The Role Of Anonymity In Social Media

by Jason Falls |

A new website for the display and discussion of creative work relative to the advertising industry debuted in Louisville recently. CreateLousville offers up either submitted or administrator-posted executions from a wide range of media then opens the discussion among the community, via the blog’s comments. Their mission: is a forum for constructive criticism and stimulating conversation. We want to get better at our craft, and help raise the bar on work that comes out of our city. We’ve found that the only way to do that is to first admit that there is always more to learn, no matter how long you’ve been in the industry.

The site is, frankly, a breath of fresh air in what can be termed a stogy advertising community. Competitors here respect each other, but compete for a lot of the same dollars and, thus, self-preservation dictates decorum. The fact that someone opened an opportunity to both praise and challenge creative work here is impressive. The site’s intention seems to be genuinely in the best interests of the creative community.

However, the veil of anonymity covers CreateLouisville and has, at least for now, created some discomfort.

Jason Clark commented on Michelle Jones’s post about the site at ConsumingLouisville, “I’m kind of on the fence about supporting this venture if the creators are to stay anonymous. My inclination is that the entire editorial process is undermined if we do not know who is in charge of featuring content.”

The person (or people) behind the site wish to remain anonymous for now so that the site is focused on the work and not them. They have actively entered discussions and asked commentors to elaborate their position, mindful of the constructive intent of the site. A perfect example of the administrator’s intervention can be found on a recent post showing off Doe-Anderson’s new website redesign. My agency has been raked over the coals by the community there and I have been asked to respond to comments from faceless, nameless people like, “Overall it’s hard to believe an agency with so much history could drop the ball is such a monumental way.”

The anonymity falls from the top down. Users have to enter an email address upon registration for verification purposes, but usernames can mask a person’s identity. While I can respect the notion that among a community of creatives gathering to constructively criticize one another’s work anonymity can be the difference between input and honest assessment, the absence of responsibility opens the door for the same flame-like behavior that drove people away from early message boards.

There is even a user claiming to be “A_Bogusky” and making references to “our” Burger King campaigns. The mystique in thinking this was genuinely Alex Bogusky is quickly thwarted when you see this user commented that Crispin Porter + Bogusky’s website, “sucks too.”

When an administrator asked me to respond, I said, “Criticism from anonymous sources begs the question of whether we should respond at all. We’re happy to listen and respond, but the responsibility is one-sided, making us a target and not joined in a constructive discussion.”

The failure to see that anonymity breeds divisiveness may well harm the long-term success of a valuable idea. Creatives are trained to have a critical eye, but many possess a sharp wit and a rebellious spirit. These are ingredients for the juvenile back-stabbing and territorial possessiveness we’d all like to see gone from our business. The future of business in many ways is through collaboration, which CreateLouisville is trying to accomplish. But the first qualifier of criticism is to consider the source. When you can’t identify that, is the input truly valid?

As I do often when complexity clouds these questions, I turned to my community of friends to ask the question, “With regards to social media, is anonymity acceptable anymore and if so, in what scenarios?”

A sampling from Twitter (Note – I have edited for flow and lack of repetition, but not content. Scott Allen did not fit all that into one Tweet.):

dedmond29 @JasonFalls – I think the level of tolerance for anonymity depends on the specific social media community.

anjali28 @jasonfalls i don’t think it’s acceptable on a network like Twitter that has personal contact but on a blog, it can be if u want it to

ckEpiphany @JasonFalls: Anonymity as in blog writing? Or commenting? I support both/all voices. Many times it enables honesty (not just rude comments).

rogerkondrat @JasonFalls Jason if you are a Social Network you will never be ‘anonymous’ in the sense that advertisers will always know what you like but on the web in general it is valuable to me! I accept that a social network makes their money this way though

nickhuhn @JasonFalls anonymity is less threatening than blatant identity fraud. either/ both will continue to be acceptable but not ideal for society

SteMaTo @jasonfalls yes, anonymity is safety for people to voice their opinion free of judgement

jljohansen @jasonfalls Yes but not the norm. Examples, you’ll need to give me some time to think.

ikepigott @JasonFalls – Can’t answer that in 140, man. Sorry

ScottAllen @JasonFalls Anonymity still has a place within closed groups to eliminate social pressures related to hierarchy, celebrity, etc. When I say within a group, though, the idea is that you know someone meets the qualifications, and there’s a common purpose. i.e., anonymity is agreed by everyone to better serve the purpose of the group. For example, in an internal corporate socnet that wanted to ensure all employees’ opinions were “equally valid”. Or in a venue in which having your identity known could have dire consequences, e.g., F*** But in just general comments in the blogosphere? It’s a shield cowards hide behind to get away with being rude and worse. I’d be happy to have some follow-up convo via email. In short, anonymity sometimtes helps collaboration, but never networking

joannayoung @JasonFalls Depends on context. If you need to protect yourself, it’s ok. We all use some masks to protect privacy, family, personal info

SuzeMuse @JasonFalls If someone wants to be taken seriously in a conversation I don’t think they CAN be anonymous.

kpruitt @jasonfalls [anonymity] No, cred tied to your cyber-footprint. The comments may be good but will receive little att. Source is important.

lebrun @JasonFalls I’m not sure about “acceptable”, but I think anonymity is certainly less effective because it doesn’t build trust, relationship.

amypalko @JasonFalls Don’t know if it’s a question of acceptability: more of a missed opportunity

eMom @JasonFalls I don’t think anonymity is acceptable if you want to do business online – how a handful of people pull it off, I will never know

shashib @jasonfalls Anonymity can be accepted IMHO is if your company has no Social media policy & you are answering a simple ? to help someone

So we have a mixed bag of opinions but a heavy lean toward the latter half that the anonymous is bad mindset. Keep in mind my Twitter followers are social media types mostly focused on building community, so anonymity often undermines that thinking. Advertising creatives as a collective may have a different opinion. And this community is for them, so who am I to question it?

Still, there is a continual struggle on the part of the social media strategist to rely on creatives for ideas. There is a general opinion floating in the marketplace that says agencies and their creatives don’t “get” social media. I don’t think that is always the case, but saying a group doesn’t “get” social media isn’t necessarily bad. There aren’t many groups out there that do. Hopefully, the social media champions in the room (me, humbly) can offer relevant input and discourse (like this post, humbly) to shed light on that understanding.

Michelle Jones, who assisted with the technical build of the site, but is not involved in its management, and I were discussing the merits of CreateLouisville as a social media site Friday. She said, “I think the Create Louisville project is using social media tools but is not actually social media.” I disagreed slightly, saying, “It’s a site calling upon a community of people to contribute to a greater calling. It’s social. It’s media.” Her response lies at the root of the issue. She said:

“Can a community really be a community when the members are anonymous?”

A social media rule suggested by Thursday Bram on echoes my general sentiment (Thanks for the pointer, SuzeMuse):

Avoid anonymity. As a general rule, little good seems to come from anonymity online — everyone seems to delight in discovering who an anonymous blogger or poster might be, therefore compounding any damage done by associating your name with an unpopular opinion. There are, of course, some topics that certain people can’t write about, such as their employers, without some form of protection, and I can’t provide a good solution for those cases, but anonymous individuals rarely stay that way online.

While I do harbor a notion that CreateLouisville’s administrators, if their reasons are pure, can absolutely police the comments and keep users focused on the constructive intent of the site, it is difficult for me to agree that the spirit of honesty, transparency and community – the essence of social media as a communications avenue – can exist behind a curtain.

Now, more than ever before, I want to know your thoughts. Can a community really be a community when the members are anonymous?

The comments are yours.

Other Posts You’ll Find Interesting:

  1. The Right To Be Anonymous
  2. Court Finds That Trolls Can Remain Anonymous
  3. Online “Anonymity” Takes Center Stage
  4. Do Negative Comments Hurt Social Media?
  5. 10 Ways To Hurt Your Blog’s Brand By Commenting On Other Blogs
[tags]anonymity, anonymous comments, trolls, social media, social media rules, blogging, advertising, marketing[/tags]

About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).