The Pros and Cons of Allowing Anonymous Posts in Online Communities

Community Strategy // How should you leverage anonymous posts in professional communities? Get the pros and cons of allowing these types of posts.

Maggie McGary
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Even though it’s been a few months since the HUG Super Forum, which I was really excited to have a chance to attend/blog from, I’m still buzzing (sorry Rich Millington–couldn’t help myself!) from the excitement and focus on the discipline of community management. I’m not a current Higher Logic client, but it was great to hear about what’s new and on the horizon for the Higher Logic platform for 2016 and to have a chance to chat with friends old and new…or at least IRL new.

One of the announced beta features that still has me thinking a lot is the ability to enable anonymous posting in Higher Logic communities. At first blush, anonymous posting is a sticky subject when it comes to online communities, especially in this day and age of rampant online trolling.

The Con’s in Community Anonymity

Over the past few years, there’s been a movement across public social media and mainstream media sites to ban anonymous commenting because it breeds incivility – as pretty much anyone who has ever scrolled down to the end of an article in a mainstream media publication to read the comments can attest to.

The same can be said for online communities…sort of. On one hand, you can argue–and/or just plain find–online communities where the ability to participate anonymously makes for an environment where people, able to hide behind screen names, are venomous and cruel. Look at Yik Yak, for example–an anonymous social networking app favored by teens. It’s made headlines ever since it launched because of the flat-out bullying and harassment it enables just by virtue of its anonymity. It even played a pivotal role in a murder at my alma mater, University of Mary Washington.

It’s pretty easy to make a case that allowing people to interact anonymously online is a slippery slope, and in today’s environment of rampant cyber bullying, a good first step towards eliminating a lot of problems would be unmasking people online and not letting them hide behind a cloak of anonymity.

Leveraging Anonymous Posts in Professional Communities

Certainly the same should hold true in the world of professional communities, no? Actually, especially in the context of professional communities, there is value behind being able to participate anonymously, within reason. In some professional communities, the “real name” policy can actually be a detriment to participation if people don’t want to ask questions among their peers for fear of being thought ignorant or unqualified in their field of expertise.

I have experienced this with several association communities – members said they didn’t want to post questions or participate for fear of being ridiculed by peers, or because coworkers might see their comments, or because competitors might use their online interactions as fuel against them in some context. Those members specifically did not participate in the community because they would have to do so with their real names.

Now that Higher Logic is enabling the ability to allow people to participate anonymously, organizations will have to weigh the pros and cons of enabling anonymous participation. Yes, it opens up the possibility people could feel freer to bash or say things they might not have if they were forced to participate under their real name. Yes, it may mean more work for community managers to ensure anonymous discussions don’t degrade into incivility because of their new-found freedom to participate anonymously.

But it could also mean great things for some communities: members previously unwilling to participate coming out of their shells and becoming active participants; discussions that may otherwise not have taken place because of the sensitivity of an issue; touchy legal issues possibly mitigated because identifying information of individual participants has been removed. Obviously, guidelines need to be established for those communities, but with those in place, I think anonymous participation in professional communities could actually foster some good, productive engagement.

What do you think: are you considering allowing anonymous participation in your community? What are some of the things you’ve weighed as you made the decision?

Maggie McGary

CEO & Chief Strategist, McGary Associates

Maggie is CEO & Chief Strategist at McGary Associates, a consultancy that helps associations and small businesses succeed in an ever-evolving digital world. She has spent the majority of her 20+ year career in the association sector, where she led digital communications, including social media and online community strategy, at the American Speech-Language Hearing Association, the American Psychological Association and the Society of Fire Protection Engineers. Maggie is passionate about the ways digital can help organizations build awareness of and community around issues important to practitioners and individuals alike; likewise, she understands the challenges inherent in marrying digital and traditional tactics in often change-averse organizations.

Maggie has been actively involved in advancing the understanding and adoption of community management as a discipline since 2009, specializing in association communities. She’s worked with multiple organizations to launch and manage new communities, craft community strategy, develop trainings for staff, volunteers and members, and provided consulting on best practices for growing vibrant online communities.

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