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What's In A Name? (or "my right to be an anonymous jerk on the Internets")

Published Thu, 8 Jul 2010

I found it interesting to watch the reactions around Blizzard's recent announcement that from now on, the community forums provided for customers to discuss their games will use the user's real names, and not a character name or alias.

When I designed "On My Doorstep", this was something that I gave quite a lot of thought, and came to the same decision as the one Blizzard just made.

It's an interesting thing to consider for any web startup or application - what sort of community do you want to foster? Is it ok for people to be anonymous?

Generally we've shied away from using real names, I think for practical reasons (having a unique identifier for someone to log in with) and culturally (that's the way everyone has always done it).

But, with social networking, users are encouraged to be themselves and be "celebrities in their own communities", so to speak. As social networks merge and inter-operate with each other and web-based apps, it's sensible to assume that our real identities will go with us to each service and community that we interact with.

I saw this as a useful thing for the type of community, I had planned for onmydoorstep.com.au.

Social sites revolve around one thing - the community of users that use them. I haven't used a single community focused website that hasn't experienced some amount of trolling, griefing or user-to-user abuse. It's something of a joke actually - arguing on the Internet is probably one of the single biggest reasons for it's success. Remember this XKCD comic -

someone is wrong in the Internet

Who hasn't been the anonymous jerk, madly typing into the Internet to prove to some moron how wrong they are?

Pretty much everyone has done it, and had it done to them.

Certainly stuff like this happens in everyday life.... it's not just an Internet problem?

Well, it seems to happen a lot more on the Internet, and the commonly cited reason (for both doing it and recieving it) is anonymity.

It's a lot easier to act like an ass-hat and flame someone when you can't be held responsible for your actions. Similarly when you're telling "doomslayer1975" what's what, it's easier not to think of them as "Fred Williams, a 35 year old father of three from New Zealand who likes playing Half-life 2 and taking long walks on the beach".

When they don't appear as real people, you don't have to treat them as real people.

So for "On My Doorstep", it was apparent that for a site focused on the local community, the services, activities and events in your local neighbourhood, it was crucial that the user's be real people. It adds to the feeling of locality, and encourages credibility and transparency in the information presented and the discussion of the users.

Was this the right decision? It's early days yet, and the site hasn't grown enough to know for sure.

I did receive some feedback from early users who were a little surprised to see their real names being used on the site. Other users don't seem to be worried one way or another. So I would guess that some users may be discouraged to participate given the lack of anonymity, but others would not be phased. However I think that the potential cost in terms of engagement, is balanced in part by the quality of content and communication.

So to that end, I certainly understand what Blizzard are doing.

Robert Couse-Baker - http://www.flickr.com/photos/29233640@N07/3645211083/

One thing about Blizzard though, which is different, is that they have an existing community, that was built upon the understanding of anonymity. They also have a line of products which up until now have presented users not as themselves, but actively as fictional individuals.

It's one thing to build a community of users who are presenting themselves, as themselves, but to change an incumbent (and vocal) community of anonymous users into a publicly-outed one, is a Big Deal.... and I think this is the source of the backlash.

There are people in that community who value the anonymity they have, and the freedom to interact under the cover it provides. Those users are going to be upset.

Other users are going to simply be adverse to change regardless of what it is. They don't like to see anything that's going to fragment or disrupt the community that they interact with and value... I understand where those people are coming from.

There's probably going to be a sweeping change to Blizzard's hosted gaming community as a result of this change. Some people will leave, they'll find other places to go which they feel more at home in. I'm also sure that other users, both old and new will find the new community to be a better one, and stick around.

Whether Blizzard's community grows or shrinks as a result of this decision only time will tell, but I'm sure it will be interesting to see how it all pans out.

I hope that the use of real identity becomes a trend for web applications & startups which have appropriate communities. It's probably not something that is appropriate in every instance, but hopefully we will see some balance, and as a result an improvement in the quality of discussion and interaction provided online.


About the Author

Richard Nichols is an Australian software engineer with a passion for making things.

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