Should anonymous comments be allowed in an online community?

me behind fingers
Image by loungerie via Flickr

Should people be allowed to leave anonymous comments in online communities and forums? It’s a question that has been debated many times and people have different perspectives on it. Some say that “No, if people don’t say who they are then its easy for discussions to get out of hand”, whereas others say “Yes, if you want people to be honest you need to allow them to be anonymous”.

The issue of anonymity when commenting in online communities is actually more complicated than some arguments would suggest. And the answer is both yes and no.

What do we mean by anonymity?

When talking about anonymous comments we need to consider two types of anonymity:

  1. If the commenter should be anonymous to other members of the community
  2. If the commenter should be anonymous to the site owner and community manager

These two aspects of anonymity are often confused. As a general principle of online community management, anybody wanting to add to the discussions and debates in the community should share at least a minimum of information with the site owner and community manager about who they are. This is not just so that they can capture the data, but because the social exchange of an online community works on the basis of openness, transparency and honesty.

This of course works both ways – in a successful online community neither party should be anonymous to each other. The brand, organisation or people behind an online community should be honest about who they are and why they are sponsoring or running the site. And people who want to comment on or add to the discussions on the site should be open and honest about who they are. At least privately to the people running the site. You will also find that asking for a minimum of information about people before they add their thoughts or comments will make them more likely to consider what they are saying. Even if other community members don’t know who they are, the site owner and community managers will and will be able to contact them.

So in this respect, no comments should be allowed from members who are anonymous to the online community manager or site owner.

Should people be allowed to be anonymous to other community members?

So, even if we say that users should not be allowed to add to the discussions in our online community without telling us who they are, should they be able to remain anonymous from other community members?

This question has always intrigued me as there is a whole spectrum of ways in which community members can identify themselves depending on the community and on what the individual member chooses to share. And they offer varying degrees of anonymity that could be offered to me as a user

  • I could have a generic username, ‘Anonymous’ and no further information about myself – this is perhaps the most anonymous I can be to any other user of the online community
  • I could choose a username that reveals nothing about me, ‘Grey2834′ – by allowing users to choose their own username there is an increased risk that they will share information that will allow us to identify them. Perhaps I use the same username on other communities and forums and this will let you understand more about who I might be.
  • I could choose a username and have other information on my profile, perhaps by city (London) and age range (30-39). The more information I share the greater the chance people will start to identify me.
  • I could use my first name (Matt) and some other information – the more I share the less anonymous I become
  • I could share my full name, date of birth, address, email address and mobile telephone number

Different online communities will ask for different levels of information and different users will share different amounts. The only way to allow truly anonymous comments would be to allow users to use a generic username (such as ‘Anonymous’) and share no other information about themselves. Even then they will never be truely anonymous as the subjects they write about, the examples they give or the things they say will share things about who they are and what they do.

As a general principle, the more users share about themselves, the more others in the community will learn about them and identify with them. The more the community will grow. This does not, of course, mean that I need to share with you my name, date of birth and address. You could also identify with me based on my contributions and the things I say without needing to know who I am at all.

However, people do interact better with others if they know something about them. If they have a name to call them, for example, whether or not that’s their real name or a username. If they know where they are or some other things that let us understand more about them and the things they say. For this reason, where possible, community members should be encouraged to share some information about themselves.

Should anonymous comments be allowed in an online community?

So should anonymous comments be allowed in an online community? The simple answer is ‘no’ because the social contract of any successful online community is honesty and at the very least community members should not be anonymous to the community manger or site owner. But does this mean that community members cannot be anonymous to other community members? This question is more complicated. Online communities work best if people share some things about themselves with their fellow community members and it is very difficult to ensure complete anonymity. As part of that same social contract, community members like to know something about the people they are talking to online, even if it is just a username of some description.

Of course, there will always be exceptions to this rule, where the need to encourage contributions and discussions will supersede the benefit of building a community based on members knowing something about each other. Dissidents in China or Iran sharing information and experiences would be one such example. Discussing sexual health issues with teenagers might be another. In these and other cases, anonymous comments are perhaps the only way to encourage honest and open discussions. But in the majority of cases such protection is not needed and completely anonymous comments should not be allowed.