Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Can Online Public Dialogs Succeed With Anonymous Participants?

Can Online Public Dialogs Succeed With Anonymous Participants?

By Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.

In PublicDialog and the 2009-H1N1 Influenza Epidemic I discussed one of an increasing number of Federally sponsored efforts to reach out and engage with the public on a variety of important public policy projects. Other examples include the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s National Dialogue on the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review and the U.S. Department of Defense’s DoD Web Guidance Forum.

One question I have is whether such efforts can succeed if participants post anonymously.

I used to think that if you want to be taken seriously online, and if you want to actually participate in an ongoing dialog with a sponsor or other participants, you need to post using your own name and identity so that others know who you are.

This is one of the dictionary definitions of “dialog” that I found via Merriam-Webster OnLine:

2 a: a conversation between two or more persons; also: a similar exchange between a person and something else (as a computer) b: an exchange of ideas and opinions <organized a series of dialogues on human rights>c: a discussion between representatives of parties to a conflict that is aimed at resolution <a constructive dialogue between loggers and environmentalists>

I have two websites of my own (one professional, the other personal) where I regularly post items and where I encourage comments. While I moderate comments and delete the most obvious spam, I do allow anonymous comments if the comment being made is relevant to the original post and is not crude or vulgar in its language. I also post my own comments on other web sites and I always try to mention my own name.

Doing so is one of the traditional concepts behind social media: instead of just pushing information out in one-way broadcast fashion, social media enable you to participate in an online discussion that can benefit all concerned. Doing so anonymously, it seems to me, reduces the possibility that such an ongoing dialog can take place.

But is that always true with “official” public dialogs sponsored by government agencies? Are there situations where it makes sense to allow anonymous comments when “engaging” the public in a “dialog”?

I posted this question to an online forum I co-moderate, Linkedin Bloggers. I received a range of responses from people inside and outside the U.S. Respondents seemed to feel that:

  1. They preferred respondents on their own blogs to identify themselves.
  2. They still allowed anonymous comments on their own blogs as long as they were not obviously spam.
  3. They also believed there were situations where a government agency engaging with the public should not discourage anonymity if there is the possibility that useful information might be communicated that might not otherwise be revealed due to the discussion involving personal or sensitive matters.

I admit to having somewhat of a bias against anonymous commenting in public online dialogs, especially those that are overtly political. I often find myself saying to myself after reading a particularly vitriolic sequence of comments on a political web site, “Those people would never say those kinds of things if they had to sign their own names!”

But that may be a hopelessly outdated and old fashioned attitude. After all, we live in a time when public “rudeness” (see Joe Wilson, Serena Williams, and Kanye West) is increasingly accepted public behavior. It may be unrealistic to believe that restricting anonymous comments in a public online dialog would, by itself, encourage a civil dialog. There may also be instances where not allowing anonymity would reduce the likelihood that useful information might be posted.

Still, it’s my personal preference to minimize anonymous postings online, especially when the goal is to generate a real dialog about important public issues. I like to know who I’m talking to, that’s all. Engaging over time with an anonymous poster on a question of public policy seems like engaging with someone who’s wearing a mask. I would always be wondering about the reason for the mask and what that said about the sincerity and honesty of the comments.

But I do agree that people should be able to post anonymously if that is what they wish to do. They should be aware, however, that doing so might reduce the reach and effectiveness of what they are trying to say.

Copyright (c) 2009 by Dennis D. McDonald.

Understanding Context in National Online Public Dialogs

Promoting Technology Enabled Collaboration in Complex R&D Environments

Promoting Technology Enabled Collaboration in Complex R&D Environments