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Anonymous on the Internet

Written by Elizabeth Tobey | on December 2, 2015 at 2:00 PM

Anonymity and community

For the past week, I’ve stared at a blank page, puzzling out a pithy way to start this article.

I have found no elegant sound bite to summarize my thesis and draw you into the words that will follow.

Anonymity on the internet is a double edged sword: it is a beautiful thing that allows us to try new things, test the waters, speak to and about people who we never could otherwise. Without the interconnectedness of the internet, these things would not be possible or accessible.

At the same time, anonymity is an ugly thing, allowing people to engage in hateful, harmful behaviors that can be devastating to their victims. Without the disconnectedness of the internet these things would not be possible or accessible.

Over the course of my career, I have built and maintained communities for two of the most passionate and volatile fandoms online: gamers and tumblrs. The people I have met and the relationships that have grown because of the communities I helmed are nothing short of awe-inspiring: my work has created lifelong friends and marriages. I have seen creativity grow out of the programs and platforms I shepherded that is beautiful, unique, and has helped or inspired countless others. I have been able to make the companies and products I work for better because of the communities I supported.

With those extreme highs also come extreme lows: I have woken to an emergency call about a suicide note left on our community platform, only to learn halfway through our action plan to help that we were too late. I have received multiple death threats of varying credibility and savagery. I have watched people within the communities I manage attack each other or development teams I represent with a brutality that still makes me cringe, even years after the fact.

How do we foster the inspiring, positive behaviors in the communities we create? How do we prevent the negative behaviors? How do we react and manage the situation when negativity blooms within a community? How do we get rid of the bad without destroying the good?

The answer to all of these questions lies within the community you are building: you cannot do this all on your own, no matter how large of a team you have. These issues go beyond manpower and budgets: healthy communities are their own ecosystems that can thrive and weather storms, with or without official oversight. This is why the most vibrant communities persist long after official support for products or services have been sunset: they have a fully functioning ecosystem balancing without need for external intervention.

Creating this ecosystem in a world where anonymity is a fact of life is a significant challenge. While embracing the good that comes with being anonymous, you have to also accept the bad that will follow behind. It is necessary to find a way to promote the good and stifle the bad without also stifling the community itself.

Visualizing a healthy-only community ecosystem

Sometimes to visualize how a digital ecosystem might thrive, you need to draw on real world scenarios. This one is from a grade school where my best friend worked. She was faculty at the school, but as a matter of course the faculty wanted the students to resolve their issues without bringing a teacher or other adult into the mix.

They appointed Conflict Ambassadors, used mostly in the cafeteria (where most socializing occurred) and allowed students to call one over to help resolve any issues that might arise during the lunch hour. Often, Ambassadors were peers, but not often a friend or even acquaintance. The Ambassador could act as a neutral party while still maintaining the same social status as the people in conflict. This served to create a more egalitarian form of communication, which resulted in far fewer confrontations requiring adult intervention or punitive punishment. Yes, in rare cases Ambassadors let the perceived power of their responsibility go to their heads and did not act fairly, and in those cases the faculty had to intervene and remove the Ambassador from his or her post. But overall, the community itself was able to resolve its issues with less interaction from outside authoritative influence, also decreasing aggression and punishment.

So it goes with forums, commenting systems, and social networks. We need official presences, particularly when these communities are part of a company or brand, but the communities should not require those presences to resolve issues, and evolve as a whole. By allowing those official folks to step back and be strategic, you give employees more time to figure out ways to make things better for the community while also allowing the community time and space to find ways to make things better for themselves, without your oversight.

Taking the good with the bad of anonymity on the internet

Remember when Google decided to make everyone sign in to YouTube with their Gmail credentials, or Blizzard decided to force gamers to expose their real names on Battle.net? Those decisions didn’t go over so well. In the case of YouTube: comments were (and still are) cesspools of negativity, trolls, and harassment - real names or not. For Blizzard, to say the community rebelled would be a serious understatement. And looking back on YouTube’s path, real names likely wouldn’t have made the difference.

So what does anonymity online give you that makes it something worth keeping?

Safety

Everyone needs a safe space and for many, the kind of safety needed can only be found online. Maybe you have a secret you need to get off your chest or want to discuss sensitive topics with folks who know more than yourself. Perhaps you need to talk about a problem, or a side of yourself, with a community who understands the issues you are dealing with on a level that friends and family cannot. Or maybe you want to try on a new persona, or test the waters with a new set of interests or group of friends.

The internet has opened innumerable doors to connect niche groups and the disenfranchised with similar people. Anonymity ensures that anyone can find these spaces and speak in them without fear of repercussions elsewhere. For some, this saves lives. For others, this provides comfort. For many, this answers questions otherwise left unasked.

Protection

A variation on the theme of safety, the benefit of anonymity on the internet can extend to much more than a place of solace and understanding, and instead be a needed space to express oneself without fear of retribution and harm. Online or in real life, the world can be a hateful, bigoted place - and those people can and will do certain populations harm. Anonymity online allows those communities to exist, openly, without fear of threats of bodily harm or retribution against their friends, family, and livelihood. Before the internet, this possibility was limited or simply unavailable. Without anonymity, we’d revert to that same kind of reality.

All that being said, what are the downsides?

Harassment

While we’ve already proven harassment happens whether or not anonymity is possible (I think we’re all past being shocked at how many folks leave threatening, racist, or otherwise horrific comments while signed in to their real life Facebook profile), anonymity makes harassment that much easier. If you can create a throwaway account to harass, the only limitation you face is the amount of time it takes to create a new profile. While many networks these days have backend tools to stop this kind of harasser (IP and shadow bans, for instance) those too can be gotten around if the tormentor is dedicated enough.

Literal danger

In recent months, as discussion around harassment online grows and the mantra of “It’s just words, just log off and forget them” becomes less of an acceptable reaction, we’ve turned to discussing the reality of literal danger when an anonymous harasser turns their attentions towards a person, group, or event.

As someone who has moved from an apartment because a person convincingly insinuated they knew where I lived and that information would be used to harm my family and eviscerate my dog, I understand the concerns towards literal danger. Detractors will say “These are just threats” - but the bomb threat called against John Smedley that grounded a flight he was on, the shooting threat that lead to Anita Sarkeesian’s lecture being canceled, the actual shooting for Gabrielle Gifford and the numerous SWAT teams called into people’s homes from anonymous trolls online, all show undeniable proof anonymity on the internet can and sometimes does cause literal danger.

Anonymity is here to stay

Academic debates about the pros and cons of anonymity online aside, the fact of the matter isfolks who want to be anonymous on the internet in order to do nefarious things  are not going away. We’re not about to step into the world of an Orwellian novel (at least not in the foreseeable future when I read the tea leaves) and without that kind of authoritarian reign (and, honestly, even with it) the most dedicated will always find a way.

Here are the facts: we can’t lock down the internet in order to force acceptable human behavior, so instead of trying to enact a failing martial law, let’s empower the people with the tools they need in order to keep the peace themselves.

Where we go from here

If you are reading this article right now, there is a 99.9% probability that you can use some of this advice to help make your life better. If you don’t run a community, professionally or otherwise, you are part of one - anything on the internet that involves gathering a group of folks together and engages their voices is, by definition, a community (yep, even that cooking/crocheting/racecar/underwater basket weaving site you go to.)

So what do we do to be better administrators and citizens of the internet, complete with all its anonymous participants?

Empower your community to protect each other. You’ve probably seen the parks where communities all pitch in to keep things looking nice: there’s less trash on the ground, perhaps even a community garden tucked away somewhere, and people look each other in the eye and maybe even smile when they pass by on a walk. I’m not saying we should aim for a digital version of Pleasantville: we can build a community that cares about each other’s health without demanding happiness, sunshine, and perfection all the time. Giving community members the tools and language to deal with conflict, and positively reinforcing behavior that shuns trolls and protects members who are beneficial to a healthy community ecosystem, is the equivalent of teaching a man to fish: those lessons will be seen, learned, and spread as the community grows.

Remove problems the community cannot resolve quickly, fairly, and openly. Sometimes, a community cannot keep the peace alone. Free of the burden of policing every injustice, community builders can spend more time watching trends and thinking about repeat or particularly egregious bad actors. When the time arises that action must be taken in a more official capacity, do so quickly so the issue does not breed discontent, distrust, and vigilantes within the community.

We might be talking about an obvious troll or we might be talking about a community member who is stepping out of line. Whatever the case, be fair - even if that means reaching out to peers within your community team or in the larger community management world, to check for biases and confirm your conclusions about the situation are, in fact, fair and balanced. Then be open about the process: the community doesn’t deserve to know everything going on behind the scenes, but explaining the what and the why of difficult situations gains you trust and respect and helps stop fear and resentment among those who might not understand or agree with what you did.

Embrace technology to aid the health of your community. Like a yearly flu shot or a routine blood test, technology can and should help aid in the prosperity of your community. Whether it’s spam protection on the back end, recaptchas, IP banning or homegrown tools - you should be looking for ways to help keep away bad actors before they enter your community and become problems for your members.

Beyond technology, staying up to date with the latest trends in the world of community management can prove invaluable. Does upvoting and downvoting make sense for your community? How should folks log in, what should they be allowed to share, how frequently should you update your community guidelines and how flexible or strict should they be? None of these topics have hard and fast rules: they should be evaluated based on the needs and development of your individual community and reevaluated constantly because, like everything in the world, your community is evolving every single day.

Above all else, respect honesty

As a community builder, you live and die by your reputation. Your core function is to build, maintain, and protect your community. You cannot do this job without trust and respect. But trust and respect is not given easily and they cannot be bought: trust and respect must be earned, and you must reciprocate in order to have a lasting, meaningful relationship with your community. You are not an omnipotent god. You are not the overseer with the keys to the kingdom. You are in a position of power, yes, and you are the cornerstone of the community - but you exist for that community. They do not exist for you.

Without your community, you are nothing. They can and will go elsewhere if you don’t do your job correctly. Treat them with respect and honor, and they will bestow the same upon you. Yes: there will be bad days, and yes, some people will not like you - that’s life, and part of a healthy ecosystem.

Am I in favor of anonymity on the internet? That’s not the question anyone should be asking: it’s here, so let’s move on past that debate.

  • Can we use anonymity for good in a way that outweighs the bad? Yes.
  • Can we find a sustainable way to stop the onslaught of hatred, harassment, and threats? Yes.
  • Are online communities still in their infancy? Yes.

We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re already asking the right questions and starting to stand up against the ugliness instead of shrugging our shoulders. We’re on the right path to balance freedom and safety on both sides of the scale, but we’re only going to get to where we need to be if we teach our community they are the key to their own successes, and they have to be active participants in their own future.

Topics: Online Community Management, Customer Experience, Member Experience

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