TechHui

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Social Networks, Anonymity, Reputation & Aloha

Last night I was chatting with Laurel and the guys from
Chi.mp about online identities and anonymity. I had a similar discussion with
Roxanne Darling about profile pics. Social network mediators are often faced with the challenge of determining the best policy for the use of avatars and avatar names versus actual profile pics and real names. There are a lot of advantages to interacting with people you can identify. I find people are far more likely to "post with aloha" if they know their real name is attached to the post. Also, if someone is rendering advice, its nice to know who they are and if they have relevant credentials. On the other hand, there are sometimes good reasons for people to provide incomplete information or maintain complete anonymity. They could be a professional who has valuable information to contribute, but doesn't want to deal with an overly zealous employer scrutinizing every word they write. A friend of mine is planning to launch a social network for scientists in the biotech space. He suspects his network will have zero traffic if they don't allow anonymous users. There is also the fear of social network stalkers, identity thieves, and various other concerns, some real and some imaginary. If you mandate a certain level of biographical information you could be excluding people with valuable content to contribute. Roxanne has decided real profile pics are required for
The Reef community members. This is a bold move, and I think there will be many benefits. We have decided to encourage but not require the use of real profile pics and real names. Chi.mp has decided not to push people either way because they believe many individuals have built their whole online identity around an avatar. I'm interested to hear your opinions on this subject. Which policy do you prefer? Is it different for regional versus global communities? Specialized vs. general? Business vs. social?
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Comment by Daniel Leuck on October 27, 2008 at 1:09pm
Viil - Thank you for sharing your in-depth analysis of the subject. We are currently dealing with the issue of supporting multiple identities for an individual as we work on the meta-network aspects of ooi. The way individuals choose to present themselves varies based on a number of factors including subject, locale, cultural context, etc.
Comment by Viil on October 21, 2008 at 10:17am
Looks like I missed this discussion when it was more active, but I'll add my 2 cents anyways :)

I have been interested in the issue of online identities for quite a while, and some years back I did a pilot study where I analyzed the various online identities of several grad students and professionals, and then asked them about their reasons for presenting themselves in different ways in different circumstances, and why they volunteered different information about themselves.

Nothing surprising came out of the study, but in general what I found was that the participants of my study all were very conscious about their various self representations online and had developed their own privacy schema which they applied when creating various online representations of themselves. The privacy schema that most of them used had three generic levels:

  • Full real name and sometimes a professional looking photo of themselves were used if their self representation was in a professional context, like in a community of practice, or a professional blog or website. The most common rational for using their full name in these circumstances was that they wanted these representations of themselves to be findable and googleable.
  • First name or real life nick name, and a photo or avatar they felt represented themselves, were used in contexts where they wanted to be identified by family and friends, but be somewhat anonymous to strangers, and not googleable to professional connections and future employers. This would be in contexts like communities of interest, and personal blogs.
  • Anonymous pseudonym nickname would be used in contexts when they did not even want family and friends in general be able to identify them. Some examples of such contexts were online dating sites, and support forums for diseases.

As mentioned by others the topic area of the social network or community seem to play a very decisive role in the users' need for anonymity, ranging from professional and job-related topics requiring least anonymity to very personal topics like health and sex requiring most anonymity.

In addition I would expect that the level of internalization of the topic, to what degree the topic is a significant aspect of the person's perception of his/her own identity, would influence their need for anonymity.
Comment by Scott Murphy on August 14, 2008 at 8:29pm
Just wrote a really long reply but accidentally deleted it, darn.

Thank you for the reply Dan. I just wanted to mention that from a cultural perspective, I think that anonymity is really important part of Japanese web culture. 2ch and NicoNico Douga are the epitome of such sites. Japanese also take privacy issues very serious as demonstrated by the recent reaction to google street view.

I know all this is slightly off subject so is probably better for a different thread but I just wanted to share some additional thoughts. Thanks :)
Comment by Daniel Leuck on August 14, 2008 at 5:45pm
Hey Scott. As usual, your analysis is insightful and enlightening. I certainly wouldn't want to post that question on TechHui with my picture and name attached :-) 2ch is a really interesting phenomenon. I don't think we have an equivalent in the US unless you count usenet. OKWave is also interesting. In Korea Naver's (네이버) Knowledge Search Q&A platform, which is similar to OKWave and Yahoo! Answers, was one of the first platforms to really harness the power of UGC. Its approaching a 100 million pages of user generated content. The idea of having the community vote content up and down is certainly a useful way to ascertain its value, although these systems are susceptible to abuse.
Comment by Roxanne Darling on August 14, 2008 at 4:07pm
We did change the default pic - unfortunately it's probably too nice! (A skin diver - underwater...) I hope that people want to differentiate themselves even a little bit; we find it does take the average person a week or two to get up a profile pic. And I would leave a community that had Dick Cheney's sprinkled around. I'm just sayin'...
Comment by Scott Murphy on August 14, 2008 at 2:02pm
I believe that anonymity can be an important aspect of communities especially in non-professional, casual communities.

In Japan, where people are often passive when it comes to public confrontation, sites like 2ch and Okwave thrive because there is a level of anonymity that acts as a level of protection.

2ch is one of the largest forums in the world and is known to be a bashing ground with plenty of hateful comments. While I'm not saying hateful comments and posts are good, I am saying 2ch is successful exactly because the anonymity is what allows users to freely be vocal without worrying about public criticism that they may face in everyday life. In real life, whatever statement you make will always have consequences upon your credibility and reputation whereas the internet is attractive to some because you don't need to identify yourself to interact with others.

I bring up OKWave because the owner founded the site based on the philosophy that people should be able to ask questions without being humiliated and bashed by others. Real names are not forced but hateful responses and bitching often associated with anonymity is discouraged because friendly responses are voted by other users and are displayed at the top of the thread. Popular questions on this site includes things like, "my wife is cheating on me...what should I do". These type of questions are difficult to ask without remaining anonymous.

For professional sites, I think real names are great especially if you are trying to network. You would want others to know your background and credentials for these type of sites. For other more casual sites, without anonymity, I think users might be discouraged to post with a light heart.
Comment by Daniel Leuck on August 14, 2008 at 11:13am
Candidates for TechHui's new default profile pic:

I'm OK with using an insane monkey or randy aye-aye, but using Dick Cheney may be pushing the limits of good taste :-) We had an interesting discussion about default profile pics on Rox's page. Gabe Morris also suggested Dick Cheney.
Comment by Tony Haile on August 14, 2008 at 10:56am
agreed. Context matters and the good actor/bad actor response is massively influenced by anonymity.

@Roxanne don't know if you are doing this but from a social design point, there are great advantages to having a default picture for people to change rather than a blank space for them to upload. One site used Dick Cheney as their default and had a great uptake on adding profile pics as a result!
Comment by Kurt Sussman on August 14, 2008 at 10:22am
I ran a forum for a condo owners' association, and we didn't require real names. We had to shut it down because it turned into a sniping bitchfest after about 3 months. Another condo nearby set up a forum and required real names and unit numbers, and they are still running in a fairly civil manner after 3 years.

That's not specifically related to avatars, but my experience has been that in some contexts, using your true identity leads to a LOT more harmony in your interactions. This year I took the time to set up some avatar images for the first time in my life (I've been a member of one online community or another since about 1983).

I think it's really related to the context; if you're an activist in China, you might not want to use a real name or photo. If you're making decisions that affect me and my community, though, I really want to know who you are.
Comment by Daniel Leuck on August 14, 2008 at 12:20am
Rox: Actually, we don't require a real person's photo - but we do require a profile pic.
Ah - Thank you for the clarification. I guess the burden of coming up with an avatar provides at least some barrier to casual trolls and spammers.
Haken : I've had my online persona since the old Saimin days and as head of my own community.
Understood. We don't plan to change our policy, largely because of active posters such as yourself that contribute good relevant content. If we were a community of lawyers or medical professionals we would probably have a different policy :-)

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