Identity Matters: Anonymity and Online Community
Issue № 214

Anonymity and Online Community: Identity Matters

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.

Article Continues Below

Anonymity can wreak havoc in a community#section1

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#section2

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#section3

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#section4

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#section5

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#section6

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#section7

    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#section8

    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#section9

    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?#section10

    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#section11

    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#section12

    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#section13

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#section14

  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

About the Author

John M. Grohol

John M. Grohol, Psy.D. is an expert in online psychology and behavior, developer, researcher, and author. Kicking around the Internet since 1992, he sits on the editorial boards for the _Journal of Medical Internet Research_ and _CyberPsychology & Behavior_. Dr. Grohol is currently an Associate Director at Washington D.C.-based Revolution Health and maintains his own website at Grohol.com.

48 Reader Comments

  1. This is a very important and broad topic but the author has chosen to narrow it to his own subjective position which is one sided if not even politically biased.
    The anonymity on the internet issue is not just one of managing online communities it is one of freedom of speech and information but here we have someone who only proposes control and hierarchy over the free flow of information and openness of a community and in larger context of society as a whole.

    Why is Mr. Grohol afraid of “antisocial behaviour” and why does he prefer an elitist “American Express” type of club instead of an egalitarian visionary one like Wikipedia?
    Maybe because he never experienced being cast out? Maybe because he always was a member of the club, was renown enough and had an American Express Gold membership?
    I am not convinced that someone writing for the Journal of Medical Internet Research should be treated as an expert in democracy and free expression. Free speech is not a medical problem.
    At least Mr. Grohol admits himself that hierarchy and control can not stop “antisocial behaviour” in that he states “Membership systems are no panacea, and they won’t stop a person who is committed to disrupting your site”.

    So why claim that it is better to curb communication in a community? If Mr. Grohol really is a netizen since 1992, I am since 1997, I wonder why he is not a visionary like people who joined the net back then or rather built the net. Wha does he want to set uo limits and barriers?

    While it is true that members do not want to loose their authority it is clear that curbing anonymous expression will narrow the scope of the available expression.

    I prefer some errors and a broader scope to a medically approved American Express type of free speech.

  2. In reply to the first post, I don’t think Dr. Grohol is saying everyone online _should_ be onymous. But simply, “you _can_ grow a stronger community by making individual members identify their contributions, and here are some ideas how…”
    Rest assured, Dr. Grohol probably is not a member of “the Inner Party”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nineteen_Eighty-Four .

    Funnily enough, I’m about to post with my real name–not something I had intended to do. One assumes when registering to post, that they are choosing a username for use as a pseudonym (I recently read “an excellent article”:http://www.alistapart.com/articles/identitymatters/ on this topic). As this is clearly not the case, I had better spell-check my post.

  3. A virtual community is a group of people communicating or interacting with each other by means of information technologies, typically the Internet, rather than face to face. Virtual communities are also known as online communities or computer-mediated communities (CMC).

  4. I think you miss the point of the article if you think it’s about authority versus no authority, because even Wikipedia has an authority and control structure (despite some claims to the contrary). It’s about knowing your members and your members knowing (and trusting) you. If you choose to go down that road, you’ll find it a much easier route to venture.

  5. An online community can greatly benefit from “official” membership due to the same sense of belonging Tadeusz mentions as lacking all too often in off line interactions. The other side of the coin is the Big Brother effect, but the net lends itself to that with or without the need for registration. Anyone interested should check out “The New Panopticon”:http://theoryandscience.icaap.org/content/vol003.001/brignall.html .

    But I don’t get the impression that this article is calling for that sort of thing. Let’s be honest. As cool as Wikipedia is, wouldn’t it be even more so if contributors _could_ be identified, and rated based on the momentum built up (or failed to build up) over the history of their contributions? The possability of anonymity could be preserved while offering such a system to those who wish to use it. Then of course there’s a whole new can of worms of social engineering that could take place as people start artificially inflating the ratings of those contributors who support their current world view and artificially smearing the ratings of those who post things contrary to their world view. So it’s far from perfect, but I think it *could* be an improvement if properly implemented.

  6. I always liked it when everyone was anonymous and what was said – not how or by who – was the important. I guess it’s best summed up in the old Arabian proverb, “Examine what is said, not him who speaks.”

    But I never took offense from anything but justified criticism – that is, the one I agreed with – always thought the rest just ridiculed the originator. Sure, sometimes you wonder why people are against you, but why care – they’re always going to just be there.

    Dissatisfaction with oneself comes from inside – other people can just make it apparent – justified, or not?

  7. “Anonymity allows people to hide behind their computers while saying whatever they want with little ramification.”

    Just wondering, isn’t it a good thing when people say what they want? Isn’t it the stupid things they want that make it bad? ‘Cause it’s always been quite an enigma to me that people aren’t welcome to say what they think when they aren’t threatened to be bashed or rejected by the establishment. Of course, the poor establishment I’m talking to will disagree – but still – I don’t get it. What do you fear? That people will feel hurt? Well, look at the world you defend – it’s working!

  8. Now I know this community wasn’t designed for me, so I’m not coming back to read your equally stupid replies. Just thought I’d pop in and disrupt the order – or what’s it called? See you..

  9. Great article that mirrors my own experiences with anonymity/registration which governs the way I mold the sites I design now.

    As far as multi-website logins such as SXIP, that has been tried with mixed success. Microsoft’s Passport was useful but I only found myself using them on Microsoft sites rather than binding it to also be used for eBay and such. In my eyes, they are only useful when used with a similar set of sites such as perhaps a common login for the popular web technology blogs/magazines. The DECK sites perhaps?

  10. Useful, thoughtful article. I’ve always thought that:

    (a) posting anonymously is pointless when you can easily sign up for most discussions with any old username, and
    (b) if you can’t stand by your comment you shouldn’t bother making it in the first place.

    martium
    (aka Martin Young)

  11. How convenient. I don’t really remember ALA having a login system before this article and I swear I’ve posted before. But maybe I’m confusing it with another website. 🙂

    Two things that I though while reading this article:

    On usernames, I like using my e-mail address as username because I never forget what my username is. If I come up with a username like Edmundo, even if it’s a uncommon name, it’s usually taken. So then I have to come up with an alternative, but when I come back to the site I can’t rememember my username anymore, so I always try logging in with edmundo.

    On communities, I do agree that you need to encourage users to join in and participate as part of the community. There is a sense of respect and in know that other human beings exists that also post on the web. I never feel like Wikipedia was maintained by people, unless it’s something so obscure that I wonder who contributed to it. I know that there’s a group of people building portals and stuff, yet I have no will to join and collaborate, even though I’m a major fan of the website.

  12. I both agree and disagree with the writeup.

    Normally, I’m very strongly anti-registration, but John makes quite a few great points about streamlining the process.

    On this site, for example, I can fill out every field in a few seconds – I hate email validation, because it multiplies the time it takes me to register, and is simply an annoying, painful process that usually leaves me at the homepage of a site trying to figure out how to navigate back to where I was –

    and I just wanted to make one post! In those instances, I’ll simply leave rather then participate. I’ve abandoned other forum users when I knew exactly how to solve their problem simply because the registration system for the system made me so angry.

    Many registration systems will find some hiccup or something they dislike no matter *how* exactly I type up the information. Then, they force me to rewrite half of it (at least the password and repeat password) before I can ressubmit.

    As for terms of use – I haven’t read one since I was a kid and did silly, stupid things like reading terms of use! Seven minutes times the number of products or services I’ve used would come out to several thousand.

    At any rate, I don’t think most designers reading this will get the correct message: Make a registration process, but no-one wants to sit through crap they don’t need, so make it doable in thirty seconds or less.

  13. Ironically, I just signed up as a member of this site with a nickname, and they’re posting my comment here under my real name. Anyway, I won’t try to make a long comment because I just blogged about this article “here”:http://honours.wordpress.com/2006/04/05/identity-matters/ (please check out “my research blog”:http://honours.wordpress.com on blogging!).

    I agree with Grohol in that online communication, be it under the guise of an alias or not, is that whatever content exists in a community can be trusted (as well as its members).

    The kicker with the Wikipedia snafu was that once it caught on as a reliable source, important people tried to usurp certain pieces of content and render it acceptable to their needs, and in turned applied censorship to an open-source project, thereby abusing everyone else’s privilege to accessing transparent, all-inclusive information. Wikipedia was also at fault because it didn’t establish any prompts for user integrity at the time — a simple request for accountability, such as an e-mail address could have prevented the problem from ballooning — and instead they chose to close off a chunk of IP addresses. Not cool.

    I think we still have a ways to go in ensuring wholesome, viable and sustainable online communities. Eventually, I think, as the Web grows ever more intertwined, and users become more demanding of the technology, who we are IS going to matter, especially when we’re increasingly encountering the exact same identities on Wikipedia, on A List Apart, on MySpace, on Flickr, in Cocomment, World of Warcraft, Sxip, Sxore, etc… You see what I mean?

    For now I believe, honesty is still the best policy and it’s best to give the writer benefit of the doubt.

  14. The less you require from your users, the more likely they are to trust you when you *do* need other information from them. I really like the idea of making the “initial registration” as simple as possible. Let’s take IMDB for example. Recently, they began requiring users to be registered to even read comments on their forum section. On the registration form, they require a valid email address, gender, and country and zip code. What is it that I think of when I see this? Clearly their registration isn’t about community–it’s about marketing. They want to advertise products to me.

    But what if they just required a name, an email address, and a password? No confirmation email, no nothing. What happens? I’m more likely to register and participate in their community making it a stronger community.

    To get more than the simplest of details out of people, you need to provide some value for them. Requesting information so you can sling more ads in their face is hardly incentive.

  15. I believe you will only convince users to sign up to something if you offer things over and above what non-members are given.

    Brian raises a good point about slinging ads at people – is this “fair use” of the captured data as required by the Data Protection laws of your given country (if applicable) or are you using data for purposes other than what it was collected for?

  16. 1. Make the registration process as simple as possible for your given target audience. Far too many companies confuse registration as a place to gain marketing insight into their users. Marketing will hold back registrations at the onset, when marketing makes far more sense to be done later (with proper marketing incentives, such as give-aways).

    2. I despise registrations in order to read information online. Those are almost always purely marketing-driven and have little to do with providing a better user experience for the individual. Newspapers are doing this more often instead of less often (and they wonder why they’re having such a difficult time groking the Internet and staying in business).

    3. Test, test and re-test across multiple platforms and browser (with multiple privacy settings) any registration system you devise, and ensure it gives users all the privacy options they demand in today’s world. I’ve seen some widely used registration systems that still have basic usability snafus in how they handle cookies and logins, making a user login more than once.

  17. Did you know the biggest and most popular internet forum in the world by a wide margin, 2channel (http://www.2ch.net/), has no user accounts, no registration, and posting without a name at all is the preferred method of posting? It’s has its share of trolling and stupidity, yet it remains massively popular throughout all levels of Japanese society, and its internal society is immensely strong, enough that the organized efforts of its users will often be big enough to get into the news?

    This article fails to address any of that, and it also fails to address any of the points raised in here: http://wakaba.c3.cx/shii/shiichan.html – Especially the point that anyone who wants to cause trouble in an online society ca do this as easily with pseudonymity as with anonymity. The people who care about their online identity’s reputation are those people who want to fit in in the first place, and will behave well in either case. Those who want to cause trouble don’t care, and can create as many identities as they need for this.

  18. Also, this cutesy AJAX text preview is making my browser grind to a halt, and making typing nearly impossible.

  19. (Note: I once wrote about this in different view in my blog at http://planetinternet.wordpress.com/2006/03/21/hello-world/. I repost it again in this discussion just for sharing…)

    Identity is an essential aspect of human interaction. Human interaction is expressed in communication that takes place in the exchange of meanings that are shared by people. How then should the existence of an anonymous communicator on the Internet be considered in this era of cyberspace?

    How do we treat information coming from someone we have never met or whose voice we have never heard? Such questions have come under focused discussions following the popularity of Internet use: a top-of-the-line computer; technologically smart human users; and a worldwide network.

    There are millions of people who surf the Internet every day, either to just browse and look for information or to send messages to colleagues in the rest of the world. Individual Internet users often want to keep their own identities anonymous and the features of the Internet help them to do that.

    Why should anonymity in the Internet be accepted?

    The Internet should be seen as more than a computer network and accessories. It should be seen as a real experience that is virtually transformed into cyber space. The Internet is not just a media or tool: its users are real human beings. Anonymity is just one method used for special purposes.

    The shaping of a virtual community, including virtual anonymity, should be encouraged. In terms of cyber law, this sub-community should be accommodated because whether we like it or not, it will continue.

    Accepting the anonymity of an e-mail sender, blogger or chatting attendant is not too much of a problem compared to anonymity situations to come such as the existence of tele-presence. That’s it!

  20. Article? No. A noxious solipsistic barrage of tripe, a self-elevating exercise in mass distraction masquerading as legitimate review.

    “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.”

    Standing there in the living room with a sight full of punk haired agonists. There you be, centric to a miserable community of mutated bottom feeding, wine guzzling, bourgeois dullards Restricted within the nutshells of their imagination and, well, good luck to you.

    But please please, stay out of the freaking way.

  21. bq. I always liked it when everyone was anonymous and what was said — not how or by who — was the important. I guess it’s best summed up in the old Arabian proverb, “Examine what is said, not him who speaks.”?

    I disagree. I read a number of newsgroups, some of which deal with quite technical matters. It makes a significant difference to know whether I am reading the words of someone who works in the industry, or someone who is a Sunday-afternoon hobbyist.

    On other occasions, you see there are people who change their opinions with the weather and give a different answer each week. There are people who hold grudges against other members and will reject _everything_ those members say. There are people who are more literate than the average troll but write utter nonsense all the time.

    It is much easier for members to perceive the _likely_ value of an article / contribution if they know who is behind it. If you were writing an academic paper, you wouldn’t accept any article at face value without first checking its provenance – so why should an online community be any different?

  22. bq. “Anonymity allows people to hide behind their computers while saying whatever they want with little ramification.”?

    bq. Just wondering, isn’t it a good thing when people say what they want? Isn’t it the stupid things they want that make it bad? “˜Cause it’s always been quite an enigma to me that people aren’t welcome to say what they think when they aren’t threatened to be bashed or rejected by the establishment.

    It depends what they are saying. I have seen people and even whole online communities brought to their knees by malicious individuals hiding behind anonymity. I’ve seen others that have descended into slanging matches and flamewars because a small number of people involved are unable to hold a civilised conversation. Some people lose all semblance of social interaction when behind a computer, and say things that they would never dare to say face-to-face.

    That’s where _some_ communities can benefit by losing total anonymity. I’m not saying it’s appropriate for all communities, or that it will solve all the problems. If nothing more, it allows members to filter out contributions from particular individuals.

  23. bq. (a) posting anonymously is pointless when you can easily sign up for most discussions with any old username,

    It comes down to issues of time. There are a couple of fora where I tend not to bother logging in to post comments because (i) I don’t need to, and (ii) I can’t remember the password I used – my usual one wasn’t acceptable to them, and (iii) I tend to read/reply to it during my lunch break and my work computer doesn’t store passwords or cookies from one day to the next.

    bq. (b) if you can’t stand by your comment you shouldn’t bother making it in the first place.

    Exactly.

  24. “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 … This process guarantees a valid, working email address for just a short time”

    I’ve never taken the reason for validating emails to be that you’re checking the user’s identity.

    I’ve always assumed it was so they’re not *_pretneding_* to be someone else.

    By validating your email you’re simply proving you have access to it .. and therefore are unlikly to be someone trying to damage another person’s reputation.

    For example, I know John M Grohol’s email address is: ala (at) grohol (dot) com

    What’s to stop me going on a neo-nazi site, pretending to be him and then denying the holocaust?

    Well, I don’t have access to his email – that’s what.

  25. Old time ‘net user weighing in here (since 1987). I used to post and chat under my own name, until a series of events in the mid nineties convinced me it was not a safe thing to do. I wound up with two separate harrassment/stalking incidents one of which spilled over into real life. Since then I have never used my name on the Internet. There are too many good reasons to remain anonymous or pseudonymous (BEG/browneyedgirl is for me a pretty well established handle by now) for it to go away.

    Email validation sounds to me like a perfectly good compromise, so long as anonymous email accounts remain available.

  26. Having seen people being misrepresented by faked ID’s on NNTP, email verification helps to ensure protection of an internet ID. Added with having had somebody from a forum related to my hobbies attack me in professional forums and then on to my clients for nothing more than a difference of opinion, I couldn’t afford the risk of mixing communities again. My current way of thinking is that anonymity is a requirement as without face to face communication it’s difficult for me to assess a person. As with this e-village the distance from my home and work is only a click away. So I guess it’s true that mail.yahoo.com helps you work rest and play.

    Authority association and ID is a difficult one for me, it’s a bit like consultancy you never know if it’s their skills and opinions or the echoes of somebody else until you put your money on the table. Mixed with the old adage “˜if you take the three world leaders in a particular area, all three will have different opinions on how something works’ and in two years time they will all be wrong and outdated.

    Is it just me or is there a growing trend to have to sign up to an e-community and post a little about yourself before you are granted access to read!? Post: yes, access to extra resources: yes, blindly associate yourself to it: no, no matter how well it was recommended.

  27. Having seen people being misrepresented by faked ID’s on NNTP, email verification helps to ensure protection of an internet ID. Added with having had somebody from a forum related to my hobbies attack me in professional forums and then on to my clients for nothing more than a difference of opinion, I couldn’t afford the risk of mixing communities again. My current way of thinking is that anonymity is a requirement as without face to face communication it’s difficult for me to assess a person. As with this e-village the distance from my home and work is only a click away. So I guess it’s true that mail.yahoo.com helps you work rest and play.

    Authority association and ID is a difficult one for me, it’s a bit like consultancy you never know if it’s their skills and opinions or the echoes of somebody else until you put your money on the table. Mixed with the old adage “˜if you take the three world leaders in a particular area, all three will have different opinions on how something works’ and in two years time they will all be wrong and outdated.

    Is it just me or is there a growing trend to have to sign up to an e-community and post a little about yourself before you are granted access to read!? Post: yes, access to extra resources: yes, associate yourself to it: no, no matter how well it was recommended.

  28. “You can add a CAPTCHA challenge if need be.”

    No, no, _no_. CAPTCHA is not a solution. To suggest that it protects against anonymous trolling is not just inaccurate, but advocates a technology that excludes people with disabilities from participating in communities.

    I’m not going to revisit my issues with CAPTCHA, as they’re already well-documented. But I must say that this is the first ALA article I remember reading that has truly disappointed me overall. Dick Hardt’s Identity 2.0 speech last year covered more territory with more depth and context.

    http://www.identity20.com/media/OSCON2005/

  29. The article has many, many good points but I think he too easily dismisses the barriers and hassle factor of registration especially for older, not as internet savvy users or people who just feel beseiged by spam (and believe registration will lead to spam). I’m all for resistration in most cases but let’s realize it does drive away many casual users who might become community members eventually. Some websites also require a 24 hour waiting period before commenting on a blog, yet another barrier. The password system is cumbersome too on many sites. I could go on about barriers that often seem ill-suited to the site, esp. in a commercial context. Sure, registration is good for a true community but for a one time purchase or blog comment (that might lead to a continuing relationship) the hassles should be balanced against the need for registration.

  30. I’m sure many of you have been apart of web communities and ultimately they hold at their best when people know each other.

    So far anonymity has been a thorn in many of the communities I’ve participated in. Many of these people don’t act like that in real life, because if they did, they’d get seriously hurt. Rather they use the web as a source of expression that they seem to lack in their daily lives.

    I’m all up for less anonymity within communities, but not on the web as a whole – you wouldn’t want to feel you were at actual risk from criminals and others by being there.

  31. It’ funny to watch how the suits are struggling to gain control in an environment that is designed to have the control as distributed as possible.

    Strange how the .com part of internet uses a lot of technologies that are basically not needed in other parts.

    Sad how those technologies create problems unknown before — spam, popups, banners, link spam, e-mail harvesting, rootkits and other malware.

    Weird how everyone around suddenly think that “it’s the way it should be, because everybody does so”.

    Silly that I even registered just to post this message.

  32. Anonymity on the internet can be both a good and bad thing.

    It can be important for users to lurk on forums, and eventually, they will find something that strikes a cord, and they will signup to add their comments.

    However, it also allows too many, lets call them “strange individuals” from portraying to be someone they are not within a forum. Extend this to email – It’s all to easy to sign up for free email accounts and distress and threaten people. If that email account is frozen, just sign up for another within minutes.

    It’s definitely a double edged sword, but I wonder, that within a few years, the malicious communications act (UK) will be used more often.

  33. A minor correction to the article: wikipedia still allows anyone to add anything to any article; it’s only prevented unregistered users from starting entirely new articles.

    As cool as Wikipedia is, wouldn’t it be even more so if contributors could be identified, and rated based on the momentum built up (or failed to build up) over the history of their contributions?

    Identified, maybe. But technological reputation systems sometimes break the existing social reputation systems that exist wherever people do. Wikipedia disputes have to be resolved through pure social interaction — you can’t silently vote someone down. (Anyway, you can always examine anyone’s entire history of wikipedia contributions.)

  34. Disrupt, disrupt, etc.

    Seriously though, what I take from this article isn’t a call or suggestion for regulation and denying anonymity for purposes of tracking and control, but more a desire to prevent annoying little gits disrupting the enjoyment and usage of a community for those with serious intentions.

    It’s annoying to have so many of my favourite forums and places of discussion disrupted by pointless comments and “trolls” – this place included – although I find the mentality of such people to be mildly facinating: who’s more pathetic? Those who spend all their time sitting in chat rooms freely conversing, or those who sign-up and log on purely to insult and disrupt?

    I’ve left many online community sites because these places became overrun by script kiddies and trolls. If these places had some degree of regulation, even as basic as a sign-up form, I believe 90% of the problem would have been avoided – many of the trolls who I’ve encountered leave the second they stop getting any attention, so perhaps they wouldn’t have been determined enough to go through a registration procedure in the first place.

    It is this kind of rubbish wasting bandwidth that these forms of regulation will tackle, not killing anonymity.

    So, I guess what I’m saying is registration, validation, authorisation or whatever you want to call it is more a tool to maintain high qualities of service for the sensible, genuine visitors than it is control or regulate.

    Say what you want how you want provided it’s constructive!

  35. It’s a circular argument. You say you need defense against personal attacks — but when there is no identity to attack, personal attacks are pointless.

    Trolling is very hard — as you don’t have any way to say if you talk with a single person or whole community, and no way to prove that you are the ‘original poster’. You don’t have anything to gain, no way to ‘win’ an argument.

    How those evil users are supposed to stalk you on other forums, if you don’t use the same screen name? You don’t use any screen name at all.

    On the other hand, registration won’t stop trolls who already have nothing else to do than to write on your forum. They usually are somewhat addicted to computer, and often also bored. They will jump trough a lot more hoops than ‘good’ users just to ‘get to troll a little’. And the more hoops, the greater the satisfaction.

    Of course, sometimes you *need* registration because you are dealing with money, or some law-restricted things. But then you need something more than just simple registration — you need some real-world proof of the persons existence.

    But it’s dubious if it really makes a ‘better community’.

  36. “It’s a circular argument. You say you need defense against personal attacks—but when there is no identity to attack, personal attacks are pointless.”

    My point was not so much about personal attacks but about clogging bandwidth and flooding forums in use.

    Many times I’ve been part of rooms or forums that grind to a halt because trolls and other “bored” individuals have waded in, spouted their usual tripe for hours on end (and unfortnately the genuine patrons have responded to it, only adding fuel to the fire) and then sit back as everybody leaves because they simply cannot use the service and do what they came to do. The places I am thinking of had little or no user regulation hence the problem spiralled out of control very quickly. Other places I frequent that have a good level of regulation (sign-up with validation e-mail, moderators, user voting systems, etc.) suffer from little or no pests like these as within moments of trouble starting they’re blocked, ignored, posts pulled, etc. and they get the message fast and bugger off.

    In regards to the personal attacks front however, I wish everybody could be so black and white and seperate their humanity from their anonymity online – just because the rest of the online community cannot see your humanity does not mean the humanity has been removed. Trolls and idiots can still launch personal attacks against the anonymous knowing full well that there is a human being behind it, who at the very least will still get pissed off with the barrage of venom coming their way.

    Yes, anonymity will afford the protection of the venom being restricted to words on a computer screen, but even with such a defence, having your children’s life or wellbeing threatened will still invoke the instinctive responses, and if you spend your entire time online at a certain location feeling like this because some idiot troll makes you feel like this, then why bother going back?

  37. While I found the article quite interesting, and thought provoking, the author does make some mistakes when it comes to Wikipedia. I hope to clarify the actual state and history of Wikipedia below.

    To start with, the claim that Wikipedia offers “little differentiation between the experience and tools available to registered users and to anonymous visitors” is not correct. Wikipedia has a page on this subject: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Why_create_an_account%3F . The differences mentioned there include: “The ability to start new pages. / The ability to edit semi-protected pages (i.e., pages which are totally blocked from editing by unregistered editors). … The ability to upload images. … Your own user page.” (A page where you can provide whatever information you wish about yourself, and keep notes and things to work on.) “The use of your own personal watchlist to which you can add articles that interest you. … The ability to customize the appearance and behavior of the website. … Your IP address will no longer be visible to other users.” There are other benefits I didn’t mention here. This is hardly “little differentiation”.

    Next, there’s the claim that, before the Seigenthaler controversy, Wikipedia was “an almost completely open, registration-free system”. This is simply incorrect. Wikipedia has allowed visitors to register user accounts since it began. See the page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Wikipedia , particularly this quote: “the article UuU, created by the user Eiffel.demon.co.uk on 16 January 2001, at 21:08 UTC. This was on the second day after the start of Wikipedia.” What the author may have meant was that registration was not required in order to edit articles. This also has been true throughout Wikipedia’s history, and remains true to this day. After the Seigenthaler controversy the creation of new pages was restricted to registered users, but the editing of the more than one million existing articles has not and was not restricted.

    The statement that Wikipedia has “no formal system of checks or balances built-in that ensures the information is factual” is true, depending on what you mean by “formal”. While historically the main method of verifying and correcting Wikipedia content was based simply on the principle of “many eyes”, we are working on a number of more formal approaches, ranging from easing and clarifying the process of citing external sources to proposals for stable versions of articles, to the longstanding “Featured article” process which involves a detailed examination of an article by interested Wikipedians.

    The claim that: “before [Wikipedia] 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” is simply wrong, in a number of different ways.
    First of all, as I explained above, Wikipedia does not have any registration requirement – certain abilities are granted to registered users, but the central ability to edit pages was, and remains, open to nearly any visitor.
    Nevertheless, this does not mean that Wikipedia has no methods to discover bad edits, or prevent bad editors from damaging the content; in fact, Wikipedia has a large and well used set of tools to do exactly that. They include the fact that all changes (from registered and unregistered users alike) are recorded in at least three places – in the revision history of the page they edited (available from URLs like: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Example&action=history ) – in the publicly viewable list of all their contributions (identified by user name for registered users, or by IP address for unregistered users) (available from URLs like: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:Contributions/JesseW ) – and finally on the Recent Changes page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:Recentchanges ), a constantly updated list of all the changes made to any page in Wikipedia. Based off of these basic logs, a large number of filtering tools have been developed, which use complex algorithms to identify edits that are likely to have been vandalism (Wikipedia jargon for an obviously bad edit). These include stand-alone programs, IRC bots, and javascript tools that can be installed directly into a registered user’s view of the site.
    Once bad edits have been identified, Wikipedia is not lacking when it comes to methods to handle them, and the people who commit them. The main method for handling vandalism is simply to revert it (Wikipedia jargon for replacing the vandalized page with the previous, un-vandalized version always stored in the pages revision history). There are tools available to make this a one-click process. If vandalism by a registered user or an IP address continues, warnings are given to the person committing the vandalism, by means of their Talk page (a public intra-site method of communication). If they persist after having been warned, they are blocked from further edits to the site for a period of time.

    I’m not sure what the author meant by: “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).” Locking an article (referred as “protection” in Wikipedia jargon) is used not because Wikipedia doesn’t “care who its users were” (whatever that means); it’s used as a cooling off measure for the times when registered, known users get into fights(known as “edit wars” in Wikipedia jargon), and on pages where bad edits would be severely disruptive to the operation of the site (such as the MediaWiki namespace pages that determine the site interface). While they certainly could be better, I hope I’ve demonstrated that the tools available to Wikipedians are not “limited and blunt”.

    The author’s understanding of the Congressional staff editing issue is also not entirely correct. He says that Wikipedia’s “only choice was to shut down editing access to whole blocks of IP addresses”. This is simply wrong. A number of other possibilities were considered, ranging from greater review of the contributions of those addresses or the articles in question, to contacting Congress. The blocks were intended to be temporary, and were mainly a result of the massive media attention rather than any lack of ability on the part of Wikipedia. The statement: “Wikipedia, not really knowing who most of its editing users actually are” is rather amusing, considering that, later in the article, the author makes the point any free online registrations is not too effective as a way to know who people “actually are”, in fact, such registrations tell you “nothing more about a person than they want you to know”. Wikipedia is very aware of the problem of one user creating multiple registered accounts (the Wikipedia jargon term is “sockpuppet”); in fact, IP addresses (which are more visible in the case of unregistered users) provide a better way to identify malcontents than a flood of opaquely named sockpuppets.

    This quote provides a good, if sad pointer for improvement by Wikipedia: “If the benefit or value of registering isn’t obvious, as is the case with Wikipedia”. I’m not sure what more we could do, considering that (for unregistered visitors) every page on Wikipedia contains a link in the upper right corner marked “Sign in/create account”, which leads to a page that states: “Registering a free account takes only a few seconds, and has many benefits.” which is linked to the page “Wikipedia:Why create an account?” I mentioned above. But if the author or any readers have any suggestions about what more we can do to make the benefits of registration more obvious, please post.

    I would really like for the author to expand on this sentence, in regards to IP blocking, the Vandal Fighter tool, and page protection: “These are not elegant solutions and might have been less necessary had a traditional membership system been in place from the beginning.” Maybe I am missing something, but I fail to see how having a “traditional membership system”(which, as I pointed out above, has always been an option) would alleviate the need for these features. I look forward to the author’s explanation of this.

    This seems to have turned into more like a small essay in itself, so thanks for making it all the way through it. I hope I have manage to clear up some of the misunderstandings of Wikipedia, and I look forward to the responses.

  38. Now that this discussion seems to be winding down I wanted to comment on the polarity of much of what has been said relating to this article. While I certainly appreciate the discourse regarding the value of anonymity on the Internet I think some of the participants are making assumptions that aren’t necessarily valid.

    While the author, based on assumptions of my own that are not necessarily valid, does appear to find more value in a non-anonymous community I don’t see this article as a rant against anonymity as a concept. I think most of the ALA contributors and audience can certainly recognize how important anonymity can be to, say, a dissident from China.

    Then again, I’m sure many people have participated in an online discourse that at one time or another was disrupted by someone looking for a fight, looking for attention, or who just plain wanted to mess with people. And lets not forget those oh-so-enjoyable flame wars that go on and on with two people saying the same thing over and over … good times. What I took away from this article is that you can help decrease these kinds of disruptions by making some kind of connection between an online persona and a real person.

    A decrease in anonymity in an online community or on the Internet in general isn’t something that’s necessary, pertinent, or even a good idea when applied globally. However, if enacting registration is something that a community wants or needs then the author has given some fairly trivial and non-obtrusive means of doing so.

    I look forward to more discussion on anonymity vs. registration in online communities … not to mention more random flames from the anarchists.

  39. I see the points of this article. Most of the points you made are quite logical and made sense to me. However, I was hoping there would be some better evidence and facts included in the article, as it does seem like just someone’s opinion of how the internet should be. Also, I felt the example of the Wikipedia scandal was not very strong. I read the CNN article and really the guy is just a crybaby over one small little detail.

  40. I came across some information on an international conference, They have very interesting panels on identity and a featured panel on Barak Obama and you can also make a real African Safari”¦
    The Institute of Identity Research (IDmap) announces an international conference
    on Identity Politics on the Internet to be held in Kenya on the 27th to 29th of
    August 2009. The aim of the Conference is to create discourse in the area of
    Identity politics on the Internet and other related topics.
    The Conference will be graced by several leading scholars who have written and
    researched extensively on issues of Identity. We hope that this conference will
    result in solutions and better understanding of the problems facing issues of
    identity in the contemporary context.
    AN INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE
    IDENTITY POLITICS ON THE INTERNET
    August 27-29, 2009
    Organized by Institute of Identity Research (IDmap)
    http://www.idmap-conferences.net
    Will be held in Amboseli Wildlife National Park, Kenya
    Featured panel: Barack Obama’ Election and Kenyan politics of Identity:
    Will he identify himself with the World or with his People?

    “¢ The Dead line for submission of the Abstracts is 01.05.2009 (200-500 words)
    in Word or PDF formats
    “¢ The Dead line for submission of full-text papers is 01.07.2009
    Preliminary program of the Conference includes the following panels:
    “¢ Kenyan 2007 Presidential elections and the Internet
    “¢ Traditions and Identity in Kenyan politics: Barak Obama as a Luo
    representative of Kenyan identity politics
    “¢ Facebook and Identity: do old ethnicity definitions still matter?
    “¢ World Identity politics: Case-studies and Comparative Analysis
    “¢ Parties and recruitment in the digital world
    “¢ Gender, ethnicity and empowerment: what is better to be a white man or a
    black woman?
    “¢ When religion comes to the Internet: the new ways to build and reinforce
    religious identity
    “¢ Government on the Internet: new ways to preserve Nation-state and its
    identity on the Net
    “¢ New English and E-Linguistic: jargon and vocabulary of Internet campaigns
    Participants are welcomed to join the following working groups:
    “¢ Computers and identity
    “¢ Culture and identity
    “¢ Mathematical expressions of identity
    “¢ Internet and Politics
    “¢ Internet Vocabulary
    Best Identity MA/PhD Thesis work award:
    During the conference the Institute will award the best MA/PhD work submitted
    for the evaluation. The work should reveal an original and innovative approach
    in the field of Identity with its expression on the Internet. Information
    regarding submission procedure can be found on our site or through direct
    contact of our Administrators.

    http://www.idmap.net

  41. Does anyone have any citations they can offer in terms of what percentage of people actually register to join an online community or social network? What percentage register on a publisher’s site online to access additional features and functions? Looking for research on the topic. Thanks in advance!

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