Anonymity is Dying in Online Communities – But is that Right?

social media privacy image

Which one of you said the bad word?

Do you have to be yourself in online social, and online, communities?  Anonymity is dying.  Long live anonymity.  The Huffington Post recently announced that users wouldn’t be able to post anonymously starting in September.  The problem of internet trolls is well known.  Behind the veil of anonymity people say some hurtful things.  CollegeHumor even famously lampooned this in their video “We Didn’t Start the Flame War.”

So, believing that anonymity is the seed of trolling, many sites, and now most recently the Huffington Post has moved away.  Even Randi Zuckerberg, Facebook’s Marketing Director, has stated that “people behave a lot better when they have their real names down.”  Our first reaction is that makes so much sense it must be true.  Of course people behind masks do things that people in full face wouldn’t do.

Social anonymity is not the problem

I actually don’t feel that anonymity is really the issues.  At least identity anonymity.  Identity anonymity is only one aspect of your online presence.  Just because you have your name on it doesn’t mean you will be civil in your comments.  My feeling is that total anonymity does present a problem.  That is because you don’t know the context of the original post, or even the reply.  Add to that the lack of body language, vocal cues, and the like (additional context) and the person receiving the message receives it out of context.

Let’s use a quick example from your real life.  You ask someone’s opinion on something and they say “that’s interesting,” or “that’s fine.”  It may really be interesting.  What you hear in your head may very well be different from what they are saying.  You react to your impression of that person’s comment, not to what they were really saying.  Context.

Does Real Identity Solve The Problem?

There has recently been some good research on this question and the answer will surprise you.  Last year, TechCrunch wrote a really good piece pulling the veil back.  In South Korea, for instance, they mandated that communities with 100,000 viewers or more must require real name commenting in 2007.  This was scrapped in 2011 when studies by the Korean Communications Commission showed it didn’t work.  Prior to the law, malicious comments made up 13.9% of all messages.  The law only instigated a 0.9% drop.  They also cited cross-border jurisdictional problems as well, since the law only applied to Korean sites, not international websites.

Further research was done by Carnegie Mellon’s Daegon Cho and Alessandro Acquisti.  These were published in the Proceedings of the 45th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, and is available here.  What they found was that the real-name rules kept the honest people honest, but didn’t deter the heavy users.  They saw an increase in civility for light posters (1-2 comments) but no increase at all for heavy users.

Ferenstein, of TechCrunch, pointed out that this is hardly surprising given other psychological research.  So if being watched doesn’t helped, and being identified doesn’t help, where does that leave a site operator.

Managing the Problem

This is just one of those risks you need to manage.  You can’t control it.  Any attempt to control it will result in unintended consequences.  They say if you have a bunch of sand in your hand and you squeeze real tight it will all squirt out.  Once you open your hand, see all the sand that you can carry.  What is the social media serenity prayer?

In Social Media, I manage the things I can, and I should marvel at the things I can not.

Management requires resources.  Your commenters should have a clear expectation of what kind of conduct you are trying to foster.  They should also have a clear understanding of what you consider in and out of bounds.  Moderation guidelines, folks.  If you don’t have them, you need them.

The biggest resource is people.  Either full-time staff, or deputized moderators.  If I was cynical, I would say that this move to real name comments at the Huffington Post is a cost cutting measure.  By decreasing the trolling content, they can reduce their moderating staff and save money.  Cynical, yes.  Possible, absolutely.

Context is Important in Commenting

I am going to touch on this briefly, but I want to revisit this notion that lack of context promotes trolling.  If I know the context of the comment, there is a greater chance that I can respond more in context myself.  A flame war in an online community is a form of the telephone game.  It promotes less and less context over time.  In my mind, perhaps context helps with that.  Though perhaps I am just too Pollyanna.

Vibrant Positive Communities are Hard

You can’t just wave your wand and make everything in your community perfect.  Turning off anonymous comments is just a tool, and it will not be the answer for the Huffington Post.  If you really want your community to be vibrant, you need to put in the work.  So when you are doing that ROI on the community, be honest about the people you will need.

Related posts:

7/10 – Don’t Look Like a Mean Bully – Effective Moderation Guidelines

5/13 – Free Labor – Putting Your Users to Work

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