February 24, 2005

Anonymous blogging?

When we were designing Warwick Blogs, we considered the possibility of allowing anonymous blogs, that is, blogs where the name of the author was not revealed. At that time, we decided against it because the possibilities for abuse seemed scary, and we didn't see a huge argument in favour of anonymous writing. Recently, though, a couple of suggestions have been put forward for cases where it might be useful:-

  1. Authors who want to write about something very personal – illness, emotional issues, sexuality and so on – but don't want to be personally identifiable.

  2. Authors who would like to try creative writing – fiction, poetry, etc. – but are self-conscious about their work and fear being criticised or mocked in a way that would be worse and more irrevocable if their actual identity was involved.

Both those seem plausible to me. But of course it remains challenging to decide whether they justify the introduction of anonymous blogs, and if they were to be introduced, how they would be made available. Should anyone who wants to be anonymous be allowed to be? Or should it be a special-case situation where somebody has to decide whether each case seems appropriate (and if so who, and how?)?

And of course, this wouldn't be complete anonymity because there would always be some readers – the people who approved the blog in the first place – who would know who the author really was. You'd have to have that, because you'd need a way to manage abuses of the system.

It's tricky. I'd be interested in feedback on whether there are many users who would value anonymity and for what purposes.

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  1. It's a core issue. Research into the functions and working of anonymity in blogs in general would be very useful, though of course the closed system and small community focus of WB makes them different from the globally dispersed blogs on public servers like Blogger. Generally it is a very positive thing because it does permit one to write about very personal things, or to advance unpopular opinions that it would otherwise be hard to identify oneself with.

    If anonymity was introduced on WB without a comprehensively researched and agreed system of governnance and self-regulation, it would almost certainly call into existence a level of monitoring and active censorship that is not currently necessary (in particular with respect to statements about the University and its staff, and value judgements about groups) that would stand a high chance of destroying the whole thing, or chilling it so deeply as to freeze it. There is currently in effect a responsibility agreement and within very broad boundaries there is an extraordinary level of freedom.

    However, that freedom is only available for the courageous and non-personal/non-controversial. If we want blogs to reach their potential in creative and innovative terms, anonymity needs to be possible. So…

    Get down to close examination of the fundamental legal-philosophical issues involved and begin to recuit groups who can own and carry forward the conclusions. An adminstrative decison will simply not work.

    24 Feb 2005, 13:59

  2. My analysis is that if someone wants an anonymous blog, they may do better to host it somewhere other than WB. Plenty of anonymous blog tools exist, what makes WB special is the fact that it's not anonymous. It's real people, who interact with each other in the real world too.

    24 Feb 2005, 14:53

  3. I'd definitely like the opportunity to blog anonymously. I wouldn't like to do this elsewhere as I like it that the replies you get on your blogs here are from people who are in the same environment as you and know what you're talking about when you mention places/departments/work etc.

    24 Feb 2005, 15:06

  4. Idea: the ability to anonynoymyoymyhide your name from entries you post. Now obviously for a personal blog this becomes rather useless as everyone knows you've posted it, but for a communitly blog this could become rather useful. A group of about eight or nine budding poets could have a communal blog and post there without their names being shown.

    The first point is probably a stronger case for anonymous blogs. Many have talked about "blog therapy" – not quite blogging for blogging's sake, but simply to release their inner feelings. The reason I'm against anonymous blogs here is because given they are supposed to be (despite my best efforts to the contrary) academmic tools with a social edge I don't want to be going round thinking "is this anonymous blog done by this person".

    To digress for a moment, there are two types of entry that I'm fed up of seeing. The first is the OMGWTFBBQ IVE GOT A BLOG MUST RITE TEH TEST ENTERY!!!111!eleveneleven11 entries. The second is the research entry. And by research I mean somebody doing a cut and paste job from about 53423423802 different websites. Essentially, I don't want to read academic entries. Now a person looking at WB from the outside might want to see these entries, to see how WB is being used for study purposes.

    This is where my second idea comes in: a stronger entry filter system. At the moment, I can only filter to some very wide groups of people. If I wanted to blog something that only certain tutors can see (but not all) and maybe one or two students then I can't do this under the present system. If I could specify by name/usercode who could and could not see certain entries then some problems might not exist. And then I would be able to avoid all these "Look what I stole from lookatmeimtoolazytodomyownresearch.com!" entries by filtering out certain categories.

    This, however, wouldn't solve the problem of those who want to subscribe to "blog therapy" but don't want people to know it's them. It may sound harsh, but I don't think this really belongs on WB. There are plenty of sites offering free blogspace that can be used for anonymous entries, and then you can pass on your nick there to people who you don't mind reading your entries. I know that sounds rather cynical, but if I'm going to write something that personal, chances are I'm going to do it on my LJ as a friends only entry and keep it out of the WB public area.

    24 Feb 2005, 15:09

  5. a) People could blog but not publish, or restrict access, which friends in the past have done

    b) If someone wanted to publish an anon blog maybe there would be a special criteria ie its not published immediately – has to be authorised by some(one/people) who are special.

    24 Feb 2005, 15:14

  6. How about:
    1. Everyone is allowed one anonymous blog, in addition to their personal blog. The names of these blogs will have to be chosen, and may need to be screened, but this should be a "blind" process for whoever's screening it – they won't know the real name of the person involved. Blog moderation is the same as here, but with the extra point that the moderator will also not see the real name of the person blogging, unless they make some specific effort to find out (and have appropriate privilege to do so) – in line with the way that an anonymous blogging site will reveal user detals under pressure of a lawsuit etc.

    2. Make the anonymous site completely different to warwick blogs. Take off all warwick branding, etc. There could then be a much more relaxed approach to moderation – as in an independent site, anyone with a complaint would have to go legal to have anything pulled down. Yes, this means that lecturers who are offended by something posted on there will have to just deal with it, unless they've got grounds for a legal case.

    24 Feb 2005, 15:33

  7. With anonymity it is not the case that whole blog environment would be equal to the sum of the individual blogs. Everyone could be affected by things directly involving only a few people.

    I think the option to make personal anonymous blogs would be very interesting for everyone, and would liberate far more than just stuff felt hitherto to be too "sensitive".

    But the terms in which the issues involved would be discussed (let alone decided) are not established, and it is not just a matter of fiddling about with things and making a vague reference to the law.

    There are several "make or break" areas in which there is an objective requirement for a system like WB to acknowledge and start to make provision for confronting the large intellectual, poltiical, legal and social issues inherent in creating a discursive cyber realm. This issue is one of them.

    The WB set-up is so magnificent and the results so far so good that it is capable of making that leap, and it would not involve relinquishing any of the features and qualities that people currently use and have fashioned quite distinctively.

    But I have no doubt myself that failing to recognise the range, significance and potential impact of the issues involved in anonymity, monitoring, censorship, and control, and failing to accept and take up appropriately the difficulty and complexity of the process involved — and making a decision on the run, in the kind of way Max suggests, would be leathal.

    24 Feb 2005, 15:53

  8. Rather than many anonymous blogs, is it easier/possible to have just one global blog that people of the University can create entries on. The 'system' (for want of a better word!) removing automatically the identification of the poster when it is published on the blog. (Would this also allow therefore a possibility of some 'electronic thread' back for identifying abusers of the system.)

    Being one blog, would also make it a little easier in monitoring…

    24 Feb 2005, 16:32

  9. Robert O'Toole

    Luke's suggestion is related to something that Charlie and I have talked about. That is, a type of team blog owned by an editorial committee. In the case of anonymous blogging, it might be desirable for the editors to publish an entry under no name, or a group name.

    In the academic context, it would be possible for someone, say a first year undergrad, to publish something tentatively that they aren't entirely sure about. This gives them a chance to try it out in a wider context. I'm sure that there are social applications of this approach as well.

    The editorial board would be responsible for ensuring that the content is suitable, but the article would not be atributable to a single person. I suspect that this may be a way of encouraging more academic publishing.

    I have a group of students in mind for this. They currently publish a paper based journal. But i would like to widen participation, and this may just do it.

    Charlie – what do you think?

    24 Feb 2005, 16:35

  10. Robert O'Toole

    Actually, i think PhD students would benefit from this, as they are far too shy!

    24 Feb 2005, 16:36

  11. Bob – The group blog and variants should be fine. But I think it would only address a small part of the "market" for anonymous blogs.

    To kick-start specifically what I have been talking about in general terms…

    We are talking about the creation of cyber-identities. It would mean someone could create a wholly consistent, developing and unique expression of themselves that was not a one to one mapping of their social-physical identity, but a creation that derived from it. That is, of course, the single most exciting aspect of the blog, since it allows almost complete freedom to create oneself – and to do this in interaction with as many real and cyber identities and entities as one wished… But, to do that, there needs to be a relationship betweem the blogger behind the cyber identity and the system within which he/she is blogging. Hence the need for protocols (or at least procedures) which make it intellectually and legally safe for all concerned, but avoid the disaster of monitoring and censorship (which stike to the heart of which any cyber personality, however near or distant – and it might be identical with – its creator.

    We are also talking about the possibility of interaction between ideas and images and notions that achieve a high level of dynamic energy and interactive specificity, but without the anchor and drag of a self. It is the intellectual freedom of such conditions that explains in part why news and current affairs blogging (and rants and all the rest) are so much a part of blogging. But once again, chill them even a degree by censorship and they wither away completely.

    How to be free? It is a big question, no?

    24 Feb 2005, 17:26

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