Anonymity and Accountability


Bruce Schneier has an article in Wired News on the important distinction between anonymity and accountability, which meshes well with some issues that I’ve been mulling over about online communities.

Through my wife, I recently learned about UrbanBaby, a child/family resource site focused on a few US metro areas. One of the features that they offer is discussion boards, or course, but those boards are implemented in a really interesting way: registration/login is required to participate, and the discussions are monitored and moderated, but the the individual posts are anonymous.

The result is a fascinatingly vibrant discussion. Because the site operators can see the identity of all posters, anyone who’s abusive may quickly find themselves in a time out — hours, days, or permanent — and the operators have behavior histories at their disposal to see whether nastiness is a one-time thing for a poster or part of a pattern; on the user end of things, though, people seem comfortable asking questions and giving answers that they might be reluctant to post if their identity — even just an online handle — were tied to every post they made.

This combination of anonymity and accountability has, interestingly, made a community that feels much more friendly and personal than most that I’ve seen online: people post the way that they might make a comment into a room full of friends, just to see who responds, not worrying about whether they’ll be judged, or whether their particular clique is there and paying attention.

Interesting model, and one that seems like it could have a lot to offer to some of the more struggling fixed-identity communities on the Web.