In Defense of Anonymity

New Years MasksThere’s been a lot of talk lately about anonymous online comments. Most of this discussion has focused on news sites where anonymous comments tend to be, well, less than thoughtful. Accordingly, there are a lot of people calling for the use of real names when people post things online. For news sites, this may be a good move. But for many online communities, anonymous posting works just fine.

On Delphi Forums, the community network I manage, it’s entirely up to the member if he or she wants to use their real name. Most people don’t. In fact, it’s a pretty small minority of people who use their real names.

So why does it work on Delphi Forums, but not other places?

I think it’s because the communities on Delphi are self-policing. The members create and manage the communities. If somebody comes in — anonymous or not — and starts making trouble, the community deals with it. The comments section at the end of an article on a news site isn’t really a community. Sure, people interact and there are regulars that know each other. ┬áBut there is no shared passion, no common interest.

Another factor at work here is the culture of a community, or lack thereof. Comment boards on news sites are too ephemeral to develop such cultures. In “real” online communities, there is a culture that dictates what’s OK to say, and what’s not. For example, in a forum for motorcyclists, a little salty language may be just fine. But in a quilting forum, such language may be seen as offensive and inappropriate. Real names or no, these communities have generally agreed upon standards and the members of the community take issue with those who violate those standards.

Of course, I’d be lying if I said anonymity never causes problems on Delphi Forums. Our team has dealt with countless people who address others with rudeness, cruelty and viciousness that they would never engage in were it not for the cloak of anonymity.

But the problems are outweighed by the benefits.

Allowing people to participate in online communities anonymously lets them engage in conversations that they may be too timid to participate in were their true identities known. On Delphi Forums, we have dozens of support forums for people coping with various medical conditions, mental health challenges and difficult family situations. For these people, there is a comfort level in their special online identities. They can speak freely, without fear that their online conversations will become entangled with their real-life relationships.

I can’t really take issue with those calling for an end to anonymity on news sites. But I do know that there will always be a place for online communities that allow anonymity.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts by adding a comment.

photo credit: Chris Metcalf

3 comments for “In Defense of Anonymity

  1. May 3, 2011 at 6:06 pm

    It has a lot to do about the permanence of the written comment too, in my opinion. The fact that comments (on blogs, on in certain open communities) can be indexed on search engines give an almost eternal life attached to one’s name (or handle or nickname) that may be annoying, because it may not reflect what you would say in ten years time, for instance.

    And of course, whenever you want to share about sensitive topics, whether they be personal issues with children, parents, community, health, ethics, it is a real blessing to be able to do it “openly” with others without having the issue attached to your administrative name.

    Now I don’t mind that one can trace to my name and other personal details, but I don’t want everything I say online be searchable from searching my name!

    So I do not think anonymity should be banned, on the contrary, it should be left as a choice for everyone. I know that I like knowing who I talk to, but I respect those who prefer to be left anonymous – they should only understand that it also affects the perception from the people who read what they say.

    • May 3, 2011 at 10:50 pm

      Good point about the permanence issue. That hadn’t even occurred to me.

  2. May 10, 2011 at 8:50 am

    I see anonymous comment trolling more as a failure of the news sites to create a community rather than a fault of anonymity. You can’t create a community around a story – you need to have a purpose to gather, have clear rules and guidelines for behavior, and to engage your readers personally. If reporters aren’t personally working their comment sections and talking to their readers, they’re missing the mark entirely.

    Anonymity is not the same thing as irresponsibility.

    (known for 12 years as)
    on Delphi Forums

    …. and still able to hold a perfectly civil conversation.

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