Anonymity in online communities

people and relationships, technology

What role should identity privacy play in online communities?

In some Internet message forums, participants are expected or even required to use their full names on their posts. However, there are likely far more boards online in which privacy is more highly prized, and often for understandable reasons (sensitive issues discussed, and so on).

Here are benefits and disadvantages of name disclosure as I see it:

Benefits of name disclosure:
1) Accountability: When someone’s name is attached to every post, there’s a heightened sense that what one says will truly affect how others perceive him or her.
2) Civility: People are less apt to engage in destructive or libelous antics when their name is on the line.
3) Familiarity: For online communities with an offline component (e.g., a local hobbyist group), being able to match online and offline personas is often gratifying and reassuring… and a good way for introverts to get to know people without having to make that initial meeting in person.

Disadvantages of name disclosure:
1) Lack of frankness: People are certainly less likely to be frank and direct in some contexts when they fear embarrassment or reprisals. This can stifle or even prevent the occurence of some valuable discussions.
2) Negative pre-judging: Due to stereotyping and preconceived notions of people and groups, the postings of some may be filtered inappropriately in some peoples’ minds because of the poster’s looks, gender, age, etc. With pseudo-anonymity online, all that counts is your words — and sometimes that’s a good thing.
3) Privacy implications: Knowing someone’s full name, unscrupulous or jerky people can sometimes “connect the dots,” leading to offline harrassment and intimidation.

Have you participated in both types of online communities (ones that do and do not expect people to use their full names)? And regardless of your experience in this area, what are your preferences, philosophical viewpoints, and observations on the issue of privacy and anonymity online?

1 comment… add one
  • Rob Jul 24, 2006

    I’m researching the implementation of an online community for a company offering to its customers.  Right now we’re debating if anonymity should be allowed…

    Here’s one article that argues against…do you know of any that argue for anonymity, or at least using a username that does not necessarily let others know one’s true identity?

What do you think?