It is difficult to be truly anonymous at a live event. You may have peers at the event, and you will probably be wearing a name tag for starters, but you can sit hidden in a corner, silent during debates, just absorbing the arguments, which gives you a degree of anonymity whilst still benefiting from the content of the conference. However, your level anonymity is usually directly connected to your silence. As soon as you speak, you draw attention to yourself and are usually forced by convention to identify yourself. This could be informally over coffee when discussing ideas with other delegates, or formally when you receive the microphone in order to pose a question and the chairperson asks for your name and affiliation. If you choose to participate, you surrender your anonymity for that brief period of time and space, regaining it only when you leave the event.
If you attend online, you need only be visible as a hit count or viewer number, making you much more effectively anonymous than it is practical to be at a live event. Your anonymity is also not so directly connected to your silence. Whilst Twitter forces people to assume some kind of identity, this may not be an openly traceable persona and is certainly not validated. Tools like CoverItLive even allow comments from “Guest”, or the user’s choice of handle name, which again may or may not be genuine. The internet obsession with privacy has produced an artificial scenario that does not observe the norms of communication at a physical conference, whereby participants in the conversation of the event can hide their identity when speaking.
Anonymity can cause a loss of inhibition, which may encourage more and franker exchanges, but it can also lower commitment to the conversation and reduce conversational cohesion. I observed this during the IWMW10 Online Barcamp, when a “guest” comment appeared in the middle of the discussion. The comment was not an irrelevant one, but it was not accepted into the flow of the conversation, nor did any of the openly named participants make any effort to engage with this guest. Perhaps as a result of this, the guest did not make any further comments. This guest had the facility to speak anonymously, but was not able to be involved anonymously without the credibility associated with openness and identity. Had multiple “guests” appeared from the numerous silent observers, this could also have got very confusing. The Online Barcamp participants were obviously keen to make connections for future conversations, and exchanged Twitter names at the end of the session so that they could continue to engage. The guest would not be involved in any of these ongoing relationships.
A lot of the emphasis at an amplified event is on the importance of conversation as a community resource. The aim is to create wider reaching, lasting conversations both around the event and beyond – thus getting back to the root of the word “confer”-ence. You can’t build these lasting conversations and relationships if people choose not to interact at all, so we spend a lot of time emphasising the learning benefits of sharing notes, reactions and thoughts as ways of generating and sustaining the conversation. We do not often address the issue that participation has to be intrinsically linked to identity if the conversation is to meet the underlying aim of being a useful resource to the community. Privacy is an important right in online communications, even when this would not naturally exist or be considered socially acceptable in the equivalent offline arena.
So is it ok to allow people to comment and question anonymously at events? Is our rhetoric dissuading those who wish to comment and question, but do not wish to contextualise their comments with information about themselves and their position?
I would argue that we do need to encourage serious contributors to invest something of themselves in the conversations they join if these are to be truly collaborative and useful to the community as channels of debate and information processing. However, the longevity of internet records does mean people can be justifiably more sensitive about their privacy than they might think to be when physically present at an event, so it is important to offer flexibility and reassurance.
Asking people to provide a first name only when they participate, or an assumed name, will help to improve cohesion in current conversations, but will not enable follow up conversations. Alternatively, offering more enclosed, private conversation spaces for certain discussions and certain audiences may be a way forward where you know in advance that this is likely to be an issue.
Ultimately, I think a clear use policy for how the conversation is going to be archived and processed post-event may also help to balance the desire of the individual for privacy with the needs of the community for identity. However, there are currently no standards for curating conference conversations, and there are not enough examples to confidently predict how a community may want to make use of that conversation to absorb it into their body of knowledge.
This is really a difficult issue and I feel that I am really only at the beginning of exploring the implications of anonymity in the context of an amplified event. I do not want to ask anyone to remain silent in an online discussion for fear of losing their anonymity, but I equally do not feel entirely comfortable with people participating in amplified conversations around an event without being open to identification, citation and future contact, as this seems to be missing part of the point. As a result, this blog post has been difficult to write, but has helped me to start ordering my thinking on this issue and identify areas of further work and research – so watch this space!
Photo Credit: Vincent Diamante.
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