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Identity Matters: Anonymity and Online Community

Issue № 214

Anonymity and Online Community: Identity Matters

by Published in Community, Usability48 Comments

Many popular websites such as Wikipedia offer little differentiation between the experience and tools available to registered users and to anonymous visitors. Many active users of such websites may, therefore, be virtually unknown to their hosts. As most party hosts knows, it’s usually the people who just “show up” and that you don’t know who can create the biggest headaches. As Wikipedia’s recent scandals demonstrate, this decision poses several site-management headaches. Well-designed membership systems can allow community managers to head off trouble before it hits the national news. This article provides an understanding of why online identity matters and offers six steps to help you build stronger online communities.

Anonymity can wreak havoc in a community

Anonymity is a double-edged sword when it comes to an online community. While anonymity may allow people to feel more free and disinhibited to discuss otherwise embarrassing or stigmatizing topics, it can also be a community’s biggest enemy. Anonymity allows people to hide behind their computers while saying whatever they want with little ramification. Psychologists know that online community is far more disinhibited than face-to-face communications.1, 2, 3 Pair that disinhibition with anonymity and you have a recipe for potential disaster.

Some websites have discovered fairly innovative ways to allow for anonymity, but still filter out the disinhibited negative behaviors that often come with it. Slashdot, an old technology community weblog, has long had a moderation system that allows registered users to vote on the quality of comments in an article. So even if a user chooses to post something anonymously (for whatever reasons), that comment may still be considered of sufficient quality to be read by others.

Pseudonymity—anonymity that hides a person behind an online persona via a username—is common online. Many internet users have a number of different identities they use online, to allow them to explore different aspects of their persona, interests or hobbies. But pseudonymity is also the key to membership systems as well, as it allows members of the community to learn to identify other members they like or dislike based upon their behaviors and personality. Pseudononymous systems strike a balance between people’s needs to obscure their identities online, while still allowing them to build reputations in those usernames. These systems have been shown to work very well for an online community.

People build reputations in their usernames, and so their reputation becomes something they value and want to protect. Members who have an investment in something within your community are far less likely to blow that investment through inappropriate, negative behavior.

Freedom to the masses

Let’s use Wikipedia as our example. Up until very recently, they were an almost completely open, registration-free system. There’s no formal system of checks or balances built-in that ensures the information is factual, much less not libelous or fictitious. That is its biggest strength and one of its biggest weaknesses. It relies on the sheer numbers of others visiting the site to act as fact-checkers and editors. It is generally believed that Wikipedia offers a semblance of credible, reliable information that compares with similar types of information sources.4, 5, 6 But before it implemented its current registration requirements, anybody could—and did—add anything to the site, of any quality, and with no ramification or fear of discovery for antisocial behavior. Because Wikipedia didn’t care who its users were, it had only limited and blunt tools to fix community problems that cropped up (such as completely locking an article to stop anyone else from editing it).

Member versus visitor

When you establish a relationship with members, you’re more likely to get valuable, useful information and responsible behavior from them. They’re invested in the service precisely because they are members. And membership, as American Express has been extolling for decades, has its privileges. If there’s little difference between a website’s “member” and a random visitor to the site (e.g., they can both do a lot of the exact same things), then most users have little incentive to become a member (or “registered user” in web-speak).

Wikipedia’s recent reaction to the revelation that Congressional staffers were editing the heck out of their politician’s bios (and those of their opponents) is also pretty telling. Their only choice was to shut down editing access to whole blocks of IP addresses (IP addresses identify specific computers connected to the Internet at any point in time). Wikipedia, not really knowing who most of its editing users actually are, had very little granularity available to them to control access to their most prized possession—their data. So they had to block everybody in this block of IPs, including innocent users. The users who were acting responsibly and within Wikipedia’s guidelines were also blocked if they happened to be accessing the site from another of those offices in the same building. (The block has since been lifted.)

Membership, old school

Membership systems are pretty well understood in the old-fashioned Web world. Most are three-tiered:

  • Visitor
  • Registered user (or “member”)
  • Administrator or moderator (“privileged user”)

You can have different levels of registered users, paid members, etc., but these three-tiered systems are the most common. A registered user is someone who has done something more than a visitor to confirm their humanity—entered in an email address, clicked on a verification link, something like that.

Membership is a filter

If membership systems were so onerous to complete, nobody would have ever purchased anything from Amazon.com or eBay or become a member of their favorite online community. People happily and willingly engage in such a registration when they readily understand the value given to them for registering—to purchase a product, to be able to post to a forum, etc. Registration doesn’t have to be difficult, and people will readily complete registration forms if properly motivated.

If the benefit or value of registering isn’t obvious, as is the case with Wikipedia, most will choose not to. Without the subtle psychological barrier of registration in order to edit or add new articles, Wikipedia was able to build a large database of articles very quickly. The tradefoff is obvious in hindsight: large quantity, unknown quality. But this model isn’t appropriate and won’t work for everything online.

It’s true that membership systems guarantee you know nothing more about a person than they want you to know—a one-time use email address, a pseudonym, etc. But it’s not the quality of the registration data that is the purpose of registration—it’s the process itself.  By requiring users to take an affirmative action (that requires some minimal effort on their part), it weeds out the casual troublemaker from an interested user. Such registration also conveys perceived value of your site’s membership benefits (even if they are as simple as being able to post to the community or read an article). Registration doesn’t prevent community trouble, but it does present a small but important psychological barrier that turns away many casual would-be agitators.

Six steps to better online community through membership

Having carefully observed dozens of online community models over the past decade, and running a few myself, I’ve distilled a series of ideas that will generally result in stronger communities over time.

  1. Know thy users

    A community that “knows” its members through a registration profile is stronger. It can easily moderate a member’s posts, or communicate to the member (in ways other than e-mail) about issues or concerns. Rather than black or white responses to situations that arise (banning entire blocks of IPs, for instance), communities that “know” their members can offer more granular responses to troubling behavior.

  2. Simple registration is not a burden

    Some sites may choose not to use a registration system because they view the registration as a barrier to the user obtaining immediate gratification from their website. While such sites obtain the short-term benefit of increased activity, they sacrifice knowledge of their users. Many online users have no problem with registering with a site if the benefits of membership are clearly communicated and registration is simple.

    Lack of knowledge of one’s users can complicate community decisions later on, too. For example, Wikipedia employs a number of tools (such as IP blocking, and the Vandal Fighter tool) to deal with “edit wars” that occur between members, sometimes resulting in certain articles needing to be “protected” or locked. These are not elegant solutions and might have been less necessary had a traditional membership system been in place from the beginning.  

  3. Segment your registration system

    Most users will register with a site if they understand the benefits, but only if the registration system itself is simple and straight-forward. Asking a user to fill out a 20-question form versus a 3-question form will significantly reduce user registrations for most sites. Asking a user to fill out the shorter form keeps things to the basics necessary to create a registration record—username, email address, password (and password verification). You can add a CAPTCHA challenge if need be. Anything more complex for an initial registration will get in the way of your users actually using your site.

    Once registered, you can ask or require (if you’re brave) that the user fill out a more complete profile. Generally users will do this if they are visiting the site more than once and want to further establish and broaden their identity to other site users. Requiring such a more complete profile could result in many users not returning to your site. A simple request and a reminder, often in the form of a site private message, is usually sufficient for getting a majority of users to enter in more information about themselves.  

  4. To verify a user’s email address or not?

    Many community registration systems offer the option to require e-mail address validation by sending a link to the email address that must be clicked on to “validate” the email address. While this system works for many sites, it may not be appropriate for every business or community. This process guarantees a valid, working email address for just a short time. If it’s important for you to be able to have a way to contact your users outside of your site’s community setting (for instance, because they’ve paid for a service of yours), you should consider requiring this additional validation step.

    If you implement a verification system, there are a few issues to keep in mind. First, a minority of email addresses will become quickly invalid. Some people use one-time-use email addresses for such registrations. Other email addresses go bad over time because people change email addresses. A validation step also discourages some users from completing their registration. Last, some users won’t complete their registrations because spam filters block the validation email; users who don’t see the validation email often forget they even registered.  

  5. Provide a rating or reputation system

    eBay and Amazon.com understand the value of reputation systems. On eBay, a member’s reputation guides other users to decide whether an auction can be trusted or not. Although easy to manipulate, the reputation system is a foundation of eBay’s growth and popularity. On Amazon.com, the reputation system allows users to judge the value of other people’s reviews. It, too, provides an important tool to users to make value-based purchasing judgments.

    On more traditional communities, ratings and reputation systems can take many forms. The simplest is the number of posts made to the community. The more posts a member makes, the more “senior” they become. Date of registration can also be used as an indicator of a member’s seniority. More complex systems allow members to rate one another, and some systems combine these techniques.

    Most people value their ratings from others and the reputation they build in a community. It’s an investment, just like a 401(k) retirement fund. Once members are invested in a reputation, they are far less likely to abuse it.

    Reputation systems can also be tied directly to a role system, so those with increasingly senior reputations can be given greater access or responsibilities within the community. Those with no or little reputation can be given little or no access to a system or service, providing them an incentive to increase their reputation. (Such a direct tie-in will not work for every site.)  

  6. Keep the communication flowing

    Online communities often get into trouble because they are not clear about the community’s expectations of members, and because they communicate in “marketing speak.” You can set expectations more effectively in a single page of clear community guidelines than in a 12-page terms-of-service agreement. Users need to understand what they can do that will get them into trouble and what kind of action will be taken. Will they get a warning for using a profanity, or a three-day suspension? You can create goodwill just by letting your users know up-front what you expect from them and what they can expect from you.

    Your communications with your community members should be clear, direct, and frequent. If information is power, sharing even simple information can be a very powerful action in a community. For instance,

    We have recently discovered a small hiccup with our forums, but have since resolved the problem

    tells users virtually nothing of value. This would be better phrased as,

    Yesterday, we discovered a programming error that prevented us from storing the names of new users who signed up between 2/12/06 and 2/13/06. We have contacted all affected users to let them know of the issue, and no further action is required. We have since fixed the problem, and apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.

    Just as users have learned to value the power and ease of communicating with one another, they still appreciate regular communication and interaction with a site’s owners, representatives and managers.

Summary

Membership systems are no panacea, and they won’t stop a person who is committed to disrupting your site. But they do offer an important stepping stone to connect a website’s community to a real person, and that person to their actions. Such a registration process also works to limit the disinhibitory effects of online behavior—or at least some of the more negative ones—and creates a subtle but important psychological difference between an anonymous visitor and a known community member. A person who is invested in a community through a membership system is one less likely to abuse the community.

References

  1. “Contemporary media forum: The online disinhibition effect,” Suler, John, International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, Vol 2(2), Apr 2005; pp. 184-188.
  2. “The Online Disinhibition Effect,” Suler, John, CyberPsychology & Behavior, Vol 7(3), Jun 2004; pp. 321-326.
  3. “Causes and implications of disinhibited behavior on the Internet,” Joinson, Adam and Jayne Gackenbach, Psychology and the Internet: Intrapersonal, interpersonal, and transpersonal implications, Academic Press, Inc., 1998. pp. 43-60.
  4. http://www.nature.com/news/2005/051212/full/438900a.html
  5. http://corporate.britannica.com/britannica_nature_response.pdf
  6. “Wikipedia: Encyclopedia or Not?,” O’Leary, Mick., Information Today, Sept 2005, Vol. 22 Issue 8; pp 49-53

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