I noticed a nugget in the sidebar of the Wall Street Journal Online today. Only online subscribers can create groups, so I created a (free) account to see how the group feature works. In the process, I noticed something interesting in the registration dialog box, but only after I expanded the fine print. The line that caught my eye in particular was, "The quality of conversations can deteriorate when real identities are not provided." Okay...under certain circumstances, with certain individuals, it can. People can more easily avoid real-world consequences when they post inflammatory comments anonymously.
More generally, attaching a person's legal name to comments increases the likelihood that something they post could affect their personal lives or work. But anonymity is not a shield exclusively for bad behavior.
Say someone posts with their legal name in a discussion about healthcare and shares the fact that they are coping with an illness. An insurance company could conceivably use that information to deny the person coverage on the basis of a pre-existing condition. Or say someone who has been victimized posts with their legal name in a discussion about dealing with domestic violence, sexual assault, or harassment in the workplace. Oh wait - most wouldn't do that. Would allowing them to post anonymously really deteriorate the quality of the conversation?
One might argue that the WSJO is a source for business and financial news, so the kinds of discussions that would take place on the site aren't as sensitive as the examples I just gave. Well, I am browsing the Groups directory and here are some discussion groups I've found in the past minute:
Addictions (Members: 3)
Drugs and medical care (Members: 7)
Faces of Health Care (Members: 29)
Health Care Economics (Members: 98)
Workplace & Career
Diversity and Inclusion (Members: 7)
Global Neighborhoods & Social Media (Members: 313)
Management issues (Members: 1081)
Rebuilding Trust (Members: 5)
Looking at these numbers, I wonder how much the site's policy of self-identification influences the groups people choose to join and what they disclose in their posts. In placing such focus on real identities, how much of the real conversation is not being voiced?