Posts tagged ‘anonymity’

February 17, 2011


By now, you should know I have mixed feelings about anonymity. While beneficial in certain situations (therapy, support groups, etc.), it also creates an environment that encourages people to become their worst passive aggressive selves.

After reading “Deindividuation“, a post on the “You Are Not So Smart” blog, I’m convinced it’s the root of all evil (mild hyperbole). The post contains anecdotes about people who were contemplating suicide (from the top of a building) and who made that fatal jump after being encouraged to do so by a crowd. Very disturbing. Who in their right mind would do something like that? Answer: You and me.

According to the author:

The risk of a spontaneous cheering section goading a person into killing themselves is high when people in a group feel anonymous and are annoyed or angry. It only takes one person to get the crowd going. Those are the three ingredients – anonymity, group size and arousal. If you lose your sense of self, feel the power of a crowd and then get slammed by a powerful cue from the environment – your individuality may evaporate.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to the streets and takes place online as well. You’re probably familiar with the story of the girl who offed herself after being taunted by online bullies.

The more anonymity a user is allowed, the more powerful the effect of being protected by the group. (…) your identity can spring a leak in the presence of others, and the more others there are, the more you dissolve into the collective will of the group. Looting, rioting, lynchings, beating, war, chasing a monster with torches – the switch is always there, and it doesn’t take much to flip it.

Very depressing.

The post does give a small glimmer of hope though: all this energy could potentially be harnessed for the greater good by making people feel “safe from judgment” and by providing “prosocial cues”. I’d really like to know what a prosocial cue looks like to begin with, especially in the online world. According to Wikipedia,

Prosocial behavior is caring about the welfare and rights of others, feeling concern and empathy for them, and acting in ways that benefit others.

That’s all fine and dandy but how does that stand a chance when online society is governed by incredibly strong forces such as Godwin’s Law?

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches. In other words, Godwin put forth the hyperbolic observation that, given enough time, in any online discussion—regardless of topic or scope— someone inevitably criticizes some point made in the discussion by comparing it to beliefs held by Hitler and the Nazis.

(If you don’t believe this statement, I suggest you go spend some time in the comments section of the Austin American Statesman.)

I really don’t mean to be a cynic. I just think that, unless you live in a country where freedom of speech is repressed (sorry ACLU activists, the United States is NOT China or Syria), you should own up to your thoughts and opinions.

April 27, 2010


Is anonymity a cloak under which people can hide to say what they really mean? Or does it empower people to be really mean?

This Web site,, seems to think you won’t get the constructive criticism you deserve unless your coworker’s identity is kept secret. We also have a mechanism at work that allows staff to ask questions anonymously and read the answers later when they’re posted to our Intranet.

I have mixed feelings about this. Keep in mind that I am only speaking about anonymity in the workplace and not online support groups where anonymity is key to a successful healing process.

Based on my experience, at least 80% of the anonymous communication online amounts to junk. A lot of people use the anonymous tool we have at work to tattle on their coworkers or complain about stupid things like the quality of the soap in the restrooms. I’ve also experienced the chatter than goes on in online forums and chat rooms where people use anonymity to deceive or harass their peers.

However, good things can also happen when the messengers feel safe expressing themselves knowing their identity is protected. In some instances, at work, staff were able to suggest changes to some managerial practices. In another situation, someone felt comfortable enough to report an ethical conflict of interest they witnessed. Had we not had this anonymous tool, who knows if these issues would have surfaced.

So should we take a leap of faith and assume the quality of workplace communication would improve if people posted under their real name? Or should we weed through all the junk to ensure we don’t miss out on what those who won’t speak out loud have to say?

We chose the second option but with the added twist of placing some restrictions on the 80% crowd of time-wasters. Inspired by this BNET article, we will no longer consider anonymous online complaints unless the messenger offers at least 1 solution to the problem.