How appropriate or helpful are anonymous comments?

Amongst other things recently, I’ve been involved in developing some moderation guidelines for a project. A vexing issue is what do with anonymous comments in an online conversation. When are they appropriate and how do we handle them in the context of public sector debate?

I don’t know the answer. Clearly there are online communities where anonymity is one of the central planks they are built on. But what about debates where the other participants are identified? Is it appropriate for unknown individuals to join in?

My personal feeling is I prefer people to identify themselves, at least to the moderator, to establish their genuineness. Otherwise I wonder why they won’t declare themselves – are they agitators? Do they want cause trouble? What is their agenda?

I was thinking about this last week when I came across a new blog by a civil servant who chooses not declare their identity. Its entertaining and a pretty accurate description of life inside a Whitehall department. But two problems come to mind:

  1. It will be too easy to say something inappropriate on the basis that no one knows who you are, and
  2. If the blog gains traction you can bet your bottom dollar that people will do their best to work out who it is – and eventually they will, causing problems for the author.

Most of the good corporate blogging policies that exist are pretty flexible and forgiving, provided the author doesn’t contravene rules around inappropriate comments about the company or other people. ‘Inappropriate’ of course is interpreted differently by different organisations, and I’m not suggesting that the civil service would be the most liberal.

But if you identify yourself as working in a particular place, but don’t reveal your own identity, the clock is probably ticking. Or am I just being too cautious?

I’ve got an unmoderated comment sitting to be approved for my blog about the recent barcamp at the moment. It raises some good points and is a useful part of the debate. Its not controversial but constructively critical.

But for some reason the commenter has chosen to anonymise their response. Can’t for the life of me think why, unless they are embarrased to say what they’re saying in public. Don’t know what to do with it. Will chew it over. My instinct is, no anonymous comments, but does that unintentionally censor the debate? After all, stuff written here is hardly life or death.

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  1. There are many reasons for wanting to keep anonymous. For instance I feel that if there is a political comment I want to make on a site I need to be anonymous because we run an event where if I had a political bias it would be unfair.

    Equally I sometimes find myself not commenting publically on some subjects because of a potential later conflict of interest workwise.

    The final reason is that when you’re new to something (be it blogging or commenting) then you don’t want to stick your head above the parapet because some of the experienced people out there can seem to be quite vicious.

    I think anonymous comments are an important part of the internet. It emboldens many people to ask the questions they don’t feel confident enough to do so in public. But it should also be recognised that the publisher of a blog or website shouldn’t feel obliged to publish all comments whether anonymous or not.

  2. I think I’d rather certain things were said anonymously, than not said at all. And having managed teams of civil servants, I can understand why Civil Serf has chosen not to identify herself. Those under her won’t be too happy about her writing that large numbers of them should be sacked… but she makes a *very* good case for doing so.

    If there’s negative feedback re Barcamp – let’s hear it… and let’s make the next one better.

    My guess is, it’s from one of the many people in attendance who had barely (if ever) engaged in the two-way web. Maybe this is a chance to show that it’s generally a positive environment, where anonymity shouldn’t be necessary.

  3. I agree with Simon – why make this a matter of principle? I agree that it is better if people are happy not to be anonymous, but I think anonymous comments should be allowed unless they contain content which is objectionable.

  4. Thanks for the feedback, reading it again I didn’t mean to sound so high horse about all this. Of course there is a time and place for anonymous comments, and Shane’s point about it being a valid method for dipping your toe in the water is on the nail.
    I was thinking more about situations when everyone else in a conversation thread is identified bar one. That’s when I feel nervous and have misgivings about anonymous commenters.
    The thing about civil serf is that she has identified herself as a civil servant but remains cloaked, thus making it tempting and easier to report more critically than she would otherwise. But if/when she is identified, the consequences could be nasty.
    I’m not at all bothered about negative comments about the barcamp, I certainly don’t like censorship – so I’ll release it. Perhaps I made it sound worse than it is?

    • Nick Jones
    • February 4th, 2008

    Good example of the issues around anonymity can be found at http://www.politics.bm. it’s covers the story of an anonymous blog by a serving officer in the Bermuda Police Service. He’s been rumbled and suspended.

    Bermuda also saw a flourish of blogging about three years ago driven largely by allowing anonymous commenting. Check http://www.limeyinbermuda.com (now closed) for blog pieces that drew tens, even hundreds of comments. Many anonymous. In a culture where a surname can be infered to tell a lot about race, income and social standing, anonymity can allow people to concentrate on the topic of debate rather than who is saying it.
    It’s all a function of a small island culture where many want to know your business (bit like Whitehall?)

    • futurewww
    • February 4th, 2008

    I think anonymity is essential, even preferable, as long as you moderate sensibly, to weed out the unpleasant or irrelevant. This encourages people to open up, and be perhaps more honest.

    You, for example, have a boundary that I don’t have. This is very liberating, but of course it is your say as to who posts.

    You have infact become the gate keeper, where you now angst over what to allow, and what to ‘moderate away’ (just like other media organisations!).

    This means instead of doing this blog for the pure pleasure of reaching out, sharing etc, you now worry about ‘the rules’.

    It is understandable, and I realise you need to be careful (there’s your boundary again!); but best if you have as light a touch as possible.

  5. I’m not for censorship, particularly on this here blog. It just raised thoughts in my mind that I thought were worth sharing. Dave Briggs makes some good points in response to this on his blog (link above) that are worth viewing. In particular his points that anonymous views can be ignored by management and that if you don’t allow anonymous posts, its important to create a back channel.

    • osimod
    • February 5th, 2008

    Very important topic, crucial to understand how to engage users in government.
    My two cents:
    – most important is the content of the post, rather than the identification of the author.
    – authentication discourages engagement
    Plus, what is anonimity? If you use a nickname and provide an e-mail, you can still be anonymous.
    And none of the web2 applications in government I analysed had strong authentication systems – unless they are within the organization (mypetition, patientopinion, peertopatent, etc).

    • osimod
    • February 5th, 2008

    oops I meant
    – internal applications (intellipedia, allen&overy social software) have strong authentication
    – external applications (mypetition, patientopinion etc) has authentication but weak (username and e-mail)

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