In the last decade we’ve seen a not so subtle push toward “real name” culture by online giants like Facebook and Google.

These businesses monetise your data, so the more they can quantify and attribute, the richer their offering and profit margins.

It’s a legitimate business model, but has nothing to do with building or managing great online communities.

Anonymity is the lazy straw man for bad behaviour online. Community managers in particular are exhausted listening to the argument that outlawing someone’s ability to adopt a virtual pseudonym (if that were even possible), will be panacea to our digital ills.

Anonymity is the lazy straw man for bad behaviour online.

It’s true that in some online environments anonymity will disinhibit in a destructive way. But those environments – like comment streams – are rarely communities. An online community has an implicit and explicit regulatory framework that intermediates that disinhibition.

Recently we’ve seen another Facebook controversy over naming conventions; this time preventing drag artists from using their drag identities on the platform, after rogue users reported their profiles – then reversing that decision and creating further contradictions in their broken approach.

As people often look to social networks to draw lessons in community building (not a wise idea generally speaking) – and companies like Facebook tend to dominate the discourse around this issues – I thought I’d lay out some of the reasons anonymity or pseudonymity are important and useful for online communities.


Why anonymity is good for community

It promotes disclosure

Just as anonymity can lower barriers to participation in a negative way (creating the perception of speech or action without consequence), it consistently does the opposite – creating permission to say what might otherwise go unsaid.

The volume and quality of contributions in a community is a direct result of people feeling safe and comfortable posting. This requires permissiveness, and in many communities a real name is a barrier to self-disclosure. Comfortable self-disclosure is a critical element in community formation and cohesion.

In many communities a real name is a barrier to self-disclosure.

The kudos that attach to community contributions – like post counts or member badging – are easily awarded to a pseudonym.

A legal name identifier is not a precursor to adding to the scope of community knowledge or helping the community fulfill its mission. Decades of prolific, high value online community activity put the lie to that. Anonymity is a catalyst for authenticity.

It promotes trust

By demanding ‘real names’ as part of the hurdle to registration, you’re effectively implying trust can’t be achieved without them.

Allowing members to identify as they choose signals trust and respect, and invites reciprocity. This helps members invest in the community from the start – which in turn leads to the sense of co-ownership and belonging necessary for community defense and sustainability.

Allowing members to identify as they choose signals trust and respect.

Getting names out of the way means community manager and members can focus on best practices for promoting good behaviour and strong community – codes of conduct, moderation policies, reporting mechanisms, steering discussion, balancing interaction and personality dynamics – community management that keeps members focused on the bigger picture.

It protects

Under age children, whistleblowers, dissidents, victims of crime, people suffering illnesses, people being stalked or bullied.

Vulnerable and marginalised voices are everywhere, including the places we least expect. And they have a right to be heard and engage in online community without identification.

People explore identity throughout their lives. They might experiment with alternative lifestyles. They might adopt unpopular politics. They might have something they would prefer the Googling public, employers, friends or even family not to associate them with – something that shouldn’t be assumed criminal or suspicious.

The right to not reveal identifiable information about yourself could be a matter of life and death. If you’re a young gay man in conservative America, who has found support in an online community for people with similar life experiences, sharing your ‘real name’ online could lead to physical assault, or worse.

The right to not reveal identifiable information about yourself could be a matter of life and death.

Imagine the consequences for an online community of domestic violence victims being forced to sign up under their legal name.

(This infographic does a good job of highlighting a few of the reasons someone may want or need an alias).

It’s realistic

Writers, painters, journalists and drag artists are just a few people who often operate under a pseudonym.

We don’t walk into every conversation, group or situation in our lives and immediately share our legal, full name in order to engage. In most cases, it’s irrelevant.

Compassionate or petty, smart or frivolous. Unless we’re dealing with transactional relationships with institutions, we’re defined by how we are, not what we’re called. Leading with a legal identifier feels awkward because it is.

Community isn’t about your name

There are virtually no online communities where using a legal name to register enhances the experience for the member, or the outcomes for the community.

Having a pseudonym doesn’t stymy the building of meaningful relationships online, or the capacity to be a productive member of a healthy online community. More often than not, it does the opposite.


5 thoughts on “Why anonymity matters in online communities

  1. In general I think requiring real names or pseudonyms encourages people to be more honest and forthright in what they say. On my sites I usually do not allow anonymous comments unless what that person wrote was very insightful or helpful. Often times it is not Venessa (Australian spelling?) and they are just trolling.

    I often like that communities allow a certain level of anonymity though. Especially when I’m seeking technical help or troubleshooting.

    I guess it’s always a balance and really depends.

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