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[IPS News] The incredible power of anonymity when growing your community in a privacy eroded world

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We attach a significant amount of personally identifiable data to our social media profiles daily.

I regularly use social media to share photos of my kids and holidays. I post my personal thoughts on products I've used and TV shows I've watched. I'm even tagged in location-based check-ins.

It's all there in my news feed for anyone to see.

I'm not alone. More and more of us live our lives through the prism of social media. We share things we love, things we loathe and things that make us laugh.

With just a few clicks, you can discover a lot of information about a person. More often than not, you can see where they work, where they live and what school they went to.

Scrolling through their timeline often reveals their stance on hot topics such as gun control, the current President and other recent headline news items.

This information follows you when you join a Facebook Group. Your past Tweets are always available to trawl through.

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Indeed, there may be some groups that you decide you cannot post in as people would be able to identify you. 

This is particularly true for stigmatised conditions, such as financial help, illness and mental health.

After all, if you were seeking help with a large amount of debt or managing an embarrassing medical condition, you wouldn't feel comfortable knowing that work colleagues, friends and family could read your posts.

The benefit of anonymity for stigmatised topics

"Forums can all offer some initial anonymity, a community, and information that geographically proximate others may not have. What stigma-related forums uniquely offer is that the anonymity protects those who are not ready to be publicly associated with sensitive topics; the community helps to neutralise the “spoilage” of identity that accompanies stigma." (1)

Unlike social media where reams of personal data is willingly added, and which can identify you to other online users, forums allow you to add as much information as you are comfortable with.

Support communities for mental health and illness flourish using forums for this reason. An individual may feel devalued in society and unwilling to share their condition over social media.

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"Nowadays people can both avoid and proactively cope with this devaluation by turning to online forums populated by others who share the same devalued group membership." (1)

Forums offer a safe space for these individuals to seek and receive support from others without disclosing large amounts of identifiable data.

Allowing a level of anonymity encourages more people to register and over time, they will develop ties with other users.

For an individual with a stigmatized condition, a forum may be a real life-line in coping with the condition as face-to-face support is often limited.

Adrial Dale, who owns Herpes Opportunity agrees.

"In order for us to truly be able to work through the shame that stigma can trigger, it's absolutely vital for us to feel safe to open up and tell all. Through opening up, we not only get to share with an understanding and compassionate community (which normalizes our shared experiences), but we're also able to begin to release what has felt like our own solitary burden to bear. 

Then a magical thing can happen ... an alchemical process that transforms shame into an opportunity for connection. An opportunity for us to be accepted for who we are *behind* the thick wall of shame. And ultimately, an opportunity to accept ourselves.

Especially in these days of the internet not feeling so private (even in places where it absolutely should be), having true privacy and anonymity is paramount for communities like Herpes Opportunity. Anything other than that is grounds for paranoia and holding back from sharing ourselves. (In fact, just the other day someone messaged me asking "Are private messages really private?") Fear can lead to closing ourselves off, which can lead to isolation and paranoia, which can lead to a downward spiral of self-loathing and depression. On the other hand, safety, connection and compassion creates an an okayness with the nitty-grittiness of what it means to be human."

The benefit of expressing a new identity

"People may strategically express identities when they think they will not be punished, and/or connect them to an audience that is valued." (1)

It is arguably true that not so many years ago, tech-related communities were very much male-dominated, with female contributions valued less.

Forums allow a way to create a new identity that is either gender-neutral thus allowing the male users to assume a gender, or overtly male to ensure their contributions are evaluated on merit, and not with any gender bias.

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Christopher Marks who owns Nano-Reef has seen this first hand.

"During a discussion with a women’s group in our generally male dominant hobby, a number of women had expressed the benefit of having an anonymous username and profile when asking for help and advice on forums, they receive equal help without the unfortunate gender bias or belittling that can sometimes happen in real life when seeking the same help in person."

Invision Community's Jennifer has also experience of this on her own community; RPG Initiative.

"RPG Initiative is a community for all roleplayers. We focus on all text-based roleplaying forms that are hosted on the internet. We encourage roleplayers to find each other, discuss roleplay and grow as collaborative writers here at the Initiative in a safe environment."

Jennifer relies on, and encourages anonymity. She knows that because her site is predominately female, some female users identify as male to increase the chances of getting others to collaborate with them.

"Male players are rare, in fact, I recently ran a poll on my site and of those that responded to it less than 15% of them are male (or identify as such). So this gets them more attention and in turn, more people that want to write with them."

Jennifer explains how anonymity is critical to her site's growth.

"Anonymity is a difficult thing to accomplish in a small niche like mine, but it's sort of like a small town where everyone knows everyone, and they likely know all of your secrets. So enforcing rules to preserve anonymity is really important to my community and me. This includes prohibiting the "naming of names" or the "site" that the drama is coming from when seeking for advice or help. This doesn't negate that people may know the existing situation or people involved because they are also involved or know some of the people involved, but it helps cut down on the drama and the spread of negativity and false information about people."

With a forum community, you can truly be who you want to be.

This is not so with social media where others can create bias based on your gender, looks or topical preferences.

Together, together

"In her early work, Turkle argued that the internet provided myriad positive opportunities for self-transformation, but more recently, she argues that the explosion in social media options has led us to develop superficial, emotionally lazy but instantly available virtual relationships." (1)

It's hard to argue against this statement when you consider the content that predominates social media. And often an endless stream of self-focused content.

"Indeed, we provide clear evidence that online forums afford users a way of being genuinely “together, together”, as opposed to what Turkle calls “alone together.”(1)

The bottom line is that it has been proven that allowing a degree on anonymity increases engagement across all niches, but especially those that are built to support those with stigmatised conditions. These forums have a greater sense of community and depth than those built on social media.

When you allow your members to take back control of their privacy, you are empowering them to make decisions about what to share.

Given how eroded our privacy is in our modern always-connected world, this is a precious gift.

If you are looking to create a new community then consider this before choosing your community platform.

References:

1: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S074756321500268X
2: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10410236.2017.1339370

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