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?

Beyond Hyphenation

As enrollment in rural schools declines, smaller communities have been left with no viable alternative but to consolidate their schools with neighboring towns.

Typically this leads to a lot of hyphenated names for the resulting school districts, such as (in our part of Minnesota) Zumbrota-Mazeppa, Elgin-Millville, Dover-Eyota and the like. Sometimes the district comes up with a whole new name for the school, as when Rose Creek, Adams and Elkton combined to become Southland.

I believe my wife Lisa’s home district set the hyphenation record when New Richland-Hartland combined with Ellendale-Geneva to become…you guessed it…New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva, which the sportscasters abbreviate as NRHEG. Sometimes they’ll pronounce each letter, but if they’re in a hurry they just say NURR-heg.

A similar phenomenon has happened over the last half-century in the newspaper business, as competing newspapers in a community combined because neither could sustain themselves economically. So in Minnesota’s largest city the Minneapolis Star and the Minneapolis Tribune, which I remember as separate papers in the 1980s, became the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Likewise in Milwaukee the Journal and the Sentinel became the Journal Sentinel in 1995.

Hyphenated or not, you can probably think of several combo newspapers like this (e.g. Seattle Post-Intelligencer) – feel free to chime in with your examples in the comments.

But what happens when even the combined papers can’t make it? When even hyphenation can’t make the business model work?

We’re seeing that this week with the announcement that the Times-Picayune of New Orleans will be ceasing daily publication in the fall, moving to three days per week: Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

If a metropolitan area of 1.2 million people can’t support a daily print newspaper, that’s a significant milestone in the decline of the traditional newspaper business model. Employee layoffs are coming there, too, which is the continuation of a trend being tracked at Paper Cuts.

As Seth Godin and others have said, newspapers aren’t primarily selling news to subscribers; they’re attracting subscribers and renting their attention to advertisers. The new publishing schedule of the Times-Picayune makes this explicit, as Wednesday is the traditional day for advertising inserts.

With so many choices for consumers in how they will get their news and entertainment, the mainstream media oligopoly is much less profitable than it was a generation ago. Those traditional media players have some built-in advantages. but the barriers to entry that formerly protected them (FCC licenses and the huge amounts of capital needed to buy transmitters or printing presses) are now practically non-existent.

That’s why I have often said:

Don’t just pitch the media. Be the media.

Do pitch the media. Work with the existing outlets as a resource and help them serve their audiences.

But be the media too. If you have a story to tell, you can do it through a blog. And you aren’t just limited to text: you can embed video, audio, slide presentations, photos and other resources. It costs you literally nothing to start.

Have you taken the blogging plunge? If not, why not?


Guest Lecturer: Seth Godin

Last week I shared a video from David Allen on Getting Things Done, or GTD.

Here’s some more Saturday viewing from another author who has taught me a lot: Seth Godin. He even has his own section among the SMUG-recommended textbooks. Seth is speaking to employees at Google, and for those who haven’t read his work, it’s a good introduction:

Check out Seth’s blog, too.

Accelerating Innovation

On the day we announced our crowdsourcing plan for the advisory board for our Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media, Seth Godin ironically had a post called “Beyond Crowdsourcing.” It was a riff on the latest TED talk from Chris Anderson. Both of these guys are among my heroes.

I hope you find this video as interesting and inspiring as I did, and that you will pass it along. And check out Seth’s blog, too. It will give you a daily dose of a different perspective to challenge your thinking.

Who knows what innovations you might build upon Seth’s insights?

SMUG Textbooks

Despite the decidedly social media nature of SMUG (“social media” is part of our name, after all), I’m still a big believer in books. They enable authors to make an extended argument and deal with a topic in more depth than the blog format allows.

I’ve written several book reviews here on SMUG, but it’s time for me to catch up, based on several more I’ve read or listened to via And I thought it would be helpful to develop a more comprehensive list of books that receive the SMUG Seal of Approval. As soon as I’ve finished adding related reviews and links to this post, I will be using it as the basis for a remodeled SMUG Bookstore.

Of course, everything about SMUG is voluntary, and tuition is free, so I can’t really say these are “required reading” for SMUGgles. As I get the reviews done, I will add links to the list of SMUG textbooks below. And if you have recommendations of books I’ve missed that you think would be helpful, please add them in the comments.

Personal Productivity

Social Media Theory and Philosophy

Business and Innovation

  • The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen
  • The Innovator’s Solution, by Clayton Christensen
  • Our Iceberg is Melting, by John Kotter
  • Death by Meeting, by Patrick Lencioni
  • Blue Ocean Strategy, by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne
  • Free: The Future of a Radical Price, by Chris Anderson. You can download this for free if you have an account.
  • Seeing What’s Next, by Clayton Christensen
  • Rules to Break and Laws to Follow, by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers
  • The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki
  • Selling the Dream, by Guy Kawasaki

The Gladwell Grouping

Malcolm Gladwell’s books defy easy categorization, but he has a wonderful writing style and has a thought-provoking approach to all sorts of topics. If he wrote it, you should read it.

The Seth Section

Like Gladwell, Seth Godin deserves a section of his own. These are all somewhat related to marketing, particularly as it is understood as designing delivery of your products or services in a way that enhances customer satisfaction and word-of-mouth.

  • Tribes, by Seth Godin
  • Purple Cow, by Seth Godin
  • Free Prize Inside, by Seth Godin
  • Meatball Sundae, by Seth Godin
  • The Dip, by Seth Godin
  • Small is the New Big, by Seth Godin