Does anonymity promote ill-informed consensus?
There are a spate of new Social Media apps that have emerged lately, all of which allow people to post comments and ideas anonymously. They are being quickly adopted, especially among the very important 13-18 year old “adolescent market.” They are also being quickly banned for promoting cyberstalking, cyberbullying, and otherwise cruel behavior. Does anonymity protect cruelty? And what does that say about more established Anonymous sites, like Wikipedia?
Normally I don’t comment on Social Media. My regular readers know that I tend to focus primarily on enterprise architectural concerns like business model viability and strategic alignment. But there is an interesting cross-over between Enterprise Architecture and Social Media, especially anonymous social media: the creation of community consensus.
The state of anonymity
For those not keeping up, there is a spate of new social media apps that have emerged lately, from Whisper to Secret to Yik Yak, that allow smartphone users to sign up and then post messages unfiltered and anonymously. When in anonymous mode, users tend to say things that they feel uncomfortable saying on Twitter or Facebook (where their friends, family, and coworkers may discover a side of them that they may not agree with).
YikYak especially is troubling because it uses a geolocation filter… you can see things posted by people within a certain distance of you. Sounds innocent, right? After all, young adults filtering through Bourbon Street festivities in New Orleans could share that a particular bar was playing really good jazz, or that drinks are strong and cheap across the street. But you may quickly see the problem when I use two words: middle school. Already, some High Schools and Middle Schools have had to ban the app because it became a platform for bullying and cruel comments.
The effects of anonymity
But what does it mean to be anonymous? What are these comments that the guy next to you would like to send to “the world” without anyone knowing it was him?
You can look for yourself at Whisper.sh. I spent a few minutes browsing through some of today’s messages. Most were simple secrets… many were sexual or related to dating. Some were work related. Most had responses from equally anonymous people, and most were fairly benign. Of course, there could be some judicious editing going on for the sake of casual surfers like me that own a Windows phone (and therefore can’t use the app). Secret and Yik Yak don’t even make an effort to show any of their messages on their website. It’s all in the app (once again, only for IPhone or, in the case of YikYak, android).
Of these, I think Yik Yak is the most interesting from a consensus point of view, because it is the only one that attempts to filter according to a community. GeoLocation, especially when it comes to universities or even small towns, is sure to limit the reach of a message to people who share something in common with you. That sense of “sharing something in common” is really what defines a community, and consensus only really matters in a community.
Anonymity and consensus
Does anonymity work to create consensus? Sure. Think of standing in a large crowd. If one person yells something, you don’t normally turn to them and identify the source before considering, and possibly agreeing with, the content. This is the very essence of a political rally or a protest march. Taking in unfiltered ideas and deciding on them, on the spot, is part of how consensus is built. Of course, there is no good way to take in ONLY good ideas when you are in a crowd. We count on the crowd to do that for us. If someone in a political rally yells “Death to the other guys!” we would expect the folks standing next to them to react, possibly causing the rabble-rouser to back down. (Unless your protest march is in Karachi or Tehran or Cairo… but that’s another post).
In that sense, standing in a crowd is only “partially” anonymous. There are still people who can see you, and if you do something really outrageous, there are people who could react by hitting you. This is why you won’t find many people who will go to a crowded Yom Kippur (Jewish) service and stand up in the middle of the crowd and yell “Hitler was right!” Pandemonium.
But consensus and anonymity online is very different than standing in a crowd, and I think we need to be aware of the differences.
The perils of anonymity online
Online, you can make claims that are difficult for another person to dispel, without consequence at all. There is no one next to you ready to elbow you when you use name calling, or circulate unfounded rumors, or simply make things up! Even when we use our actual names, we may participate in a discussion where we are not in the same room, or even the same continent, as our peers, and this can cause problems.
I cannot count the number of times I’ve witnessed this on LinkedIn. A person will ask a question about frameworks, and I may point them to PEAF (a framework created by Kevin Smith). No problem. But if Kevin himself gets on the thread and mentions PEAF, his messages are blocked and he may even be kicked out of the discussion. Why? Because someone somewhere made a spurious charge (that he makes money when you use PEAF, which is not true). Since the administrators of most LinkedIn Groups are anonymous, they can make bad decisions without consequence. There is no good way for Kevin to clear his name of these charges because he does not know who the administrators are, and they appear unwilling to consider the possibility that he is not, in fact, using the platform to promote his own self interests. Rumor rules the roost. Not good.
I believe that the same thing applies to Wikipedia.
Wikipedia, with its millions of articles, has emerged as one of the chief sources of encyclopedic content on the Internet. It is widely respected, and most search engines make a point of returning Wikipedia entries near the top of their search results. However, the administrators on Wikipedia are mostly anonymous. (They use pseudonyms to do their editing work).
This causes the same problems to occur in Wikipedia that occur in any other setting where people can be anonymous… mostly benign behavior with occasional outburst of bad behavior (with nearly no consequence).
There is an essay (not a policy) on Wikipedia that says “Only Martians Should Edit.” This policy says that some topics are so controversial that anyone associated with the actual content would be too biased to edit the content in a neutral manner. Therefore, topics dealing with such things as State or Provincial politics, or national boundary disputes, or whether specific historic events should be counted as a genocide. These things trigger strong emotions, so having people edit the articles as though they are “from Mars” can be a good policy.
On the other hand, for some topics that are very narrow, it is not possible to edit the article without knowledge of the subject. If you are not an expert in African pop music, you may not do a good job discussing Azonto music and dance from Ghana. In this case, an editor with no grounding in the subject is likely to make mistakes.
The problem is that Wikipedia is based on consensus, and you may find yourself editing a page on Wikipedia where you have to build consensus among anonymous people, people that may or may not have ANY understanding of the subject matter. And those people can be nice, or cruel, with no consequence. There is no one in the crowd next to them ready to elbow them for making an outrageous statement… because the other editors don’t know if the statement is outrageous! You can build credibility on how well you enforce the rules, and then use that credibility to attack someone, and no one else can tell the difference.
Anonymity: Handle With Care
I’m of the opinion that anonymity on the Internet has to be handled with care. There are times when it is necessary, especially when attempting to avoid governmental or organized oppression to free speech. On the other hand, there are times when it is a license for ill-informed people to promote nonsense as a consensus. After all, one third of Louisiana Republicans have been misled into thinking that Obama is to blame for the poor response to Hurricane Katrina. I can think of a other examples of an ill-fated consensus among the ill-informed, but rarely one so laughable.
I believe that Sites and Apps should not leverage anonymity as a feature. I make exceptions for Tahrir Square and Occupy Wall Street, etc, where rumor may be the only information you can trust, but that is not what these apps do. For normal social interactions, anonymity is actually a problem. On Wikipedia, I believe that anonymity has outlived its usefulness.