The debate over online anonymity has raged on for over a year, as major publishers — like The Huffington Post, Popular Science and The Chicago Sun-Times — continue taking drastic measures to subdue trolls within their comment streams. Some have implemented strict registration policies requiring users to comment with their real-world identities, while others have deleted comments altogether. Meanwhile, apps like Whisper and Secret that encourage users to share their anonymous thoughts have snowballed in popularity, furthering the divide between advocates and critics alike.
So why do people use anonymous identities online? Should brands eliminate anonymous engagement around their content or implement strategies to support those who are more comfortable behind pseudonyms? To find out, Livefyre surveyed more than 1,300 consumers on their motivations and perceptions around online anonymity. Here’s what we found:
You don’t have to eliminate anonymity and sacrifice engagement with your audience. Implementing the right moderation strategy can quell the trolls and create a safe space for everyday people to interact with each other. Here’s how:
Set clear expectations. Post your community guidelines prominently. Explain that moderators will be reviewing content, and encourage community members to flag anything inappropriate.
Deputize your audience. Identify users who consistently add value and reward them. Respond to them, feature them, upvote them or badge them as a top contributor or subject matter expert. Consider giving your brightest contributors additional moderation authority to help manage discussions, and push the rest of your community to self-moderate with tools like flagging, upvoting and downvoting. Regularly evaluate community flaggers to ensure flagging behavior is constructive and in line with your community guidelines.
One model, shown below, denotes paid subscribers with a star and allows users to choose between an “all comments” or “subscriber comments” view. Additionally, comments — from subscribers or otherwise — that receive a high number of likes receive a badge.
Utilize technology. In addition to catching spam and obscenity, advanced moderation tools can automatically flag or delete things like hate speech, cloaked obscenity (think “A$$HOLE”), threats, personal information or custom phrases added by moderators. For sites with high-volume engagement, these automated tools can save moderators a week’s worth of work every month, leaving them more time to participate within their communities.
If necessary, pre-moderate. Post-moderation is the ideal option for allowing your audience to have real-time conversations around your content, but if you expect a particular piece of content to generate heated or inflammatory commentary, pre-moderate. Enlist a human moderator to approve every piece of content in strict accordance with your community guidelines before it gets published.
Join the conversation. Flagging and deleting inappropriate content removes the bad stuff, but it doesn’t do anything to enhance the quality of the conversation. And for that, editorial engagement within comment streams is crucial. So encourage site editors, community managers and editorial staff to directly engage with your audience: write thoughtful comments, ask and answer questions, and respond to valuable commentary. It shows your audience that their opinions are valued, and it also reminds them they’re comments are being seen — not just by other commenters, but by a moderator.
“Readers’ comments on our site inform us, reward us and often surprise us,” said Sarah Laitner, communities editor for the Financial Times. “When our journalists join in, they show that we listen and have our readers in mind… We know everyone is busy, but we do ask them to take a few minutes to review comments on their stories from the past 24 hours. We don’t expect them to respond to everyone and it doesn’t have to be at length, but we do want to show that we are listening.”
A lot goes into a successful moderation strategy, but it all comes down to this main point: show your audience that you’re listening. Perhaps it’s best summed up by David Williams, community manager for CNN Digital: “Anonymous commenting isn’t the problem,” he said. “The problem is when commenters feel anonymous. It is really important to let your community know that you’re listening and that you value what they have to say… If you don’t pay attention, people will misbehave until you are forced to pay attention.”