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    How Do You Balance Anonymity & Accountability?

    by Mark Glaser
    April 3, 2008

    Here’s your question for the week on Idea Lab. Many people think that anonymity is important online for people who are whistle-blowers or would not speak out if they were identified. But the flipside of that is that many people use the protection of anonymity to lob insults and ad hominem attacks at opponents and turn civil conversations into flame wars. What happens if you try to pin down people and make them use real names in forums? Does that bring more civility? That’s certainly the case at Front Porch Forum, where people must use their first and last name, street name and email address with each post on the closed neighborhood email forums. (I wrote about them recently on MediaShift.)

    So what’s your take on forcing accountability in online forums? How far would you go, and what’s your experience in this regard with running forums? When do you think anonymity has its place?

    Tagged: anonymity front porch forum online forums transparency
    • Mark:

      I read your piece on the Frontpage forum including their description of how they came to require full name and address in their email-centric publication.

      I have to admit that their email approach has one major advantage over a site like mine in that email provides a certain degree of anonymity (only the NSA is likely to be routinely peering into the correspondence.)

      I also know that Steven Clift, in his e-democracy efforts, requires full name attribution as well. His site(s) emphasis civic discussion to the exclusion of less serious discussion.

      Your original post frames this issue like this:
      Many people think that anonymity is important online for people who are whistle-blowers or would not speak out if they were identified. But the flipside of that is that many people use the protection of anonymity to lob insults and ad hominem attacks at opponents and turn civil conversations into flame wars.

      I actually see privacy as an important aspect of this issue and possibly a more important consideration than even the participation issues.

      The site I run is open for all to read. It is also regularly spydered by Google … at least the open forums.

      If we were to require full name and address in the forum posting, that data, already cataloged by one or more search service, would end up available to anyone worldwide. The idea that everything someone wrote, whether it was an illness or disability of a child, would become part of the public record.

      I can’t do that to my members/readers.

      A couple more points regarding civility and anonymity.

      First, unless you’re really working at maintaining anonymity by using an anonymizer and/or other tools, your identity can likely be determined. Indeed, any court of competent jurisdiction can obtain log on times/dates/addresses from ISP’s to coincide with the assigned IP address.

      We do require at least a working email for registration which, in at least one context, means the person knows they aren’t truly anonymous.

      The very concept of hyper-local suggests easy recourse to a local courtroom. To that end I’ve written often about how someone could get sued for their postings.

      Early on I established a specific, detailed privacy policy that promises that the site will not disclose a persons identity without good cause and that we reserve the right to fight a subpoena or inquiry by law enforcement.

      That policy also acknowledges that the site refuses to be a party to a crime and we reserve the right to cooperate with or even initiate a criminal investigation of activity if we feel it is justified.

      All that aside, I know for a fact of at least three people (I know who they are) who are well-spoken critics of the local county commission. I know that these individuals would not have spoken out if anonymity were not guaranteed. Further, I know if their identities were the subject of a subpoena, money would appear to fight the subpoena.

      This is a fascinating area of discussion and I wouldn’t presume to cover the entire topic in this reply. Let it suffice to say that there is no right answer.

    • Paul Grabowicz

      How about requiring real names for postings as a general rule, but allowing anonymous submissions that would have to be vetted by the moderators of the forums? Or you could ask for an anonymous poster to explain their need for anonymity. The moderators then could decide if the request seemed legitimate and if the posting advanced the discussion or was just inflammatory.

    • Thanks for mentioning our Front Porch Forum here, Mark. I agree with G Patton Hughes… anonymity is a tough issue. And I lean toward Paul Grabowicz’s suggestion… clear identity should be the norm while allowing anonymity its limited place.

      Compared to conventional soapboxes (letters to the editor, watercooler, public meetings, etc.), the prevalence of anonymity online is a big change for our culture.

      While making a point while staying hidden may occasionally be merited, online anonymity frequently seems to breed antisocial behavior. Like wearing a mask in a crowd… fun to blow off some steam at Mardi Gras or a Halloween bash… but a little bizarre to keep your face covered year-round at work, on campus, around town.

      Of course, the neighborhood forums hosted by Front Porch Forum are private, limited to residents only. So some of the downside mentioned by G Patton is not present. -Michael

      P.S. To all the lovely readers here… please vote for Front Porch Forum. Steve Case’s foundation will provide $35,000 grants to the Final Four vote-getters and FPF is in the hunt. Also, if you correctly pick the Final Four, you have a shot at receiving a $2,500 grant for the charity of your choice.

    • Richard Anderson

      VillageSoup included an anonymous posting section twice in its current 11 year history. We took the section we called Member Boards down both times. Discussions eventually spiraled down to name calling, accusations and profanity.

      We have always had two other sections. Member Comments, are posts by registered users on articles and blogs written by our professional journalists or iMembers. Member Forums, are posts by registered users on any topic they choose.

      The WELL, a 22 year evolution, even without anonymity and with occasional face-to-face gatherings of participants could not prevent personal attacks. Among the reasons they cite that makes The WELL different is

      (1) “The quality and diversity of the dialogue: No wading through endless dreck to find a few morsels of thoughtful, stimulate in discourse. Whether you’re interested in fierce debate, intellectual enrichment, mutual support, just hanging out or professional networking, you’ll simply find more of what you’re looking for at The WELL.”

      (2) “You know who you’re talking with: As a WELL member, you use your real name. This leads to real conversations and relationships. It’s the individual people here who determine the experience and create the community. This highly collaborative work in progress has been rolling since 1985.

      The WELL, as does theSoup, requires payment to post. In the case of The WELL, payment includes subscription to an ad-free Salon. In the case of theSoup, registration includes paper delivery, complete archive access, classified discounts and email alerts. This is the only way we have found to assure authenticity of identity. Do any of you have other ways to do so? We are not interested in the revenue stream. We are only interested in authenticity.

    • Rich Gordon

      I think the decision is more complicated than anonymity vs. real names.

      There are many examples of successful online communities that don’t require real names for posting. But what makes these communities work is that the users come to share a common vision of their purpose and what constitutes acceptable behavior. And even if the sites don’t require real names, they DO require consistent names or handles — so users do get to know one another, and site administrators or moderators are able to deal with people who violate the community’s standards.

      Online news sites run into problems for at least three reasons: (1) their subject matter often revolves around conflict or controversy; (2) the users viewing any particular article have little in common — some may be regular users of the site, others may arrive there for the first time thanks to a link from a blog or search engine; and (3) most news sites aren’t willing to devote the appropriate technology or human resources to managing these conversations.

      The Online Community Cookbook, which I wrote recently for the Newspaper Association of America, describes the ways that newspapers are successfully managing online conversations without requiring real names for every post. One example: you don’t have to open comments on every story. If you know from experience that certain topics (for instance, crime, race, high school sports) frequently generate unpleasant comments, a site can just not allow comments on articles covering those topics.

      Certainly, requiring real names will raise the general level of commentary, but it will also limit the number of people willing to comment. News sites these days need all the traffic they can get — and with a reasonable investment of technology and human oversight, they shouldn’t need to require real names to become a thriving forum for conversation around the news.

    • Dan Schultz

      Whoops — looks like I missed the bulk of this conversation but it is probably worth adding a few thoughts.

      Some questions I would ask are: what exactly is meant by anonymous posting, what exactly is it we want to avoid when we talk about disallowing it, and what exactly is it we want to provide in general.

      The way I see it, anonymity ultimately equates to chaotic honesty. By disallowing anonymous posts you make the service less accessible but you add pressure towards civility. At the same time, though, you might be adding pressure towards overall “individual” dishonesty…

      Not that dishonesty is always bad in a social setting – if individuals in a community are racist, sexist, or whatever else is considered socially unacceptable then maybe it would be best for them to keep those thoughts to themselves or be held socially accountable by matching the thoughts to their identity.

      Personally I see potential value in anonymity, but absolutely see the risks. I’ll put some more time into thinking about it. Spending a post on it once I finish my latest “train of thought” sounds like a worthwhile endeavor…

      Side note: I bet we could learn a lot by looking at the social/humanistic role of masks throughout history since that’s really all anonymity is.

    • Paul Grabowicz

      Here’s a bit of data relevant to our discussion – a survey just released by Associated Press Managing Editors and the Missouri School of Journalism School that indicates the public is less concerned about anonymous postings than newsroom editors:

      “When asked ‘do you think it is a good idea or bad idea that a website does not require names?’ 64% of the editors thought it was a bad idea, and 24% a good idea. Meanwhile, 45% of the public thought it was a good idea, and 40% a bad idea, showing more split on this issue than did the editors.”

      Here’s the link to the survey:

      http://www.apme.com/credibility/online/summary.shtml

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