Is User Anonymity Acceptable in the Online Community?


baghead_smallADOTAS – In April, The New York Times published an article titled, “News Sites Rethink Anonymous Online Comments,” which explores whether Internet users have the right to remain anonymous when they participate in conversations. The goal was to answer a simple question, “Should users have the power to address the world while hiding behind a digital disguise?”

As Arianna Huffington stated in the article, “Anonymity is just the way things are done. It’s an accepted part of the Internet, but there’s no question that people hide behind anonymity to make vile or controversial comments.”

This is a timely and valid question media companies should all be asking themselves as more and more users go online to read the daily news. It’s certainly one that my employer, Demand Media, has given some thought to recently, and has adopted into its social media practices.

When Demand Media first launched its social media product Pluck in 2007, it introduced the concept of a persona. The persona is a digital representation of a user in the context of a site where they interact. The user has a choice to provide as much or as little information as they choose when creating the persona, including the display name. It also enables the user to create a digital disguise and remain anonymous if he or she prefers.

From my experience, there is no doubt that the ability to create a digital disguise has increased the number of users willing to participate on our customer’s sites. And there have been some cases where visitors use their anonymity in a negative way.

On the flip side, the option to remain anonymous has incented many users to contribute to the discussion in a positive manner, who otherwise may not have participated.

The answer to the question is not as simple as allowing anonymity or requiring a real identity. There are many factors influencing this decision, including the type of readers your site generally has. Demand Media has seen its customers using Pluck be successful by focusing on both ends of the spectrum.

For example, SF Gate allows users to establish a persona of their choosing to participate, while NPR requires users to provide their real first name and last name to participate.

Should we enable users to make online contributions while hiding behind a digital disguise? My feeling is that it depends on the particular situation, but there is no doubt anonymity should remain an option.

A user should have the ability to decide how they want to represent themselves in a conversation, but the community should also have the ability to decide who they want to listen to. The job of controlling the negative consequences of anonymity should not be placed on the editorial staff or community manager alone.

This article represents the first of a series on anonymity for publishers. Stay tuned for my article next week that will focus on how a user can earn identity, as anonymity cannot be avoided. Of course, I welcome your reactions, even if you are using a digital disguise.


  1. “there’s no question that people hide behind anonymity to make vile or controversial comments.”

    Yes, but how else will you know what people are REALLY thinking?

  2. You seem to be talking more about “pseudonymity” than true “anonymity.” There’s a continuum between true anonymity and genetic fingerprinting.

  3. Requiring someone’s “real” first name and last name to post comments? How do you confirm that is the poster’s real name? How much effort/expense are you willing to put forth in this context? It’s just a comment, not a financial transaction.

    Your idea of a “persona” sounds like it is about consistency. So that, different comments can be recognised as having been made by the same person. That is based upon the hassle that it would take to sign up for a new “persona” for each comment.

    It would be useful for terminating a commenter with a pattern of abuse. But they can still sign up for another “persona,” since you never knew who they really were in the first place. And thus cannot terminate the individual permanently.

    Also, there is a psychological issue, based solely on surface appearance. If a poster blatantly uses “anonymous” or another obviously made-up handle then readers may view those comments with that in mind. But, if a poster uses a normal sounding name (only slightly more imaginative than “Jane Smith”) then readers may just assume that it is real, and somehow should be taken more seriously.


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