Tackling Anonymity

(Some of) The Problems


Before Mary Hamilton showed me the error of my ways I blindly swallowed Zuckerberg’s maxim that a better web is created if we all operate under our real name. I do still believe, that where possible, it is better to use your real name. But this should be encouraged, rather than obligatory. A more nuanced approach is needed.

Krishnan Guru Murthy – Duncan Bannatyne is right to be angry – but we can’t let the cowards get to us

There are plenty of anonymous cowards on the internet who abuse others, spread hatred and distribute obscene criminal material. And there are anonymous heroes on the internet too, who fight repression, spread inspiration, ideas, wit and truth. It is entirely understandable that Facebook, Google and others would want to stamp on the bad by ending anonymity, but they have not yet done enough to show how they would preserve the good.


As Randi Zuckerberg recently argued, if people were forced to reveal their identities online most would be less aggressive and more thoughtful. But without anonymity we would be starved of tweets from Egypt, Syria, Iran and repressive regimes around the world where internet anonymity is unleashing new freedoms and ideas. We might lose the mobile phone videos that tell us what is really going on in Hama, the whistleblowers who reveal corruption and the brave insiders who leak the things the powerful try to keep from us. And yes, we’d miss some of the gossip. It is not clear how anonymity online could ever be stamped out altogether. But the likes of Facebook and Google need to show how they would support the free flow of important information if widespread anonymity was lost.


Discussing Google’s rather stringent real name policy on Google+, I rather arrogantly assumed that…

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But I’m not so convinced now that we can ignore these edge cases. I’m a white, straight, adult male living in Britain. I’m not the type of person who needs protecting online. But there’s plenty who do, including unfortunately, a lot of women and sexualities. Problems described in this blogpost by Denise Paolucci. Indeed in a talk I gave to the Preston Social, one woman spoke up from the audience that she’d been targeted by an internet stalker and now has to take extraordinary measures online so that she can interact normally with her friends, as his her right.

So many of the problems on the internet are about user culture. Different websites and services breed their own types of culture. Reddit has a fantastic community which helps each other, laughs with/at each other and roots out spammers, evil doers and trolls. Interestingly, Reddit users mostly go by pseudonyms. Different newspapers have different cultures in their comment sections. The Guardian’s has a totally different tone and attitude to that of the Daily Mail, indicative of their respective readerships.

A proposed solution

What I propose is a rewards system for being good citizens of the web, a system recognising respect and standing. This is prime for someone like Google or Facebook to take on, but they must revisit their policies on pseudonyms. You can be a pseudonym and a great web citizen.

Just as you can Like or +1 a status or content shared on Facebook/G+, we could instead +1/Like users who have been helpful in comment threads, or have created helpful blogposts. This could create a web-wide system of trust. By looking at a ranking you could see how trusted/respected/liked/friendly someone is.

This is just a suggestion and a tad simplistic. The major social players no doubt have teams of people dedicated to solving problems such as these. When the problems are resolved, we’ll hopefully have a better web.







“If the readers felt more empowered, more listened to and more part of the process they would be less fighty”

Trinity Mirror journalist, David Higgerson, blogged yesterday discussing whether online comments were worth the bother.

Trolls, nastiness, timewasters, spam are all potential problems when news stories and opinion pieces are open to user comments. But despite these problems, turning comments off is the last thing news orgs should be doing.

Sarah Hartley in the comments made this great point:

With news, if the only invite is to comment on what’s been delivered from on high it could be quite frustrating for a reader who knows something about the topic. If the readers felt more empowered, more listened to and more part of the process they would be less fighty. Bloggers are generally more willing to involve the reader in the process – something that news sites could learn from perhaps?

There are countless reasons for trollish behaviour and this won’t solve all of them. But so much could be solved by making users feel involved and part of the story.

The article is not the end of the story, it’s the beginning of a conversation. A great story should spark some debate. The best, most informed story ever written could still be improved by another expert’s opinion.

There are times when comments make you want to tear your hair out. But ignoring them isn’t the answer.