The benefits of anonymity online

August 5, 2011
Posted by: Matthew Hammer, VP- Marketing

“I like being famous when it’s convenient for me and completely anonymous when it’s not.”
– Catherine Deneuve
The recent launch of Google+ has brought discussions about privacy and personae back to the table for online communities of all kinds. It’s something some social media mavens and developers seem to have failed to consider recently, with the ubiquity of the Facebook “real first and last name” standard, but it definitely deserves more attention, because many people do not want to use their real names everywhere, all the time.
It’s true that in some hugely popular social spots online, like Facebook and now Google+, full names are the default. In fact, Facebook will delete suspected pseudonymous accounts. Google+ is still working on its policies, but suggests users choose “the name friends know you by.”
But the ideal username convention for your community shouldn’t be based upon other successful social media destinations. It should be based on the culture you would like to establish and the needs of those who will post there.
All communities are not  made up entirely of people who see using their real name as a personal brand tool to up their Klout score or miss the good old days of Usenet “when we all used our real names and knew how to act.” Wayback machine says bzzzt! My, but those past-glasses are rose-tinted!
I’ve seen comments stating that “people should own their words,” and “if you wouldn’t say it under your real name, you shouldn’t say it at all.” The implication is that only aspiring bigamists and trolls would want to interact online with a pseudonym. This is faulty thinking. If your customers are on your site to discuss their financial planning challenges, infertility, or their adolescent child’s bedwetting issues, it is VERY likely they will want to do so while keeping their comments out of search engine results for their real names. Why is this hard to understand?
After all, we receive spam (like requests for assistance transferring the Royal Prince’s seized inheritance) signed by people with first and last names all the time and we don’t trust that one bit, but we do trust eBay sellers with pseudonyms to ship us expensive antique rugs. Having a trusted identity and a reputation tied to that persona isn’t the same as using the full legal name on your passport everywhere on the internet.
Plus, people may have hundreds or thousands of online friends who know them by a pseudonym. They might conduct all of their internet dialogue using the handle they display on their blog or twitter account and never use “Jonathan Doe, Esq.” except when they’re cashing checks. For these folks, their pseud is their real identity on the web.

Anonymity and brand building

So what does this mean when you’re building a community for your brand? Well, if you’re on Facebook, you don’t have a choice: People will use their Facebook identities on your brand page, but if you’re creating a dedicated community, will you let people log in with their Facebook identities (hey, it’s convenient) or will you require it?  Will you allow them to choose a moniker for display or expect them to use their first and last names? Or will you allow them to be completely anonymous and leave comments without registering at all? The solution isn’t to follow the Facebook (or Google+) real name standard; the best thing to do is to choose a username convention that will encourage people to feel comfortable sharing and engaging on your community.
Let’s face facts. If you moderate a Facebook brand page or news outlet comment section where people log in with Facebook, you know that “real names” are absolutely no guarantee of good conduct and inoffensive content.
“Real names” make sense for:

  • Platforms where people are already using the real name standard, such as Facebook.
  • Corporate intranet communities.
  • Communities built upon “real life” credentials, such as professional networking or mentorship organizations.

Pseudonyms make sense for:

  • Everything else.

No seriously, everything else, like:

  • Communities where people are discuss controversial or personal content (politics, religion, personal finances, bullying, relationship issues, or medical/psychological conditions).
  • Communities aimed at young adults (which are, of course, also complying with COPPA regulations).
  • Travel sites: “Hi, my name is Jane Doe, I’m on vacation in Rome for two weeks, so burglars, please look up my address since my profile contains my suburb and the make and model of the car I drive.”
  • Consumer feedback sites (people may fear retribution if they are regular customers).
  • Entertainment or hobby communities (potential employers don’t need to know about my 2 Fast 2 Furious kewpie doll diorama unless I choose to share).

If you’re worried about what people might say with unverified identities and pseuds, well, that’s why rules exist and moderation is important. Give other users the tools to report inappropriate user generated content and spam, and give moderators the power to delete and block people who refuse to abide by the cultural rules of your community.
The internet is full of strangers who can be unpredictable in their behavior, but movie theaters are full of strangers too, and we’re all sitting in the dark together. But we trust, because we’re all there to share an experience together as part of an established cultural standard. This is what the social web is all about, too.
I’d love to hear your opinions, either here or on the discussion thread on Google+.