the discretion of the user themselves and their comments rather than at a public meeting where people will make judgements on others based on their looks, mannerisms etc.Its true that the web is a real leveler in that your physique, tone of voice and other attributes that may intimidate others are not present. Also in an anonymous situation social status is removed leaving people to be judged on the quality of their contributions alone. These are definite advantages in opening the discussion up.(Aleisha)

Have to say that there are definitely advantages to neutralising those powerful voices – and yet I can also see that there is something about the anonymity that de-personalises the engagement. Is the dialogue so neutralised that people do not connect sufficiently? (Max)

I sometimes wonder when reading some on line posts as to whether the loud and particularly the forceful voices are neutralised- the language and persistance often comes across similar to a face to face encounter, and may have similar impact on others in closing down comments from the quieter voices. True that it is easier to ignore them on line- or is it??? (John)

I think it is possible that the loud voices are just as prevalent online, but they seem to be more controlled and self managed than in a live environment… While flame wars etc do happen, the rules or ‘netiquette’ is usually enforced… (Aliesha)

I am interested in this idea of neutralising loud people. First, people get loud because they have been silenced for so long they feel that have to shout to be heard – if we truly listen to them then the experience of being valued has huge consequences for how they engage. Secondly, loud people can are often loud because they care – and its not always about hubris – they can be catalytic and drivers of controversy and action – the moderator should not neutralise them in my view but establish them as leaders, then support them to distribute their leadership to others… that way you avoid increasing social fragmentation by alienating significant stakeholders. (Susie)

Great point… I think the idea of neutralising can sound like another form of social control. It is about how we channel energy and make processes more inclusive. There are many out there, and me included, who have seen people silenced from those who claim to speak on behalf of many. The challenge I believe is how to ensure that those who are very passionate, and who have felt silenced in the past, do not repeat the dynamic of attempting to drown out others. (Max)

There’s a lot to talk about in these few short paragraphs. But I think I’ll leave them to stand in their own right. Back soon to

Photo Credits: Howard Lake

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