Anonymity Online: Good or Bad?

Anonymous is Friendly?
Christopher Poole of 4chan.com advocates for anonymity online. According to Mathew Ingram of GigaOm, Poole gave a recent Ted talk where he argued that “anonymity has very real benefits online, and that we would be wise to consider those before we switch to exclusively ‘real name’ policies.” He claims that allowing pseudonyms opens the door for more open discourse and protects the identity of those who may be vulnerable to physical harm.

The benefits of anonymity that Christopher Poole or Mathew Ingram posit are more for the exception rather than the norm. Those benefits just don’t apply to most online communities. I’ll provide a couple reasons why.For one, anonymity for the sake of open discourse is a slippery slope. The flavor of dialogue in these types of communities can easily bend towards meaningless flaming and social impropriety (check out the often salacious commentary on 4chan, Reddit, and Youtube). Two, most online community discussions aren’t about highly sensitive or personal topics where identity protection would be necessary to prevent someone from being stalked or physically harmed.

Most of the time, online communities deal with topics or interests that matter to a real person, as in their offline, real-world social identity. Take professional communities like LinkedIn, for example. It makes sense to share your opinions as your true self. It will help build your personal brand and develop your career.

In these cases, keeping the conversation relevant and socially graceful is paramount. Without some guard rails such as valid identification (in the offline world – your driver’s license; in the online one – your valid email address and a real name), a community conversation can go way off the deep end and get into things that really don’t mean anything when we turn off our computers.

However, in some on-the-fringe cases, online communities can benefit from anonymity in order to protect innocent people who wish to make their voices heard. For example, an online community with anonymous ID’s would protect the identity of political dissidents in  a dictatorship.

The governance of your online community has to land on one side or the other of the anonymity debate. I strongly suggest that you lean towards a real name policy if you want authentic, civil discourse. You may see fewer comments, but it will be worth it in the long run as the conversations will be more authentic and more clearly tied to the real world objectives of your community. I think the only rational for an anonymous community is if you’re trying to protect the true identities of your members from being physically or verbally harmed.

Note that it requires more human bandwidth to enforce a real name policy. But there are tools that allow you to outsource the user authentication/validation process. Janrain and Gigya both offer such solutions.

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