Over on Davepress, Dave Briggs has published a characteristically thoughtful post about anonymity online. In a nutshell, Dave argues people should be open about who they are as this builds trust in online spaces.
It’s fair to say this has long been recieved wisdom for those managing internal forums and social intranets. By requiring users to post using their own name and logon, the theory goes, you encourage self-moderation. Intranet managers will tell you proudly that they’ve only had to remove a handful of posts in years of running forums.
For the most part, I think this is the right thing to do. Dave’s post alerted me for the first time to the Greater Internet Dickwad Theory, which is as applicable within the firewall as on the greater internet.
But although it’s generally true, it doesn’t follow that it should always be the case. Anonymity does have its uses – many people (myself included) have a public and private self on the internet, just as we might reveal different sides of ourself inside and outside of work.
I wonder, then, if there’s a case for anonymity inside the firewall? Although that sounds like an oxymoron, it just might work, in the right circumstances. Hear me out on this one… If openness enforces self-moderation, doesn’t it also run the risk of encouraging reticence? Of silencing criticism?
An organisation which struggles to encourage honest critical dialogue might find they are better able to achieve this by giving people the anonymity they need to speak freely.
Even where anonymity is given, it isn’t always believed. To give an example, in almost any organisation’s staff survey, around one-third of employees never really believe it is anonymous, and a sizable proportion of those will hold back on saying something negative for fear of the consequences.
The central issue is one of trust. To participate usefully and honestly in online forums, employees need to trust that their employer – an in particular, their own line manager – won’t hold what they say against them, or criticise them for having participated at all.
While most employers would say their senior management culture is one which is accepting of ideas, fear of line management – either real of perceived – is a commonplace even in otherwise well-functioning organisations. Similarly, people are often reluctant to say anything which could be perceived as being critical of immediate colleagues in case it upsets the apple cart.
Self-moderation does indeed enforce good behaviour, but the side effect of this is that it enforces compliance, silences dissent and prevents disruption. Yet disruption can be productive and useful. It generates ideas. It questions.
What would happen if you let employees hide behind a nickname and avatar and say what they really think? Would they take part? Would you be surprised what you hear? And would you do anything in response?
Which brings me back to the issue of trust. Trust is a two-way relationship. For organisational dialogue to work productively, both sides need to trust each other. Employees need to trust managers to listen, and leaders need to trust their colleagues to make a useful contibution.
In some organisations, the cloak of anonymity could help to establish the first part of that trust relationship, and reassure colleagues that leaders are, in fact, really listening; once it exists, it’s easier to step out of the shadows with a greater degree of trust and openness.