A very timely conversation about anonymity and identity has been going on since Saturday. It started with a discussion on Twitter between Mathew Ingram and Howard Owens. Mathew has written a great post about it, then Steve Buttry added important points on his own blog. I say “timely” because suddenly a lot of people are talking about anonymity. I have participated in several discussions about it in Quebec French media during recent weeks and wrote a post on my French blog. #
This flurry of activity seems to show that traditional news media begin to feel that the anonymous comments that most of them allow on their Web site are not enough for readers involvement, a sentiment well summed up by Jay Rosen: #
@mathewi I agree about persistent identity. I agree that hosts getting involved is key. And I think that anonymity has become a big problem. #
This is good news. #
The discussion is so wide that I think it can be helpful to frame the topic a little more. Online communities have debated and experienced anonymity long before news media landed on the Web, so we have a vast pool of knowledge to tap from. #
As Steve Buttry points out, anonymity and identity are not an either/or question. At Worth1000, for example, the range of ages among members goes from 12 to 80, so anonymity is mandatory, but with an unique and persistent identity. A second identity is a banning offense. #
Whereas at MetaFilter, only registered members can post but the basic rule is simply “stable identity”: the degree of openness is chosen by each member. As examples from the front page, we can see that stringbean is anonymous; KokuRyu is half-anonymous (he doesn’t reveal his real name but links to his website); and brundlefly, without giving his name, offers links to his other pages on delicious, flickr, facebook, myspace, twitter, etc. (aggregated identity is the best kind). Furthermore, it is allowed to have two identities on condition that they never interact. Also anonymity can be granted on request to ask a question, but only on a case by case basis. #
The most significant lessons from MetaFilter and other communities are that
- there can be several degrees of identity, either decided by the site or by the member,
- and these different degrees can vary from one context to another, on the same site.
What is clear here, and what must be stated from the start, is that this discussion is about reader participation in online news media. The rules could be (and are) different in other kinds of communities. #
So the first helpful question is “What?” What do we want from our readers?
Jeff Jarvis has swiftly pointed a major hurdle: #
we *allow* people to comment on *our* work when it is *done.* insulting #
People familiar with his blog
and his book What Would Google Do?
know exactly what he means: that readers should be involved in the whole news process, from choosing the topic to participating in research to commenting, to adding information and following up. #
We are here and now in the river of news, not in a “journalists-write/readers-comment” universe anymore. #
So, I think that “What we want from readers” has a huge role in helping us decide what we do with anonymity and identity. And from Mathew’s and Steve’s posts, we can see that we might want different things from different people in different contexts: sources, topics, news, questions, answers, opinions, votes, pictures, etc. #
Which leads us the second question: Why? Why would we want readers to be anonymous? #
If this is about “protecting absolutely the anonymity of a source”, I am not sure that we are able to guarantee it. But every news media should provide a tutorial on how to use anonymizers. #
There is also the question of access: anonymity allows readers to post without having to go through the hassle of registration. I think that this is what Mathew Ingram means when he writes in his post:
I believe that one of the principles of running a media site is that you should open up interaction to as many people as possible. #
I see two points here. The first is that I agree with Mathew that involvement should be progressive. If the objective is participation, we have to offer a scale of participation from the most simple involvement (anonymous voting as in The Huffington Post
, for example), to full identity with access to all past contributions (as for Mathew Haughey in MetaFilter
, for example). #
The second point is that I think that “opening up” is not the same as “publishing”. There is already a lot of noise in communities with registered members and we all know that anonymity breeds noise. Sure, there is the slashdot system, which is certainly one of the marvels of the Web: long time members rate comments from 1 to 5 and readers can choose what level they want to read from 1 (all) to 5 (top of the crop). #
But as much as I love the slashdot system for rating comments, I believe that a news media on the Web is not in the same business as slashdot. Here, we are entering the economic territory that is the topic of my work in mediamachina but, briefly: before asking “Why should we have anonymous contributors?”, we have to answer “Why do we want contributors at all?”. There are probably a lot of answers to that one. Clay Shirky would probably say: “Because they are there“. In The People Formerly Know as the Audience, Jay Rosen quotes Jeff Jarvis: #
“Give the people control of media, they will use it. The corollary: Don’t give the people control of media, and you will lose.” #
If you read Steve Buttry and Jeff Jarvis, you know that the only way for news media to survive and prosper on the Web is through the participation of our communities. #
So we have a huge incentive to involve people in our processes: survival. We want to welcome our readers, we want to encourage participation, we want to reward contributions, we want to build trust. In a nutshell: because trust is the royal road to commerce. #
It means that we are in it for the long haul. I am not so sure that we should be interested in drive-by anonymous shooting. Sure, we need to help our readers and our journalists to learn how to collaborate. So anonymity can be granted at an entry level. But the long term objective of a vibrant community is to have trusted members with a persistent identity. This is probably not for all our present readers. We know the standard numbers in community participation: only 10% of our readers will participate and only 1% will become regular collaborators. Anonymous people are not part of these 10%. #
So, finally, comes “Who?” Who can be anonymous? #
- Sources who need to be protected: this is a tough one.
- Visitors at an entry level: in that case, anonymity must be seen as a first step and further steps should be provided, with incentives.
- People who prefer to have a persistent identity with an alias. The progressive solution of MetaFilter is a good blueprint.
- Anonymity can be granted in special cases one post at a time. #
BUT, but, but, before I (at last) end this post, I have absolutely, imperatively to say that moderators should not be anonymous. Hm. Maybe I didn’t express myself clearly enough: some readers can be anonymous sometimes but #
MODERATORS SHOULD NEVER BE ANONYMOUS! #
I am surprised when I visit the greatest news media in the world (at least in New-York, Montreal, London, Paris) and not only moderators are anonymous but some of these media outsource
moderation! I know: it goes hand in hand with the idea that moderation is akin to police duty. #
It isn’t. Moderators and admins are the most important members of a community. But they are “Members”. Moderators are people. Community is about people. Moderation is about being part of a community, about exchanging with other members, about helping, about explaining, about conversation. And, yes, occasionally about banning. Anonymous police forces have no place in a community. Please listen to cortex. #