Anonymity is the Enemy of Community

In a conversation last week, I found the phrase that is the title of this post tumbling out of my mouth, and so I thought I must have heard it somewhere. Couldn’t have been original.

So of course I did a Google search to see who had said it. It turns out Google’s autocomplete function suggested “anonymity is the enemy of civility” and linked to an article in Fast Company by Seth Godin.

Many of my best ideas are probably inspired at least subconsciously by something I’ve heard or read from Seth. If by some chance you’re not familiar with his work, get a sampler.

So at least the ghost of Godin likely inspired my observation of the enmity between anonymity and community.

My formulation came up in a discussion of our early Mayo Clinic experience with our Facebook page. In the first year of its existence, from late 2007 to January 2009, we had exactly one comment I would consider negative, out of a little more than 100 overall wall posts. These were the earliest days of organizations or brands being on Facebook, and so the comment volume was light.

Of course back then we had only about 3,000 of what were then called fans, and now we have nearly 100 times as many “likers” of our page.

I see three main explanations behind the high percentage of positive comments on our Facebook page:

  1. People are generally happy with their Mayo Clinic experience. Our surveys show high patient satisfaction and willingness to recommend, which one would expect to see carried into online word of mouth, too.
  2. People who like you are more disposed to say nice things. Especially if they have already “Liked” you in the Facebook sense. Hard to “Like” and then turn around and flame.
  3. Most importantly, on Facebook people use their real names, and their friends see what they’re doing. So unlike the snarky flamethrowers hiding behind screen names on typical newspaper Web sites, they have some natural inhibitions to antisocial behavior. They’re less prone to comments that would disrupt the community vibe.

Anonymity is like alcohol. (Now there’s one for which I think I can claim originality, notwithstanding any relation to the famous 12-step program.) Alcohol removes inhibitions, which makes people tend to behave in a way they later regret when they sober up and have to face the consequences of bad behavior. Likewise, anonymity makes people more likely to be irresponsible in their online speech.

In the pre-Facebook era, the Internet was a lot like a drinking establishment. Not like Cheers, where everyone knew your name, but more like a rowdy biker bar with heated arguments, name-calling and the electronic equivalent of fisticuffs.

So my thesis is that online anonymity is almost never helpful, and that the “real names” movement essentially started by Facebook has been an important factor in making the Internet safe, civil and more community-oriented.

What do you think? What are the exceptions? When does it make sense to allow people to not use their real names in an online forum? When do other needs trump the need for community?

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Author: Lee Aase

Married father of six and grandfather of seven, and the Chancellor of SMUG - Social Media University, Global. By day I'm the Director of the Mayo Clinic Social Media Network. Whatever I say here is my personal opinion, and doesn't reflect the positions of my employer.

3 thoughts on “Anonymity is the Enemy of Community”

  1. Lee, I totally agree with your premise that anonymity is the enemy of community. However, I would love to see some way that people could use anonymity to participate in select forums hosted on our Facebook page. As a specialist hospital for women, we know there is a need – particularly for women in rural or regional areas – to seek information and/or peer or professional advice or support for health issues they might not feel comfortable discussing with their name attached, for example a sexually transmitted infection or an unplanned pregnancy. It would be fantastic if we could somehow allow people the “privacy” they might sometimes need online, while at the same time keeping the trolls at bay…

  2. On Facebook, one way to do that in your case MIGHT be a secret group, in which only the members of the group see who is participating. That probably isn’t enough privacy though.

    For those kinds of discussions, Facebook probably isn’t the right platform. You may need to set up your own community. One idea I had for that is using a forum where people have to use Facebook, Twitter or an email address to log in or create an account, but then a randomly generated first name and last name are chosen for them as a screen name. Or you could let them rename themselves in a second step after validation. That way you would be getting real people and not bots, and would make sign-in easier, but would have pseudonyms in the public display. I don’t know whether that would work or not, but might be a way to preserve anonymity in sensitive applications.

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