Do Anonymous Websites Work?
Some advocates of “real name” policies argue that pseudonymity is far too easy to abuse. They suggest that “real name” policies help reduce spamming and trolling. This might be true, however, you can still get a fair amount of troll-like behavior and hateful discourse in “real name” sites. Just sit on these Facebook searches for a few minutes and you will see the things people are willing to say using their real names. But what about anonymity? Do anonymous websites get run over by spammers and trolls until they collapse?
In a recent paper, my colleagues and I explored how anonymity looks in the wild. First, we started by mapping out the design choices for social sites. Some recent discussions on “real name” policies might imply there are only two options: real names and pseudonyms. This dichotomy is, to a degree, limiting and inaccurate. So we start by mapping the range of design choices for online identity along two axis:
A. Identity Representation
This refers to the identity metadata of a participant that a system displays when he or she interacts with others. Identity representation ranges from strong identity, such as Google+ and Facebook’s “real name” policies, to pseudonymity, such as Twitter @handles, to anonymity, such as 4chan’s complete lack of user names. It is important to note that the information a system collects or requires from the user is not necessarily the same as the one it displays to its peers. For example, most websites collect (at least temporarily) the IP addresses of their users but few show them to others (Wikipedia does this when not logged in). Even anonymous websites like 4chan bans users based on their IP addresses.
B. Archiving Strategies.
This axis refers to the longevity and availability of content associated with a specific person in the system. These strategies range from permanent archival, such as Google’s everlasting logs, to temporary archival, such as Twitter’s limited history, to ephemerality, such as 4chan’s five-minute post lifespan (from our paper).
Of course, even these two axis are a simplification of the design choices available. Many websites use clever hybrid models, for example, Formspring lets people link their accounts with their “real names” (using Facebook) and post content pseudonymously (with their Formspring user name) and anonymously (without user names at all). Similarly, Canvas uses a unique hybrid model that combines some of the options described above.
I mentioned before that even “real name” websites have a fair amount of inappropriate and offensive content. Pseudonymous websites are not strangers to that either, in fact, it might well be possible that they are even more likely to host undesirable content. However, pseudonymous websites can also be highly prosocial. Two of my favorite online communities, StackOverflow and Reddit, often display astonishing examples of altruistic and pro-social behavior.
But what about completely anonymous communities? Do they eventually get run over by spammers and trolls until they eventually die? The answer is not exactly.
In our paper, we analyzed a specific community with anonymous and ephemeral content: 4chan. Say what you will about 4chan, but the website has already survived Friendster, MySpace and Digg (OK, these sites are not gone, but you know what I mean). Despite its archaic visual design and its offensive and extremely inappropriate content, 4chan is a thriving community with more than 7 million users and with about 400 thousand posts per day in only one of its boards, /b/.
OK, 4chan has been alive for seven years and it is still thriving, but what about its content? The media coverage of 4chan has portrayed the site as “the Internet hate machine“. But the reality is much more nuanced than that. First, 4chan has several discussion boards. Some are more offensive than others, but the one that grabs the headlines is the random board /b/ because of its “rowdiness and lawlessness“, as 4chan’s creator put it. Indeed, a lot of /b/’s content is pornographic and offensive, sometimes it resembles public bathroom graffiti or even dadaist art, as Amy Bruckman once said to us.
The media has placed a lot of attention on the cases of off-line harassment that originated in /b/. However, our data showed that only 7% of the posts intend to agitate off-line action. The rest are mainly people sharing funny image macros, themed discussion, links, personal stories, sharing the grievances of everyday life or even asking for advice. Most of the agitation to action fails to gain any traction, they get shut with responses such as “/b/ is not your personal army”. Participants take nothing seriously and are happy to make fun of everything (except violence against cats or puppies). Understanding 4chan is also complicated. Uninitiated users might take the posts at face value which does not always capture their real intent or meaning. For example, participants often call each other “/b/tards” or some version of the word “fag” (e.g., “newfag” to refer to new users, “eurofag” for Europeans). These terms are clearly offensive, but in the context of 4chan words and insults are often re-interpreted and co-opted.
4chan’s /b/ is probably not the strongest example to argue for the value of anonymity.Protecting activists, victims of abuse or whistleblowers, to name a few, are much stronger reasons for anonymity. But what I am saying here is that anonymity and ephemerality, even at it its worst, do not necessarily lead to a community’s collapse. And in fact, 4chan’s long record as the birthplace of a lot of Internet culture and memes might suggest anonymity is conducive to social creativity.
Update: interview on MarketPlace.