14

I recently came across the concept of a "Burner" account on Kinja which allows for absolute anonymity for its users:

Signing up using our Burner account option is the best way to join the discussion with complete anonymity on Kinja. No part of this account is tied to any information whatsoever concerning your identity... A burner account does not have to be for one-time use. We welcome you to make this wholly anonymous incarnation your own.

Anonymity can be really harmful to online communities but are there ever any benefits to this kind of extreme anonymity within a community?

  • Do you really mean anonymity, or merely pseudonymity? Someone operating from pseudonymity still establishes a persona that joins the community, but is simply disconnected from their real life identity. Someone operating from anonymity won't even let you identify that their interactions are coming from the same person. Your example sounds like they're trying to encourage using an account pseudonymously. – user619 May 1 '15 at 1:55
  • 2
    My question is about users who's identity is hidden and untraceable unless they decide to expose it. "Anonymous" is an appropriate term for that. – benjaminjosephw May 1 '15 at 9:54
15

Andy's answer covers benefits to individuals quite well; I'll try to cover some benefits from the community perspective.

More members, more posts

Signing up is easier if you don't need to provide a bunch of information upfront, and people are more likely to sign up because they will not be concerned about the privacy of their personal information. (Once the community means more to them, or they trust it more, they may add more personal information anyhow.)

Anonymity also removes many of the reasons people might have to avoid making a post. This means more posts, which can mean a more active and faster-growing community. It can also mean more bad-quality posts and more spam, however with the right measures that can often be made manageable. Just remember that not ALL posts made anonymously are bad, some can be excellent and may not have appeared if the author was not able to post anonymously.

Fewer secrets

Lots of human suffering is caused by "taboo" subjects that nobody is willing to speak up about. Think depression, homosexual attraction, domestic violence. The secrecy causes much shame and isolation, and reduces the chances of people getting help. Anonymity can help such topics see the light of day, and in so doing benefit many members of the community, some of whom may not be willing to post even anonymously on the topic, but will read and benefit from the discussions. This will increase their desire to keep returning and contributing to the community in other ways.

Of course, this is not restricted to the types of examples I suggested—they were quite big issues which made my point. The same thing happens at smaller scales with smaller issues, often tied to the topics the community is based around, and thus very relevant to the community.

In addition, there are other types of secrets, "tricks of the trade", or things that everyone is thinking but nobody wants to say, that would benefit everyone if they saw the light of day.

Meritocracy

In a community where people know nothing about you except what you post, there is much incentive to contribute high-quality content. Your appearance, age, location, and "friends" aren't there to make you look good (or bad). Essentially, people who choose to post anonymously must work a little harder to develop a good reputation, or for their contributions to be accepted. In turn, the community at large gets in the habit of evaluating contributions based on their merit.

Of course this doesn't "automatically" happen; it needs a healthy community that is actually interested in high-quality content. But it can play a part.

Final word

That's really the bottom line; you don't just push a button and add anonymity to a community without making any other changes. Anonymity has benefits and drawbacks, but if you're considering anonymity you must also consider other changes that will make anonymity work for your community. You must have a plan for how it will fit in your community.

12

There are benefits to anonymity. These assume a perfect anonymity.

Announcing your opinions is easier

When you can't be easily identified - especially in a smaller community - you are much more willing to share personal beliefs that go against the majority of the community. Anonymity prevents retaliation. Anonymity also provides you with a way to post opinions/questions/comments that aren't tied to you. Perhaps you have a traumatic story you want to share, but you don't want everyone in the community to know that it is you that is sharing it. The story may be important, but you don't want it associated with you.

Of course the downside of opinions is that everyone has them. Anonymity allows you to freely share the most vile opinions without fear of retaliation. In my opinion (see what I did there?), the trade off between allowing others to share their opinion without fear of retaliation and some internet trolls is worth it. It's also worth noting that in a study at Harvard conducted in 2012, "73% of participants who were victims of cyberbullying knew the identity of their bully."

Test your interests

When an identity isn't tied to a known person, people are able to make out of character decisions more easily. As an example, are you more likely to do something out of character in your neighborhood or several hundred miles away where you don't know anyone? Maybe you want to explore a new way of life, or purchase something unusual, or just engage in a new activity that isn't common near home. Anonymity online provides that same sort of cover. You can engage in a communities you normally wouldn't.

The downside is that any connections you make online are impossible to carry over into the real world if you wish to retain anonymity.

Sharing information without retaliation

Anonymity allows users to share information that could be "problematic" to larger powers. Whistle blowers, witnesses to crimes, witnesses to abuse of power can all step forward and share this information. If these individuals where not anonymous, they could easily be retaliated against.

The downside of this argument is that anonymity means that sources may not be trustworthy. It is up to the group of people reviewing the provided information to determine the trustworthiness.

It's fun!

I'm Bond. James Bond. At least I am in one community. In another I am Captain Picard. In another, I am a father of several children who is seeking advice on something. You can separate your circles and more easily keep them separate. I can be who I want, where I want.

7

A benefit of allowing anonymous accounts that should not be neglected is that you cannot forbid them, not on the web at large. In small communities where everybody knows each other in real life, or in communities with a central authority who controls who accesses the accounts (e.g. employees of a company, students in a university), you can enforce that everybody posts under their real identity. But in an open online community, this is impossible, or at least this has a huge burden that you're probably not prepared to pay.

You can request that people provide an email address. That doesn't prevent people from using burner email accounts. You can try to blacklist sites that give burner accounts, but it's a cat-and-mouse game, and you'll lose. (Go to http://mailinator.com/ and look for “other domains”. Reload the page. See the new domain? You'll get bored before they do.)

You can't rely on IP addresses either. You can blacklist Tor exit nodes; then people will use a proxy on top. If people don't want you to know who they are, they will find a way.

If you try to prevent anonymous users, you won't be able to keep highly-motivated anonymous participants out. The really harmful anonymous participants won't be thwarted by anything you do. You will however anger a lot of people who think that their identity is none of your business¹. Helpful anonymous participants are likely to not participate at all, and trying to keep them out is likely to create some ill will.

By offering burner accounts, you make anonymous participants feel welcome. They may or may not trust you to keep the burner accounts really anonymous, so they might use additional anonymity measures of their own. But since you show that anonymous users are welcome, they're more likely to participate, because they won't feel at risk that you'll destroy their investment by closing their account for lack of identification.

¹ Example: with all the time I spend on Stack Exchange, you might think I'd have a Quora account as well. I'm a lot more interested in Stack Exchange than in Quora because Stack Exchange focuses on producing content that is useful to many people, not just on getting one person's question answered. Still, I would participate on Quora occasionally if they wanted me. But no, they want my full name on display. This is unacceptable to me. I could lie, of course, but I choose not to. Quora's anti-anonymity policy is keeping me out because I'm a well-meaning non-liar.

3

I'd like to elaborate further on @Andy's answer above, re "Sharing information without retaliation".

There are people who cannot participate in open forums online under their own identities for reasons of personal safety. The obvious example of that is someone who is being stalked by a violent ex.

The less obvious example is that there are whole professions where it's considered anywhere from unwise to unprofessional to use your real name online for any sort of discussion. The three I know about are judges, corrections officers, and therapists.

If you do not permit anonymous/pseudonymous participation, you exclude sections of the population who might otherwise participate, whose participation you might (depending on your aim in running the online community) want. It might be many more people than you realize.

2

Fully anonymous accounts can actually be very important to the basic function of some communities, specifically in situations where it is important that a person's posts not be traced back to their real identity. For example, a community that discusses workplace issues should have this option, as discussing problems can carry a risk of being identified and losing your job. Similarly, communities which discuss mental health issues or any number of topics that a person may choose to keep concealed or private outside of that community need this feature if they are to have free and frank discussion.

1

There still is great content from anonymous people sometimes. Slashdot is a great example of a community where anonymous people can post stories (sometimes as whistleblowers, sometimes about their employer, or other cases where it helps to be anonymous).

They call their anonymous users "Anonymous Cowards" when posting. It's a format that has worked really well for their specific site, while recognizing that the cowards are responsible for a lot of negative behavior, so you have the option of NOT seeing any of their content until other registered users point out that that the posts are useful.

http://slashdot.org/faq/index.shtml

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.