See you anon: Reflections on online anonymity

I've never been much of a fan of anonymity. Long-established research in social psychology pointed out that anonymity increases anti-social behavior.

For example, in a 2008 experimental study in Japan, the author reported in their abstract that "Anonymity was operationally defined as consisting of two components, nonidentifiability and nonaccountability. Antisocial behavior was defined as rule-breaking behavior seeking a monetary reward. It was hypothesized that anonymity would increase antisocial behavior among individuals. Undergraduate students (20 men, 50 women) were recruited from two psychology classes and were randomly assigned to four experimental conditions (Anonymous, Nonidentifiable, Nonaccountable, and Nonanonymous) to examine whether they would violate game rules to obtain the monetary reward through anonymity. Only participants in the Anonymous condition violated the rules to obtain the reward."

A 2005 paper by Peter G. Kilner and Christopher M. Hoadley [available free to those with access to the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Digital Library or purchasable for $15 by nonmembers] studied the quality of online commentary; the authors report that "Eliminating anonymity options produced significantly fewer antisocial comments and fewer comments overall, although it did not affect overall peripheral participation as measured by logins and page views."

On the other hand, a research study by Michael McCluskey and Jay Hmielowsky of the Ohio State University published in the restricted-access journal Journalism (Sept. 14, 2011) was entitled "Opinion expression during social conflict: Comparing online reader comments and letters to the editor." The abstract states that for the communications studied, "Analysis of opinion expression about the Jena Six showed more balance in both the range and tone of opinions from online reader comments than reader letters. Online posts more often challenged community institutions than did letters." The authors propose that "Ability to post anonymous comments, the absence of media gatekeepers and a younger audience are potential reasons why online reader comments differed from reader letters."

When I was the WizOp of the NCSA Security Forum on the CompuServe network in the early 1990s, anyone with a CompuServe account could join. There was no requirement for a specific name to be used, but every posting was identified by the unique user identification of the members. The rules I posted made it clear that SysOps (there were 21 sections in the Forum, each with a SysOp) would remove abusive commentary, including personal attacks, and stereotyping as well as off-topic remarks. If a member repeatedly violated our norms, we threw them off the forum. They could always come back by changing their CompuServe ID, but we didn't see any evidence that the same idiots were returning with the same attitudes they'd had before.

Some blogs and discussion groups have changed their commentary policies to exclude anonymous or pseudonymous contributions. For example, The Los Angeles Times Pressmens 20-Year Club changed its policy in June 2008 and prompted a storm of discussion about the issue.

Randy Foster, managing editor of the New Bern Sun Journal, published a thoughtful commentary about the newspaper's parent company's decision to change the availability of anonymous comment on the paper's Website. Writing on Sept. 16, 2011, he commented, "I am accustomed to putting my thoughts and opinions out there with my name attached. It's my job. Like any sensible person, I keep some opinions to myself. A lot of people don't feel comfortable expressing opinions without the veil of anonymity. Take away that veil, and only the most outspoken people express their opinions…. I also believe that [anonymous] online commenting is the literary equivalent to road rage. Even the most polite person may make an obscene gesture or an aggressive maneuver in the privacy of a car. When you know you won't be called to task by name for what you've written, said or done, you may be less inclined to be thoughtful and polite."

Yes, anonymity may be of enormous value in dictatorships and other repressive regimes, including corporate cultures that foster dishonesty. However, the behavior of some members of the Anonymous and LulzSec criminal hackers (or, if you prefer, hacktivists) raises serious questions about the value of online anonymity in countries that are not repressive dictatorships.

Personally, I have never posted an anonymous comment anywhere and have no intention of ever doing so.

What do you think? And why not use your name in your comments on this article?


Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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