The Anonymity Paradox

By Steve Radick posted 05-13-2010 20:20


“Will we allow anonymous postings?

Boy, if you ever want to sidetrack an internal meeting about your intranet, this is a great question to ask.  Whether it’s internally or for one of my clients, every time the question of anonymity comes up, there’s bound to be a fight.  There will be strong feelings on both sides of the issue – some claim that allowing anonymity allows greater conversation and collaboration about potentially controversial issues, while others will argue that anonymity brings out the ugliest in people and turns the community into a land of YouTube-like trolls. 

So should you or shouldn’t you?  Like any good consultant, I’m going to tell you, “it depends.” 

I don’t think there’s a wrong way or a right way to handle anonymity behind the firewall.  First of all, I think you need to be clear that there can’t be TRUE anonymity – your organization’s IT guys can almost always track down the person who posted something, even if they clicked the “anonymous” button or didn’t log in at all.  Let’s instead talk about the pros and cons of “non-attributable” posting and “attributable postings.” 

Benefits of allowing non-attributable posting

  • Likely to get more comments, more edits, and greater participation
  • Lower barrier to entry
  • More frank and honest discussion is possible
  • Attract a greater percentage of employees, even those who aren’t comfortable with social media

Risks of allowing non-attributable posting

  • Much higher percentage of “complaining” posts that don’t offer any value
  • The rate of trolling and flaming is much higher
  • Greater percentage of people will choose to post without attribution because it’s safer
  • Value of non-attributable content is less than that of attributed content (e.g., I’m more likely to trust a blog post by Joe Smith when I can go back and find out more about Joe than from TigerLily1345)
  • Non-work related/personal content increases

Benefits of forcing attribution

  • Greater value in posts – people take more time to think through what they post and what value it brings
  • Incentivizes participation through reputation rankings and personal branding
  • Decreases the risk of trolling or flaming because whatever they post is tied to their name
  • Increases the percentage of work-related to personal content

Risks of forcing attribution

  • Effectively locks out a big part of your demographic – introverts, poor writers, and people who prefer face-to-face discussion are less likely to participate
  • Much more difficult to have a frank and honest discussion as people tend to worry about how they’ll look if they say or post certain content
  • Fear of committing career suicide via a blog post or wiki edit – perception is that the risk far outweighs the reward
  • Lower number of comments, edits, and participation

In the end, there’s no right or wrong answer – it really depends on your goals, your organizational culture, and your expectations. 

So what do you think?  Do you believe in allowing non-attributable content or do you think everything should be tied back to the individual user?

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