Earning Identity From Anonymous Users


mask_smallADOTAS – My previous story questioned whether anonymous users have a place in community. While I believe the answer to this question is dependent upon the site, I also believe that anonymity is hard, if not impossible, to prevent.

The famous New Yorker cartoon once said, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” The truth is, if you want to allow conversations to happen on your site then you need to accept the fact that people will find a way to hide behind a digital disguise.

It’s important that you not spend your time focusing on how to prevent anonymous users from participating. Rather, you should focus on helping them create a meaningful digital disguise or encourage them to use their real identity. Here are two ways in which you can make it easier for site visitors to use their real identity:

Don’t make registration difficult. The more steps and information you require from a user, the less likely he or she will be to share valid information or even participate. JanRain and Facebook Connect are two great options to consider here.

JanRain allows users to register on their site by using their existing identity from another site, such as Yahoo, Google or even Facebook. Facebook Connect allows users to register on a site using their existing Facebook credentials. Two companies that have made the registration process easy using these tools are the National Geographic Channel and Livestrong.com.

Reward the user for sharing his or her real identity. Though this might seem obvious, the truth is, it isn’t frequently done. One easy way is to “reward” users is to give them a “verified” badge if they sign-in using a valid identity.

You can also leverage a user’s identity (a la popular sites like Facebook) to make the user’s site experience more relevant. For instance, if a user registers on your site with Facebook Connect, offer the option for that person to invite their Facebook friends to join them on the site or help them find Facebook friends to connect with, once there.

Remember “Cheers,” “a place where everybody knows your name?” Well, you can immediately make a user’s site experience more relevant just by filtering activity on your site by their friends.

At Demand Media, we’ve spent a lot of time focusing on the value of friends at a product level. Our goal is to encourage users to bring their friends, make new ones, and leverage the value of friendship while incorporating social media onto a website.

Social Bridging, for instance, is achieved when a user establishes a connection with Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. This allows them to easily invite their friends and followers on those networks to join them on your site. Our technology also focuses on leveraging the value of friendships, through Pluck 4 Comments and Pluck 4 Persona applications.

Help users create a meaningful digital disguise

By now, we’ve determined anonymity cannot be avoided, so it’s important to help your users create a meaningful digital disguise. Yet, you must give anonymous users a reason to be more than just another digital disguise in the community.

Below are just a few ways to channel your energy to make the most out of anonymity:

Force anonymous users’ first few posts to go through an approval process. When a user first joins your site and contributes, consider pre-moderating their first couple of posts before allowing them to contribute directly to the conversation.

This helps to quickly identify those who have something meaningful to share and those are low value contributors. The Guardian is successfully leveraging this approach with their “Comment is free” feature.

Recognize valuable digital disguises. Sure, we are all altruistic to a point, but we are also motivated by recognition. Consider implementing a “badging” system that encourages your users to invest in their digital disguise.

If a lot of people recommend your comments, you likely have something meaningful to say and should be rewarded. However, if you have a high number of abusive submissions, you most likely have nothing meaningful to say and should be blocked, filtered out automatically, or even labeled with a “dunce” badge.

Incentivize users to create valuable digital disguises. A little healthy competition can be a good thing every now and then. Consider implementing a leader board that encourages your users to make valuable contributions on a regular basis, and in return get recognized as a leader in the community. Microsoft, for instance, is successfully applying this approach in their Windows Mobile 7 Backstage community.

Build some switching cost. Consider making the user’s participation broader than just the immediate conversation; give them other reasons to come back to your site and to depend upon their digital disguise.

A few ways to do this include allowing them to build friendships on your site, tracking their contributions in one place, recognizing users for their contributions and ranking them in the community. Consider picking the “top comments” of the day and placing them on your home page or in your print media. The more invested a user is in their digital disguise, the less likely they will want to do something to harm it.

The good news is that you don’t have to fight the “anonymity” battle alone, and you have a community full of energized contributors ready to help. My next post in this series will discuss how you can use your community to decipher the “winners” from the “losers.”


  1. There is good reason to be careful about
    releasing personal information.

    Something, perhaps not many people are aware
    of is that, aside from government snoops, there are private companies organizations that collect data from numerous sources about each of us…and sell it. The IRS is one such customer.
    Then there is the Patriot Act !

    When there is an administration like Bush’s
    that tends to be vindictive, this information can be manipulated and used against anyone who criticizes.
    Also, people have been fired from their jobs
    because of something they said or did on the
    Caveat emptor
    Don’t trust ANYbody !!!

  2. Want everything you own stolen and scam phone calls, just reveal your ID online, join ebay, pay for anything online with paypal or credit cards, give em your home phone, anything. Only thing internet is good for is Advertising and videos and free games.
    No not real name or email, CLUE !

  3. Is there a way to incentivize people to not use the word incentivize. It takes away all credibility and makes it clear that the writer is nothing more than a buzzword spewing marketing hack.

  4. Phil sez: ‘Jason Jaynes’ is probably a pseudonym. bwahahahah. Seriously people, there be six more weeks of winter (and another ice age) before its safe to give real id on the internet. As for Jason… hey son, why not try an honest job like oil executive or politician.

  5. In your previous article you said “NPR requires users to provide their real first name and last name to participate.” NPR may require first and last names, but that doesn’t make them “real.”

    This argument about anonymity has been around the net for decades. People say “Anyone who does not want to show his full name is not worth taking seriously,” or “Either you have the guts to use your real name, or you don’t.”

    This is analog thinking in a digital environment. People want to believe they are talking with a person using a “real” name, but we are all in cyberspace, not in a café or at some seminar. How do you verify identities on the internet anyway? It’s virtually impossible, and there’s no compelling reason to do it. Handles are appropriate, and were established long before anyone was using their given names.

    Whether it’s a real name, a nickname or an invented name, they’re all handles. They identify the poster, and that’s about all they’re good for. Anonymity is irrelevant. Nothing matters except what people say out here. It’s pretty simple.

    You said “…people will find a way to hide behind a digital disguise.” You seem hampered by the same faulty analog logic, despite all these fancy attempts to spin anonymity into marketing tools.


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