Separating the Anonymous ‘Winners’ From ‘Losers’

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medals_smallADOTAS – Neil Swidley, a Globe Magazine staff writer, recently published a great article titled, “Inside the Mind of the Anonymous Online Poster.” I found this article intriguing because the author does a great job of reaching beyond the physical confines of the digital world by going right into the home of an anonymous commenter on Boston.com (the website for The Boston Globe) to get insight and perspective. There were two points made in the article that really had an impact on me.

The first is, “If we hope to clean up the online conversation, we need a better understanding of the select group of people doing most of the talking.”

The second point is when Neil recalls a part of his face to face conversation with the avid commenter Xenophonic about how his comment on a column titled “My Lazy American Students” drew hundreds of recommends. Xenophonic states “There were more than 600 comments, and at least half of them agreed with me!”

These two points hit home because they embody one possible solution in separating the anonymous winners from the anonymous losers online — to use the community.

In fairness to the author, I must point out I’ve taken his first point a bit out of context, as he was speaking to leveraging real information to identify a user commenting on a site. I don’t believe you need to have real information to ensure valuable contributions.

It is nice to have but not required, and my previous post explores ways to encourage users to share their real identity or establish a valuable digital disguise. To manage contributions effectively, you need a way to go beyond identity and allow the community to establish some form of social control.

The good news is you already have an “army of volunteers” in your community ready to establish some form of social control using their strong opinions about what is good and bad. And as Xenophonic indicates in his quote above, those hiding behind a disguise really care what the “army” thinks.

Here are a few easy ways to allow your community to enforce some social control:

Allow users to score each contribution: Simply allow the community, the lurkers and the users, to vote a contribution up or down. The votes should add up to a total score, number of up votes minus number of down votes, for each contribution. Therefore, if one person has an issue with what you say, he or she can directly respond; if 50 people don’t like what is said, then everyone can simply ignore it.

Allow contributions reaching a certain threshold of abuse to be removed automatically: Abuse reports are not new to anyone; however, if properly applied, they can make a big difference. Most abuse report systems flag a contribution for review by a moderator which is fine, but go a step further and allow a contribution to be automatically removed on the site if it reaches a certain number of abuse reports.

You can even take it a step further by applying some intelligence to the sorting of abuse reports for moderators. In my company, for instance, we apply a sorting algorithm that takes into account the tier of the user reporting and the number of abuse reports against a contribution. This enables us to show moderators the most sensitive items first in the list of abuse reports.

Use abuse reports to identify more than just bad contributions: Abuse reports are great for allowing the community to flag inappropriate contributions, but they can also be used to identify repeat offenders.

Take advantage of the fact your community is continuing to report contributions of a specific user for abuse multiple times. This can be done by assigning demerits to users each time a contribution by them is flagged as abusive and is deleted. This way, moderators can quickly identify a list of abusive users in the system and can take action independent of just abuse reports.

Feature the valued contributors at the top: Many users care about what others think about their comments and contributions.  And this is likely the case for most contributors, anonymous or not.

For those who don’t care, my advice is to make it really hard for their contributions to be seen. One simple way to do this is to change the default sort of contributions from time based to score based. This will allow you to show the contributions with highest score at the top and the lowest score at the bottom.

The ideas above are just a few ways to allow the community to separate the anonymous “winners” from the anonymous “losers.” My next post as part of this series will discuss how you can allow each individual participant to eliminate the noise and nonsense without any moderation on your part.

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