Anonymity and public service

I’m just back from RecentChangesCamp 2008, a conference and networking event for people who work with wiki software and communities. When you get a bunch of smart people together, you get new ideas; this post will be the first of several exploring the ideas I came away with. -Pete

Anonymous suitIn a democratic society, it seems natural that decision makers should be forthcoming about who they are, so that the society as a whole can draw its own conclusions about their motivations, possible conflicts of interest, and general suitability for decision-making. We see this value reflected in laws about public service; for example, a recent extension of Oregon’s ethics laws (SB 10 of 2007) has attracted a great deal of attention. Public officials — even volunteers — are expected to disclose not only their names, but often their business affiliations and other personal information, to the public whose lives they stand to impact.

In many public forums, though, anonymity is commonplace. Talk radio callers, bloggers and blog commenters, and contributors to projects like Wikipedia are often completely anonymous; or, if they disclose any information about themselves, it often can’t be verified.

But public forums often have a big impact on public opinion, and on public policy. Those in charge of such forums — blog administrators, radio hosts, the Wikimedia Foundation — often staunchly defend their participants’ right to anonymity, both in terms of their individual rights and in terms of the public good. Valuable observations and opinions often come from anonymous contributors, who might be putting their careers or their personal safety at risk if they disclosed their identities. Legislation protecting whistleblowers shows that these values run through our legal system, as well.

So, from the perspective of the public interest, where is the line? Where do we, as a society, have an interest in defending an individual’s ability to stay anonymous, and where should we require disclosure of information? This is important to me as I consider how to structure the Open Lobby project, which will aim to generate policy reforms in a broadly transparent way.

A few thoughts:

  • Fact-finding research can benefit from anonymous contributors, and it’s possible to defend against abuse (at least to some degree) with clear policies about sourcing.
  • Policy recommendations, however, can easily be gamed by people who misrepresent their identity, in either overt or subtle ways. It can be difficult to detect or counteract this sort of thing.
  • Sometimes, a community’s treatment of anonymous contributors can be more effective than official policies. For instance, sometimes simply pointing out and shaming anonymous bloggers who make personal attacks can deflate their efforts.

What do you think? How should blogs, talk radio, Wikipedia, or other public forums best approach anonymity? When and where do individual rights come into play, or is the public good the main factor we should consider? Is it acceptable for a forum to protect anonymity out of self-interest — i.e., to foster the kind of controversy that often attracts an audience?

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3 Responses to “Anonymity and public service”

  1. Why is it that so many posts and internet related media are anonymous? My personal thought is we should strive to have as much openness and accountability as possible. As members of online communities, we should deal with the issues that might arise from signing posts, as real issues and problems within those communities.

    I’ve seen way too many snarky comments on political blogs which people won’t stand behind. Sure, there are good reasons to protect people in certain situations (whistleblowing, for instance). But, I think anonymity is often employed to try to control public perception. Or in some situations as a license to say things which one isn’t comfortable saying in public. (I’ll admit, there’s value in that- but let’s be a bit more bold and humble when need be).

    For me, it usually has the opposite of the intended effect- I trust the information way less and am less apt to pay attention. Put a name behind it and I’ll pay attention.

  2. WhatDoUKnowAboutMe? Says:

    Although Elliott had written his response to “Anonymity and public service” 17 months ago and may not even feel the same way now as he did when he posted it, I disagree. And that’s the 1st reason to maintain personal anonymity. Elliott may have just wanted to make a statement, but had he actually left his full name or e-mail address, and, to make things interesting, let’s say the statement really pissed off a certain reader. Perhaps, Elliot’s views conflict with the reader’s future plans and even pose a threat to those plans. Elliott could easily be looked up in the phone book…did you know your public library has a copy of a current directory from every county in every state in the United States? Although most people just dial 411. Or type his e-mail onto facebook and he’s done for. Not only am I getting to know Elliott but I’m getting to know his wife, his sister in Chicago, his daughter off at college in New York and all his buddies from High School. As I read the article myself and Elliot’s response I can’t help but wonder why anybody would volunteer any more information about oneself than is abolutely necessary? It is unsafe and in my opinon personally irresponsible of someone to identify themself on the internet anymore and especially with one’s opinion. People have the right to say what they want and they also have the right to privacy. Most of all I think people speaking freely on the internet is a more reliable source of true inner thought and feeling than anybody anywhere else at any other time. If for the moment I am provided a space and I have the opportunity to say exactly what I think and feel and be heard by thousands and may actually have an impact on my audience without facing condemnation by society or my peers, or being personally attacked…I’ll take it!! And you know those are exactly the types of things we do face when we voice our opinion these days and I sure don’t like when that happens to me!! So normally, as if not to create a controversy, alot of people keep their mouths shut. You learn early in childhood that if you can’t say something nice don’t say nothing. But honestly, when peole are being idiots or it seems they may have lost their senses completely, somebody’s gotta say something!! HELLO?! But alot of people don’t because they would rather play it safe and avoid the reprecussions of pissing off the wrong people- HELLO!! That’s where anonymity comes into play. Because nobody oughtta sign their name on an opinion when their opinion can easilly change from one day to the next. And that’s what discussion boards are for anyways. Why would it be important to know who said something? If it has any ringing of truth to it, just be grateful that it is being said. Moreso, be grateful that it is being heard.

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