Don’t make anonymous online posts, you drunks!

Do you ever get frustrated when you come across a posting that you passionately agree, or disagree, with and want to find out more about the poster, but you can’t? The problem doesn’t lie with your research skills, it lies with the fact that the post was made anonymously. Now, because that person used a pseudonym, and didn’t enter any additional information, it is almost impossible to find out more about that user to establish credibility, connect with them socially, or follow-up on other related topics.

I can just picture this “anonymous” person sitting behind the keyboard thinking “I don’t want the whole world to know my name” or “why would I ever want to add a ‘profile picture'” or “I’m not telling you who I am: what if my boss see this?” But this person goes ahead and shares his/her opinion thinking that “the world NEEDS to hear my opinion!”

If you don’t tie your individual comments back to your own personality, it’s very difficult to establish credibility on the subject you are commenting about. Without credibility, comments and subsequent replies have the tendency to turn into a virtual bar-room shouting match rather than a productive conversation between opinion leaders, experts, industry, educators, students (I use the term students to include anybody wanting to learn more about a topic), etc.

In my view, anonymous posts not only provide the ideal conditions for people to aggressively (offensively) broadcast their opinion and pick fights, but also they effectively stifle the conversation by polluting it with a lot of words with little substance.

A lot of academic research was conducted around the turn of the millennium (1997-2003) on anonymous postings on the internet. Most of the research suggested that this anonymity is a good thing and should be protected – after all it was the “natural state of the internet”, they thought. But this was over a decade ago, and things have changed.

The biggest change is the introduction of social networks. Many of these networks require users to provide a real name to participate (Google+) or to get the best value out of the service (Facebook). Now, the “natural state of the internet” is a place where many of our accounts are linked, creating a consistent online footprint that aggregates and tracks much of the content we have generated or interacted with. If I am intrigued by a comment you make, I can usually follow a series of links and get a general understanding of who you are, which helps contextualize your comments and posts.

Another significant change is that “online worlds” and “offline worlds” are now so interconnected that they can be considered one, and not two separate places. Instead of splitting our personalities into several different performances based on work, home, family, friends, online, and offline, we are recognizing that who we are in one element of our lives should be reflected in others.

Current research paints a very different picture from the research conducted just a decade ago. In a recent study from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, researchers concluded that the thrill people get when making anonymous online postings can lead to impaired judgement similar to that experienced by those who get a kick out of abusing their power or are intoxicated by alcohol. This mask of anonymity lowers the users’ inhibitions, ulitmatly encouraging them to pay less attention to social norms, and act more impulsively.

Here’s a brief overview from the Kellogg School of Management’s news release:

“When people lose their inhibitions — from being drunk, powerful, or acting anonymously — there can be significant behavioral consequences. In effect, disinhibition can both reveal and shape the person, as contradictory as that may sound…[this] disinhibition can lead to behavior more consistent with one’s true underlying motives or dispositions…”

These researchers stop short of saying that we should eliminate anonymous postings, but that is exactly what I’m suggesting. Let’s get rid of the option to post anonymously and ensure that all content is properly attributed to the content creator. We would then be able to view all comments, discussions, blogs, and posts in a context related to the users’ experiences, employment, education, post history, and so on. Reducing, or eliminating, these “impaired” comments would enhance our online experience.

If you have an opinion you feel strongly about, why not have it attributed to you? What are you worried about? Let’s take responsibility and stand behind what we say online and offline – If you’re not willing to share your name, don’t bother sharing your opinion.

Now the question is over to you.…Should we work towards eliminating anonymous postings? Or is it something that should be preserved as it is vital to your internet experience?

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8 Comments to “Don’t make anonymous online posts, you drunks!”

  1. Phil here. I’m just waiting for someone to leave a comment as a guest with an obvious fake name for irony’s sake!

    In all seriousness though, well done! I agree, having that transparency so people are accountable for what they say is very important and can help foster better online discussions that don’t degrade into screaming matches or Godwin’s law. Put a face to a name and a name to a comment and people might think before they speak.

    HOWEVER, in certain professions (say…journalism) you aren’t always allowed to express your thoughts, even if they’re not incredibly outlandish, because they might reflect back on your employer. Even working one retail job, they had us sign an online code of conduct governing our hours not spent at work to make sure our views and their company image were kept 100% separate. You may say “Well then don’t identify yourself as an employee of Company X” but if I give my name, and someone recognizes it (or me) and says “Hey you work for Company X! Are you allowed to say that?” then suddenly the gag order comes out.

    You can argue that’s why such instructions are in place, but ultimately it boils down to this: if I don’t give a fake name, or no name at all, I can’t share whatever content I want to. Would you then argue I should simply not share whatever the content might be if those are my choices?

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  2. For me, being anonymous has its time and place. There are places on the internet where being an anonymous user has its value (i.e. 4chan), and I would never want to strip the internet of such a place. However, on most sites where people go to have a serious, legitimate conversation, people like to feel as though they know the person on the other end has some sort of credibility. IMHO, I think anonymous postings on things like blogs, newspapers, etc. such should go by the wayside. Even if people don’t want to be “known” they can login with things like blog and twitter accounts (which don’t require you to have a real name) and share their opinions. At least this way, people have a way to see for themselves if you have a credible argument. Otherwise, you end up with “arguments” like the ones posted in the comment sections of Yahoo! News articles.

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  3. I teach myself and my kids to “manage your bits and bytes!” “Manage your digital profile,” I doggedly retort. “It’s important, it will follow you all your life. When you’re 80 and you read your bytes from 2011, you better stand by that dispatch and/or reply-post your ‘wisdom updates’ proudly.” Writing anonymously is nothing more than byte bile. Anonymous posters are like the lurker yelling “fight!” when a schoolyard scrum breaks out. Invisible blather is always vapid & inane, with the Dark Side its only rudder. // Worse: …”so said an anonymous source at the…” reporting. Leaks only friend is a retraction…

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  4. I don’t have a problem with anonymous comments. It’s the content of the comment that counts, not necessarily the person making the comment. You don’t have to be an “expert” to have a credible argument for or against something. I’m more worried about the people who think they know more, and everyone else is stupid, or today’s political climate. Just look at all the twitter profiles, where everyone claims to be an expert. And anyway, comments are just comments and have a short shelf life, and is anyone’s philosophy going to be changed if you don’t agree with anyone’s comment? I’m all for keeping people anonymous if that’s where they want to be. It doesn’t change the conversation, it may even make more fun

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  5. Admittedly, my predecessors kind of made all my points very well. This is a beautifully written and insightful article, I am jealous. I am new to but so am really impressed with your blog and subject matter, thank you for your efforts. I for one appreciate them and I am sure to find them useful as a student of social media. Having been banned from commenting for life on my local paper and The Guardian.uk.co sites (I could set up an anonymous and/or fake login but I don’t roll that way), I can appreciate the need and advocate for freedom of speech. As pointed out in the comments above, sometimes one has a legitimate need for anonymity in order to express their opinions or even transgressions that should be addressed (i.e., your best friends other half is cheating on them and they need to know, this is always best pointed out anonymously, trust me) without fear of retribution, it sometimes keeps free societies free, historically. I do, as others here agree with you, 99% that a face and trackback adds credibility, to your thoughts, opinions and context online and off. My research is showing validity of your point and more and more sites are requiring ID verification to comment but I fear as more people seclude themselves to groups that do not allow differing opinions from their own could have disastrous results as is usually the case. Open and honest is good public policy. These are all very good points and I am sure will be a growing topic of discussion on and offline including the courts. Very, good piece indeed. Parental guidance advisory warning: regarding my trackback. Closed minded and young people advised not to go there.

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  6. Thanks for all the comments – A lot of good points here!

    I do agree that anonymity has its place in specific cases, as well outlined in the comments above. I think it would be a success if we can establish anonymity as an exception to the rule, and not the rule itself. In my world, the default state of the internet would be a place where you disclose who you are, BUT in certain cases (human rights, etc) anonymity is used when absolutely essential.

    Thanks again, and keep the comments coming!

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  7. Hey I just started reading your blog and I love your Communications approach to Social Media!

    Anyways, I personally make myself anonymous online to a certain extent. I do include my name, but no photos or background information. But I do agree that it’s important to include these things to show credibility. They also make a blog feel more personal since you’re reading something by a real person, not an unknown figure behind a logo. In fact, that’s partly why I came onto your blog in the first place. You had images of yourself and showed engagement with your twitter followers. So it’s definitely beneficial to post with an identity.

    While I believe it’s better to post with an identity to show credibility, that leaves no room for people who have no credibility. I’m mostly anonymous online because of my age. I know a lot of people wouldn’t take me seriously if they saw how young I looked or knew my age. I’m still in my Undergrad and I don’t really have any visible credibility. With my anonymity, I’d like to build credibility first then show an identity with the credibility in place.

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  8. You’r precisely right with this piece…

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