Article #9: Anonymity and Secrecy in Open and Closed Virtual Communities
being thoughts on anonymity, with a discussion on open and closed communities, and closed areas inside open communities
In order to have a community, you have to know who you are talking to. One of the great differences between previous paradigms and the Internet Era is the ability to have a solid, consistent level of anonymity and continuous, meaningful social interaction. The only absolutely vital identifier in a virtual community is an individual, unique, secure login (or series of logins). A username like [eponymous] tells nothing more or less than the name Kevin Smith. The information that someone gives about themselves can help fix an identity, but --
Axiom: Online, nothing a person says about themselves can be taken at face value without independent verification. This is just as true in meatspace, of course, but not as obvious. If you meet a vaguely familiar-looking stocky bearded man in a black trenchcoat hanging around outside a convenience store and he says "Hi, I'm Kevin", he may be pulling your leg. The presence of a camera crew and Ben Affleck provides external verification. If you meet [eponymous] in a virtual community, the only way to prove that it's the same Epo is to develop trust in the identity.
One of the primary ties to an ID is email. If user:KSmith has an email address of SilentBob412@Yahoo.com, he's much less reliably identified than Kevin@viewaskew.com. If Epo's email is known to you firstname.lastname@example.org, it's not unreasonable to have doubts that 1337Hax0r@hotmail is the same person (although it's certainly not impossible, as multiple web-based email addresses is not uncommon, especially among people who value their anonymity. I have five or six valid email accounts with nothing in common save the person reading them, and I doubt that's unique.)
Another ID is syntax, punctuation, and writing style over time. An analogy is the "fist" of cold-war era clandestine shortwave radio operators -- an individual could be identified by the pattern and cadence of their keypunches, and it's reported that the fist could be identified even if the operator was aware of this and tried to change it by switching hands or other alterations. Likewise, a person who consistently uses or avoids certain words -- or has a special affinity for an unusual punctuation or nested lists or germanic sentence structure -- more easily identifiable is. A known entity with a very distinctive style (a great example is a poster I know who always uses short lines, no punctuation, and ends all posts with the word "out" alone on a line, usually with a humorous or ironic twist) is easily spoofed in the short term -- but only a genius could do it for six months without a slip. Anthony refers to this as idiolect, the formal term for the individual dialect we all have -- the concept that no two speakers of a language actually speak the same exact language. He also pointed out a meatspace example of this, the computer analysis of _Primary Colors_ which linked the book to its previously anonymous author. Thanks, Anthony!
Each community will have a different view of anonymity and its acceptability within the community. Many sites do not allow people to post personal identifying information about others. TrueNames, phone numbers, home addresses, I.P. numbers, children's names and schools are verboten, and for good reason. Interestingly, except for I.P. number, in meatspace this is exactly the sort of information you are frequently asked for in relatively casual conversation, and in smaller communities, demurral results in strange looks and people comparing your face with pictures on the post office wall.
Anonymity in virtual community is a continuum. At one end are closed, highly regulated communities where people are required to use real identities, through looser sites where your words are your credentials, to communities where the right to anonymity is a basic premise and founding philosophy. Neopoeia is at one end of the spectrum, where the owner and administrator is so committed to anonymity that no one on the site knows his TrueName. Even people he trusts, when they need to contact him outside the board, get a web-based email, a P.O. Box, or a cell phone. This does not decrease, for the most part, other's trust in him, because the only thing he demands of others is a respect for his (and other's) anonymity and one login per person (this rule does have a certain amount of flex, as there are a few acknowledged sock puppets, with specific administrative roles and known puppeteers. They are transparent.)
Open, when discussing virtual community, has three meanings -- welcoming, accessible, and transparent. In the second (and simplest) meaning, a community can be viewed without registration, and has a simple registration procedure. Cafe Utne and E2 are examples of this. Less accessible are places like Neopoeia, where the only way in is to email the admin or have someone inside request your registration. I'm certain there are closed communities out there where only the invited are accepted.
Closed areas exist in most virtual communities, and have many purposes. One of the most common is an administrative area, such as E2's Valhalla chatroom or Cafe Utne's Hosts-Only conference. These can range from sleepy, functional areas to lively, smoke-filled backroom discussions. One of the common (but not universal) requirements for participarion in these sorts of admin zones is a vow of secrecy, a "What happens in here, stays in here" ethos, a formal or tacit agreement not to air the family's dirty laundry in public. As a host at Neopoeia, I honor that committment, but I can say this about it -- the subcommunity of software-empowered hosts is not that different from the community of Neopoeia at large. This is, I believe, not unusual in a reasonably egalitarian culture, but it may be at least partially a function of the egalitarian ethos of Neopoeia itself.
Other closed administrative cultures can gather reputations less savory, deserved or otherwise. Hypothesis: The perception of the administrative culture will be based on the worst actions of a minority of admins. The higher in the hierarchy the person offended is, the worse the offense will be considered to be. Since people are unable to see behind the administrative veil, the visible actions of the admins will be watched closely. [Anthony] has suggested there is an iceberg effect, where people will multiply public capricious-appearing actions by a sort of "skullduggery coefficient" to get an idea of how prevalent secret machinations are.
I can only directly report on one open administrative area. It was in a subcommunity of Utne Cafe, conference MetaMatters, and it was, in part, an experiment in online democracy, a "patron-run space". It failed, for several reasons. One was an inability to come up with a consensus for how to manage the conference. Another was the structure of Motet has no support for any sort of polling or voting, making democracy a technical challenge, with multiple cut-and-paste ballots on competing issues going on simultaneously. One of the problems with voting was the inability to verify identities, which led to the possibility of sock puppets voting and real people being accused of being puppets. I spent significant time and energy in my first few months of MM defending myself as an individual and not someone else's sock puppet. One patron (who has since been booted from Cafe Utne) wrote scripts to simplify voting, but they never caught on. Aside: The booting raises the point that people with value to the community who are idiosyncratic, creative, and outspoken are often booted when the criteria for booting are too subjective. Whether the administrative view that this poster was too disruptive, abrasive, and voluble is true or not, it doesn't mean that they were not valuable or legitimate members of the community the website purports to promote.
The greatest strength of MetaMatters was the fishbowl. Since the subcommunity was administered by a rotating group of three patrons, there was no closed area -- simply a topic, universally readable, writeable only by the "unhosts", with a companion "gallery" topic open to all, and another gallery that was not supposed to be posted in by the unhosts. (Neopoeia has a similar area, a conference that no hosts are permitted to read. I know nothing about it, other than its existence.) The fishbowl increased trust in the unhosts. Although it would have been possible to conspire against MM patrons through email and other backchannels, it was less likely than if a private space had ben provided for it.
Axioms: If an admin makes any action against a community member, someone will think it's an abuse of power. If two or more admins make the same action against a community member, someone will think it's a conspiracy. As long as there is any possibility that the action is an abuse of power, a conspiracy cannot be disproved. Without access to the closed administrative areas (or a credible confession), a conspiracy cannot be proved.
Closed comunities are difficult to know about, by definition.
Howard Rheingold is the acknowledged expert on virtual community, to the layman. Although his community BrainStorms specifically prohibits any sort of research, I do not believe that prohibits a passing secondhand opinion. I have heard it is very quiet in there. That does not mean there isn't a vital, close-knit community inside the gates. It does mean that to the outsider, it is closed in all three senses -- not welcoming, inaccessable, and opaque. Since Rheingold is a researcher, it is my belief at least part of the prohibition on research is a desire to prevent the Worm OroboroUs effect.
Cafe Utne, Neopoeia, and E2 have non-administrative closed areas as well. Utne allows anyone interested to purchase one, for a small fee. For practical economic reasons these are rarely open to the general public. In MetaMatters, there was discussion of having free, open subconferences, but the discussion never led anywhere, and was mooted whan paid subs became avalable. A dedicated conspiracy theorist could claim the interest in and discussion of subconferences led Utne to a new source of revenue, but, axiomatically, this can neither be proven nor disproven. Neopoeian private conferences are free, and assigned at the discretion of the administrator. His policy is based on compelling argument rather than profit. I have full or partial ownership of several. One is an archive, and another is simply a private space I use for conversations I prefer to have there -- I have used it to help mentor an Everythingian who was more comfortable with Motet software than eCore, for example, and used it to set up and preview these topics. E2 offers private chatspaces as a reward for leveling up in the formal hierarchy.
Closed, non-administrative areas have different impacts on the life of a virtual community. A common closed area is gender-designated. Utne and Neopoeia have women-only conferences, for example, and Utne has a mens-only conference as well. At the other end of the spectrum, I have reports of a private area at one community that was used "conspiratorially", in an attempt to influence a member or members of another community. Since the source is someone I consider credible, I cannot believe it is the only time it's ever happened online.
Backchannel is another form of closed area, and many believe it's where conspiracies happen. If there is a private mailing list among some members of a community, and it is used to build or justify a case to boot someone from that community, it is, by definition, a conspiracy, regardless of its success or the validity of the complaints of the conspirators. Of course, if three friends in a car ditch the fourth and go to another party instead of going home as they claimed, technically that's also a conspiracy. The legal definition of conspiracy requires the contemplation or execution of an illegal act (In a case during the Seattle WTO riots, a man was charged with "felony conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor" -- try to wrap your mind around that one for a while.) and booting is not against any laws. People planning to rob a bank is a conspiracy, people planning to throw someone out of a party is not, whether it happens in public or private.
Actions planned in private, however justified, can appear capricious or unjustified, especially administrative actions. This can have significant effects on the health of a virtual community.
Disclaimer: Of all the virtual communities I have observed or been a member of, I have been there because I want to be there, not for research purposes. Anything I have learned has been incidental, from experience. Although I am finding the birth of C2's community fascinating, I'm not here to study it, but to be a part of it, and hopefully to do what I can to improve it. Improving it does not mean forcing it into some theory-driven mold, some image of a perfect community that lives only in my head. It is my belief such attempts can be deadly to community unless it is a shared vision.
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