If I Don’t Know Who You Are, I Can’t Evaluate What You Say

I’m still thinking a lot about the culture of anonymity of the old Web, and what it means for the collaborative nature of 2.0. Lots of smart people at GovLoop chimed in, some agreeing strongly with my rant against anonymous comments, some telling me I was off base. It’s an important issue, so I asked social media researcher Mark Drapeau a question on Twitter. Here’s the quick back and forth:

Adriel: Mark, if two people said the same thing, a high-schooler and a PhD, which one would you take more seriously?

Mark: Obviously, that question is not answerable, because you haven’t given enough situational facts surrounding the case.

Adriel: Still thinking about the question of anonymous information in networks. I tend to give weight to experience.

Mark: If the topic was “being a high school jock” I wouldn’t trust the Ph.D. What’s “experience”? Your question is unanswerable.

Adriel: You’re right. But your answer does reaffirm that you have to have the context of who someone is to evaluate their contribution.

What do you think?

14 thoughts on “If I Don’t Know Who You Are, I Can’t Evaluate What You Say

  1. Define anonymity, Adriel.

    If I didn’t add a comment as “Ari Herzog” but as, say, “John Johnson,” would that be anonymous? Would you have any way of knowing I am not John Johnson? I could even create a fictitious email account that indicates jjohnson@ something.

    Or do you define the literal “Anonymous” as an anonymous person?

    Or, someone with a handle, such as BigCheeks25 or FingerLake?

    Here’s a fourth: Suppose you work in a high-profile position and don’t want to include your name. Think of an “anonymous source” in any New York Times story about government leaks. Would that anonymous person, adding a comment on your blog, be frowned upon?

    As I wrote on your last blog post about this issue, anonymity is OK with me–as long as you have a policy about it. No policy, anything goes.

  2. I see where you are coming from, but you keep ignoring my central points about culture and context.

  3. OK, then, let’s get to the heart of it:

    Several months ago, I did not know you from John Johnson.

    Despite the words you put on a screen, I didn’t know you. I have a greater sense who you are now, but I still don’t know your favorite type of music, the name of your wife, or where you went to school. I’m sure I can look it up, or ask you, but not knowing these facts about you implies a sense of anonymity too, no?

  4. Saw Ari’s tweet about this (thanks, Ari!). Interesting idea in general. I think there are at least two kinds of context: One about the person, and one about the matter being discussed.

    The high schooler will have his own subject matter expertise, as will the PhD, but say the high schooler makes an apt observation about a non-high school topic in a blog comment. I may find that comment apt without knowing anything about the high schooler; should I learn later that he’s in high school and not the (maybe) 25-year-old I first thought, then my perception of his comment will inform my perception of him. I will likely see him as a more mature, thoughtful high schooler than I might have in a different context. His comment changes my sense of the context around him. (I would like to think I wouldn’t go back to his comment looking for flaws just because he wasn’t who I thought he was. However, if I did, that’d be yet another context.)

    This is more complex in f2f dealings because of the way we treat visual cues.

  5. I’m assuming this is related to your tweet about the disconnect re. Gov 2.0 being nicknames. I disagree re. nicknames, but I do basically agree with the idea of context.

    Gov 2.0 doesn’t need to allow for showing your real name as much as it needs to allow for authenticity — whether that be through a profile page or other means.

    As long as there is a mechanism for readers to find out more about you, to get some context as you mention, then I don’t really care if the comment is from “Mark Drapeau” or “cheeky_geeky”.

  6. In my 2.0 journey, I have been sticking to a “nameplate strategy” in everything I do on 2.0 Web since last September. It just makes sense to take ownership of your individual “brand” (and reputation) by directing the image that your “true name” presents in social media channels. This is all part of my specialty, “Online Identity Management”, or OIM.

  7. Your conversation with Mark was poorly worded. Your original point is that you need context to assess comments, but you posed a question to Mark that had PARTIAL context. A better question may be: “Mark, if you receive a comment, do you first need to know the experience level of the person before deciding its importance?”

  8. All of this simply boils down to trust. You either trust a source of information, or you do not.

    If you do not, that’s it. If you do, you should verify.

    Everything else is peripheral.

  9. I like the question, and am a bid disappointed by the answers. Whether anonymous is right or wrong is like do I have an open or closed Twitter account, do I put up my real photo or just a silly avatar, do I say something in order to make a point for myself or have an answer to a specific question to help the one who asked.
    CULTURE was part of the question.
    I trust that the emerging culture of our rapidly changing society will unfold the answer by virtue of ignoring anonymous or faked comments relative to valuing and responding to honest and more or even less profound answers. I do not care about a rumor story a “hidden” executive provides in NYT. Because I don;t even know if it is an executive or somebody who wants to steer up a conversation. And even if I’d know that this is one of the top executives in the world, I would discount the comment if he or she isn’t man or woman enough to say who he is – regardless of the reason.

    This is a simple learning exercise. And being ignored behind the wall of anonymity makes people learn fast – one faceless person at a time.

    My 2 cent

  10. I am confused by the question. I want to contribute usefully, but find myself drawn into confusion.

    At the extremes I have seen anonymous people contribute the killer argument on a topic that experienced people were too nuanced to say, and people with the most experience express ridiculous and unjustifiable positions on a subject.

    Neither degree of anonymity nor extent of experience really give an indication to how one should evaluate an opinion in web communities. Only trust built through common history counts. Ability to justify unexplained opinions is helpful.

    You don’t know me yet so… is my opinion worthy based on the strength of argument, or because you know my real name, or because of my experience (I have run a company for 8 years that delivers e-gov solutions), or simply the clarity of my conviction, or because I am good at debate regardless of the side I choose to argue?

    (the latter point is there just for the purpose of debate – I genuinely hold the position that trust through common history is the only thing that counts in measuring validity of viewpoints)

  11. Bret, this is a follow-up to a previous post, but your response is totally relevant. I’m arguing strongly that identity – usually real name – is important for using social networks to benefit the larger offline world and to influence government.

  12. Pingback: Does Identity = Integrity? « Adriel Hampton

  13. Pixel-for-pixel, anonymous comments may or may not be of higher quality; it would be wonderful to see some data on that.

    Quality of comments, however, cannot be the only consideration for government agencies; there are free speech issues at play.

    We found in a preliminary study in front of the US Capitol here in DC (http://athenabridge.wordpress.com/2009/08/09/data-about-anonymous-online-participation-with-government/) that requiring real names would leave far too many voices out of a national conversation.

    Here are other reasons why anonymous comments must be protected:

    1. There’s no enforceable solution that would work on a national level which can ensure that someone’s user name is the same as their legal name. Half measures would just create confusion.

    2. Anonymity isn’t the issue. A persistent reputation system that rewards good ideas and punishes misbehavior can solve for all the advantages of using real names, such as developing person-to-person relationships and encouraging constructive contributions.

    3. Our country has a rich history of brilliant political authors writing with pseudonyms– those people had strong reasons for doing so and those reasons are just as important today.

    4. Allowing pseudonyms decreases the risk of cognitive biases such as the “yes-man syndrome” where people agree with leaders even though the leader’s ideas need improvement.

    5. Some people won’t participate because they cannot contradict the position of their employer. This limits out expert opinion. We saw this with members of the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps during our survey.

    6. The dialogue would instantly be less inclusive because people are not used to using their real name online in discussion forums– this immediately raises a red flag and rumors start flying (refer to the controversy– whether justified or not– about the White House collecting email addresses this summer).

    7. Strong, fair, transparent moderation systems should be our focus because they are absolutely necessary and can minimize the harms of abusive speech.

    8. An idea should stand on its own merit; if it depends on the credentials of the author to be credible it needs more work. Building a community online that does not rely on credentials gets us much closer to a true meritocracy of ideas. Giving equal status to pseudonyms puts the focus on the idea rather than the author– this can stimulate a more honest discussion.

    9. Features which develop and sustain a sense of community (such as group features and person-to-person messaging) should be our focus rather than this issue anonymity because such features will build resiliency and community norms which, in turn, are essential for fair moderation.

    10. Requiring real names will have no effect on some people who are going to use a pseudonym anyway. Having them break the rules the first minute they sign up can start them off in a negative mindset accentuate their negative behavior.

    11. While we can hope for the best, we have to work in the world that we live in. If an American has a name like Hussein (or many others) they will be discriminated against whether we like it or not.

    12. When people exercise the freedom of the press or the freedom to assemble, they can do so anonymously. Requiring real names limits free speech.

    13. Site administrators should be careful when writing participation guidelines. Merely suggesting that users should use their real names will automatically place users with pseudonyms in second-class status.

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