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If You Won't Tell Me Who You Are, Please Go Away

In a few weeks, I'll be speaking to a Belmont University undergraduate class about anonymity and the Web. As part of a panel, I'll be discussing the viewpoint that when it comes to facilitating dialog and building community on the Web, anonymity is bad.

I'm not using the word 'bad' in a shameful way, like you scold your cat after trying to paw a piece of chicken from your dinner plate: "Bad, cat! Get down, Missy!" I use the word to describe something that's ineffective, like a bad spark plug or a bad seal in my ductwork that lets my precious (and expensive) heat escape in the wintertime. Indeed, I could even use most of the other 34 definitions for the word, like unsound, of poor quality, not healthy, painful, dishonorable, coarse or counterfeit.

In our world, where Gen Y is connecting digitally like never before and redefining the word 'community,' anonymity hampers real dialog and discussion, and ultimately does very little to enhance meaningful interactions online.

That's why:

  • CoolPeopleCare requires you to sign up and log in if you want to comment on one of our world-saving ideas. Sure, you could make up a fake name, but you've got to put something down. People have to be able to call you something. But ultimately, you've got to put your name (or at least a name) with what you're willing to toss out there.
  • I don't reply to anonymous comments on my blog. Take a look at my post about donating money to Barack Obama's campaign (my political posts always get the most comments). Regardless, a cursory look at that post's comments reveals that those willing to put their name behind what they say often say things with a less hateful and demeaning tone and are willing to have a conversation. Those who comment anonymously usually don't want to actually have a discussion – they just want to toss out a verbal grenade and see what kind of carnage they can create. Thus, they're not worth talking back to.
  • Twelve step groups at least require a first name. If you've ever been to a meeting (or seen Fight Club), you know that the "My name is Sam, and I'm an …" and the following, "Hi, Sam," is a crucial part of the meeting experience. You can't move forward with others if you're not willing to admit who you are.

Sure, there seem exceptions to the rule. PostSecret, for example, has built itself into a media powerhouse with anonymity as its core asset. People write in secrets knowing they'll be kept anonymous, and as such, they're willing to say more and create more engaging postcards.

However, when it comes to creating real community around its offerings, the anonymity disappears. Recently, creator of the site, Frank Warren, spoke at Vanderbilt. A friend who attended recounted the evening. He said that while Frank's discussion about the site and the books was great, and while hearing secrets that had never been published before was intriguing, the most meaningful part of the event was when Frank invited those in attendance to step to a microphone and share a secret they'd long kept hidden.

My friend said there were immediate lines at the microphones. People confessed to a myriad of things, all very personal. There, in an auditorium of thousands, a real communal experience took place as people were willing to share things in front of strangers they'd never told best friends. And they said these things live and in person, where everyone could see their face and hear their voice.

My friend said the entire event was poignant, life changing, and even sacred.

Exception no more, PostSecret's ability to create meaningful community experiences happens better when anonymity is removed.

Articles can be written anonymously, and sometimes must, when someone's safety is at stake, or it's not quite time to reveal the mind behind the story. But when it comes to responding, discussing and building community, if you're not willing to say who you are, you aren't worth talking to.

And, if you're looking for a plan to make the Web better by eliminating the chances for the anonymous out there to ruin it, Seth Godin's got one.

Sam Davidson2 Comments