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 online 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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Published Date: 20 September 2009 Last modified on July 12, 2018

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