A Melbourne school has helped fight bullying by allowing students to name their bullies on slips of paper, then drop them off anonymously in a ballot style box.

St Albans Secondary College student council deployed the scheme to give students a way to speak up without fear of repercussion from their bullies (or fear of a lack of adequate response from adults).

The box has worked, helping create a culture of “restorative justice”.

Bully boxes aren’t a new idea (here’s one in a US school), but they’re a solid one – and not unlike abuse reporting in many online communities.

Virtual boxes allow members to alert community custodians when people cross the lines defined by social norms or official rules.

Reporting is sometimes attributed to a username or handle, but no identifying information is required to report bad behaviour.

These systems, managed (and evolved) by great moderators and community managers, are a key tool in maintaining healthy communities.

It’s refreshing to see an offline example that counters the cry that anonymity leads us inexorably to the dark side.

Since I last wrote about the complications of imposing a real (read: offline) name culture online, the Nym Wars have raged, triggered by Google’s attempt to mandate that G+ users hold accounts in their ‘real names’ and nothing but.

Human identity is prismatic and dimensional. Exploring and inhabiting the full extent(s) of our selves is a part of being human. No single lateral ‘real name’ identity should ever be allowed to colonise our interactions and representations of self, despite the misguided arguments of digital power players.

Aliases do not create bullies and anonymity can be used to fight back.

Driving the ‘real name’ as means to civil utopia discourse are private companies keen to capture a granular big picture of our whole selves, online and off.

We seem to understand this on one level. We get in a tizzy about privacy, demanding that web behemoths like Google and Facebook not be able to tether our browsing or buying habits to the rest of our offline lives and selves.

We insist on the right to manage our own contexts, as we choose.

We recognise that who we are now, isn’t who are we tomorrow.

And we understand that real names do not mean safety. For many, they mean the complete opposite.

It’s not just whistle blowers and dissenters who benefit from anonymity. An environment where people feel they can speak their mind without intimidation means that challenging subjects will be aired, and the best and worst of us will surface.

Transformations are possible, because we see the gulf of us.

It’s time we stopped crying foul at bullies ‘hiding’  behind aliases and focused creating our own restorative culture where our communities are empowered to stand strong.

The behaviour deserves outrage; not the fact we don’t know it’s our neighbour. We’re all capable of power plays. And we’re all capable of change.

There’s nothing to stop a St Albans student from  falsely outing someone as a bully, as part of a personal vendetta, or an act of bullying in itself.

But the article suggests that teachers are looking for patterns, rather than specifics.

If a name crops up multiple times, from different students, then there’s a reason to investigate further.

The notes aren’t judge, jury and executioner; they’re a nudge and a clue, where none may have existed.

Community managers and moderators use similar techniques to identify which community members or users might warrant a closer look, or a private conversation explaining that their behaviour is a concern to many in the community.

The clincher is the follow through. Teachers take visible action as a result of the students notes. Without outcomes, the box would become empty over time. It’s the same in online communities. Moderation needs to be visible enough for members to know someone is looking out for them, but not so personal that it’s confronting and dissuading for them to help out in keeping the peace.

Granted, St Albans’ box is a neatly locked container, not a public, searchable and discoverable web.

The notes in the St Albans programs aren’t made available to everyone (I presume), like a conversation online.

But here we have a community that has created a workable, fair system of governance that doesn’t patronise and has shaped culture change.

Moderation systems should do the same.

They should be honestly and organically internalised by the communities they serve, accommodating social and cultural sensitivities as well as legal regimes.

They should be a partnership between professionals and members (in this case, teachers and students).

They should be realistic, focusing on the collective, the long term, and the small victories that can build precedents.

They should be equitably applied, protecting identities or actions likely to spur reprisal.

I am generally referring to bounded communities here (such as forums, or discussion groups, where there is rich peer to peer interaction and a community manager has some bandwidth to establish culture and governance), however these principles can be applied to any social space online.

Consistency, practical and visible governance, and a respect for multifarious identities make for richer, more lasting interactions, no matter the scenery.

Our communities and contexts are innumerable, and demand unique scaffolding for sociability, civility and transgression.

A blanket moratorium on anonymity or pseudonymity is impractical, an improper flexing of privelege, and no solution to uncivil or bullying behaviours.

Kudos to St Albans for reminding us that ‘namelessness’ can give people a voice, and for giving young people respect and agency they’re often denied in the name of ‘protection’.

They’ve defined themselves through their actions, not their names.


2 thoughts on “Does your community have a ‘bully box’?

  1. What a fantastic post, I’m definitely going to use this idea. My community does of course have a contact page, but the help desk requires a username & e-mail address.

    I’ve been thinking for a few weeks of a way to encourage chatters to speak up about problems. I login to my community in the morning, and get told by several people that there was trouble whilst I was away, when I ask why they didn’t submit a ticket for me to view in the morning so I can get to the bottom of it they usually say they didn’t want to make a fuss.

    But after reading your article, perhaps there is an element of – they didn’t want their username associated with ‘tattling’ so to speak.

    On my to-do list tomorrow, add an anonymous box that doesn’t require a username or an e-mail address for ‘reporting trouble anonymously’.

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