How anonymous should a forum admin be?

by Martin Reed on 5 December 2007 in Articles

Forum owner transparency

I have been asked on a few occasions just how personal forum owners should be with their members. Whilst I have mentioned numerous times the benefits of being approachable and personable, some readers have sensibly questioned just how far they should go in getting to know their members and sharing information about themselves.

Of course, it is quite possible to go too far and reveal information about yourself that may not be appropriate. Not sharing any of your personality can be equally problematic, though. This leaves us with the question:

How anonymous should a forum administrator be?

All communities are different. Some come across as corporate, with valuable information but little in the way of personality. Others come across as lively and friendly, with big personalities jostling for attention. Others are small, tightly-knit communities built around trust and mutual respect. These are just a few examples – if I were to describe every type of community I would be here all day long!

You should be as anonymous or as honest as your goals dictate.

The importance of goals

It is essential that you have planned out the aims and goals you have for your community. Once you have figured these out you can determine just how much of yourself you want to ‘give away’. It is quite possible to share information about yourself but still remain somewhat distant from your members, but I would argue that this is not necessarily the best approach to take.

You want your members to trust you. If your members do not know anything about you, it is very difficult for you to earn their trust. An online community needs a personality and very often that personality comes from you. If you are not sharing yourself with your members, you will struggle to establish the personality you want your community to adopt.

Give enough and trust your instincts

Of course you may not want to give away too much information about yourself. If you know an opinion you hold is something that would be considered vile by your members, then it it probably best that you keep that thought to yourself!

Imagine the last time you were introduced to new company. The chances are you didn’t spout off your latest thoughts on political or religious issues – most of us will keep such personal ideologies to ourselves until we really get to know and understand the people we have been introduced to. The same approach should be taken with our online communities – play things safe in the short term. As you begin to understand your members, you will be able to share more about yourself. Consequently, your members will share more of themselves if you take the lead.

Question time

If your members ask you questions that you don’t feel comfortable answering, then tell them. Just as in real life, we don’t always want to tell people exactly what we think about certain subjects. Remember that not only can members read your comments, but casual visitors may be able to as well. Make sure you don’t end up saying something you regret – sure, that delete button is there but people have surprisingly long memories!

Do what is right for your community

If you are promoting an open community based on shared thoughts, opinions and ideas then you shouldn’t be afraid of opening up to your community; just be sensible. Think through what you plan to say before you actually do so. Consider whether you understand your community well enough to share you opinions with them. Ultimately you should share as much as you are willing to in order to earn the trust of your members. Once you lead the way in this regard, you can expect to see a far more open and trusting community develop around you. Just don’t overdo it!

Share what you are comfortable with, and be honest with your members at all times – whether you choose to share more of yourself with them, or not.

Your experiences

Have you grappled with the challenge of deciding whether to share more or less of your personality with your community? What approach did you take and why? Share your thoughts and opinions by leaving a comment below.

Share this community building advice

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{ 28 comments }

Online furniture store December 6, 2007 at 3:40 am

This is a good topic you picked Martin, I suppose it is not always clear where the line between anonymity and honesty should be, or how a perfect balance could be struck. But ultimately the tenor and nature of online community and the aims sought to be achieved thru it would determine this point.

Whitney Johnson December 6, 2007 at 12:38 pm

Thank you Martin.

I just noticed this morning that you have similar posts at the end of each entry. Like that.

And as per your thoughts that reaching out one time in a professional way, I’m going to send personal e-mails to those that have subscribed.

Learnings lots —

Whitney
http://www.whitneyjohnson.com

Amish Made Furniture December 6, 2007 at 2:46 pm

Surely, the content, style and tone of the blog itself will decide this. If the subject is something that is likely to result in certain amount of openness, it would not be possible not to. If on the other hand, it is say something highly technical or scientific, there would be no need to.

Michelle from the Coulee Region December 6, 2007 at 7:27 pm

I’ve been wondering about something slightly different but related… Should I be worried about the fact that I’m _not_ anonmymous? Generally speaking, I try to be safe online but my domain name gives a lot away and, even if I spent the extra money to get proxies on them all, all you really need to know is my full name and town to find me. Since I run a very local based site, it makes me nervous that it’s so easy to figure out who I am. Does anyone else worry about this? Has anyone, for example, gotten mad about being banned and come looking for you?

I try to tell myself that I’m no worse off than anyone in the community that’s highly visible and in a position to get people angry at them, but it still is scary.

Michelle

HIrsutism December 7, 2007 at 6:20 am

Nice article. But I think the forum admin should not be anonymous. A relationship be it personal or professional lasts only if there is transparency in it. There can’t be a healthy relationship with an unknown person.

Martin Reed - Blog Author December 7, 2007 at 12:04 pm

Reena – This article was inspired by a question from Smiley, but I am glad you enjoyed it. It’s always difficult to determine just how anonymous to be, but as always it depends on your community and the goals and aspirations you hold for it.

Whitney – I like the ‘Similar Posts’ spot, too; it often reminds me of articles I had forgotten I wrote! Good luck with your site, let me know how you get on.

Ramana – I agree that every circumstance would be different but don’t think it should be based on the subject of a community. After all, why should an administrator not feel he can get more involved in a community with a technical or scientific subject than any other?

Michelle – I don’t think you have anything to really worry about. I have lost count of the number of threats I have received from members we previously banned. Most tell me how they will track me down and come to my door – none actually turn up (of course).

Internet savvy people will always do a ‘WHOIS’ search on your domain name and see if they can find your details there – unfortunately with .com names you cannot opt out of publicly displaying this information so you may want to use an anonymous domain name service.

Michelle from the Coulee Region December 7, 2007 at 2:20 pm

Yeah, that’s what I meant by getting proxies on them. I have 10 domains, though, so that gets expensive. And I’m not sure it’s worthwhile when Google will give you a map to my house anyway.

Glad to know that no one has turned up at your door. It is kind of scary, though, as the people I may potentially ban would likely live in the same town as me so my door isn’t as far away as it usually is on an internet forum.

Michelle

Smiley December 8, 2007 at 4:13 am

Thanks for the post, Martin, made for interesting reading, and has made me think a lot. I’ve looked at some of my posts and thought “hmmm.. I shouldn’t have said that.. or that..” but of course it’s too late to delete now.

It’s still a young enough site for me to change my ways more, though!

I like being friendly with the regulars, and open with new visitors. If someone asks me a question about myself, I answer them. They all know me quite well on the surface, but lately I’ve been thinking perhaps this approach was a little wrong.

Because what about when the time comes I have to take action against one them? I may regret being so open, close and friendly with them.

So this topic is definitely one I’ve been sitting on the fence on and struggling with. If I distance myself now, my regulars may think I’ve lost interest in them, and the site.

Smiley December 8, 2007 at 4:18 am

Michelle – I’m in a similar position to you. When I registered Friendly Chat I forgot to opt out of having my information publically shown. Unfortunately for me, I only knew about this about 2 weeks ago and it seems you cannot opt out of it once you’ve already registered. So for a few months my residential address has been public for all to see. A couple of unsavoury characters have picked this up.. but as Martin said.. people on the net tend to be hot air.

All I’ve had is empty threats. They have my address but, like Martin, nobody has ever shown up of course. Not so much as a letter!

I’ve simply replaced the address lines to;
Registrant’s address:
Private
Private
Private
Private
S26 3NO
GB

Problem solved.

Ulrike December 8, 2007 at 11:21 pm

This is a great article, very informative. I often thought about these asks-if I ( as a forum administrator) should be anonymous or not. Itīs not easy to say, but I think the answer is yes.

coozies December 10, 2007 at 6:50 am

great article martin
I have to agree every forum is different and you have to do what you feel comfortable doing

Martin Reed - Blog Author December 10, 2007 at 5:52 pm

Michelle – I think that if you are still worried about this, you should follow Smiley’s advise of updating your WHOIS details to private/fictional details. I have done this in the past, and it prevents people from looking up your personal details.

Smiley – I wouldn’t see being personal and friendly as a bad thing, and you certainly shouldn’t change your ways because you worry you will have to consequently ban someone. By being friendly, honest and approachable you are significantly reducing the risk of things going that far wrong in the first place.

Ulrike – We all have our own opinions; I would say that a forum admin should avoid anonymity but it depends on your own aims and objectives.

Coozies – Thanks for your comment, I am glad you enjoyed the article.

Michelle from the Coulee Region December 10, 2007 at 7:26 pm

As I mentioned, I can’t really afford to get proxies for all my domains and I don’t know that it’s worth it when it’s so easy to find me through other means anyway. I’ll just try not to piss off any nuts. ;)

Michelle

Martin Reed - Blog Author December 10, 2007 at 8:10 pm

Michelle – In the example mentioned by Smiley, you don’t need proxies or any paid service. Just log into your account at the domain name company you registered with, and update the contact information associated with your domain name.

Michelle from the Coulee Region December 10, 2007 at 8:22 pm

Eh? Last I checked you were required to put accurate contact information there. That’s the whole reason proxy services exist. You use them to provide accurate contact info so you can be contacted but you don’t display your personal details to the world. But that costs nearly $10 per domain. I had it for a while but I can’t justify the extra $120 per year on it when all someone needs to do is type my name and town into Google and there I am.

I suggest Smiley make sure what he’s doing is allowed. It’s possible I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that’s not legit.

Michelle

Martin Reed - Blog Author December 11, 2007 at 1:24 am

Michelle – I do the same thing myself with some of my domains. Sure, it may be bending the imposed rules somewhat but I still keep a legitimate email address so people can contact me that way. As far as I am concerned, nobody needs to publicly know my home address. If they have to contact me, they can do so via email or through my domain name registrar.

Michelle from the Coulee Region December 11, 2007 at 4:38 am

I did a little research and it’s not only against the rules but also may be illegal in some circumstances. Tempting as it is, I’m not going to risk losing my domains over it.

Michelle

Martin Reed - Blog Author December 11, 2007 at 2:00 pm

Michelle – Of course, that’s completely up to you. I can’t see how it could possible be construed as illegal and I have not heard one example of anyone having a domain name taken from them because their address was incorrect.

Andy December 12, 2007 at 8:04 am

Having admin/moderators that are available for a chat and contribute in discussion is the best. Users feel satisfied and free in that they can talk to their “superiors” over anything. But it does have its downsides, in that often when admins get touchy on a particular subject they can over react against certain users. I agree with most of what you have to say. Quite a nice post.

Smiley December 15, 2007 at 5:55 am

Michelle – I e-mailed my domain provider yesterday and asked for my address to be opted out of the Whois. They swiftly complied and now my address does not show up in the Whois.

Seems all you have to do is e-mail and ask for your address to be hidden.

Martin Reed - Blog Author December 15, 2007 at 5:12 pm

Andy – I completely agree. For me, the most important role of an admin/moderator is to engage with the community. If you pick the right people and give them clear guidelines, you should be able to prevent moderators from over-reacting or causing problems.

Smiley – That’s interesting information, thanks for sharing!

Michelle from the Coulee Region December 15, 2007 at 9:04 pm

Really? That’s interesting that they would do that. I doubt Godaddy (my provider) would as they sell the proxy service for that. I can just go in and edit it myself but I need to check the box that says I certify the information is correct. By hiding the information, I could lose the domain if it’s ever in dispute. Though I can’t imagine anyone ever disputing any of the ones I have. It’s an interesting gamble.

Michelle

Martin Reed - Blog Author December 17, 2007 at 9:21 pm

Michelle – I think Smiley was referring to his .co.uk domain name; the .co.uk registry allows you to hide your contact information.

I can’t see there being a dispute with your domain name – if there ever is, you then simply update the info with your genuine address information. I am not suggesting you ever use a name other than your own as the registered owner – only the street address info.

Michelle from the Coulee Region December 18, 2007 at 8:30 pm

Ok, I decided to email Godaddy and find out their official position. This is the response I got:

“The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) operates as the governing body for domain name registrations, and has certain requirements that must be met by a registrar if they wish to be an ICANN Accredited registrar. The requirements for domain contact information are listed on this page:

Registrar Advisory Concerning Whois Data Accuracy

As you can see in that document, it is required that the registrant of the domain provide the name and postal address of the registrant contact, as well as the name, postal address, e-mail address, voice telephone number, and (where available) fax number of the technical and administrative contacts for the domain.”

So it is most definitely against ICANN’s rules and could result in me losing my domain names. Would they bother going after little ole me? Probably not. But I’m not going to risk it. Thanks for the discussion. It was interesting, but I’m going to leave my info alone.

Michelle

Michelle from the Coulee Region December 18, 2007 at 8:31 pm

Whoops, the URL was in brackets. Trying again:

http://www.icann.org/announcements/advisory-10may02.htm

Michelle

Martin Reed - Blog Author December 18, 2007 at 9:12 pm

Michelle – Thanks for the info. If you follow these rules to the letter then it would also be against the rules to use services like whoisguard; in which case we are back to where we started anyway!

opie March 17, 2009 at 4:20 am

Hi

Depends on the forum to a point but everybody else as anonymity when the post things of a personal nature so why should the admin not have the same luxury ? Especially given there will probably be a friend or two on the forum, never able to express experience on things of a “delicate nature” like incest as an example, the community is the loser because of it.
Plus if you are serious of maybe selling your site one day for the big dollars who wants to buy a site hinged around one person-you the seller ?

Usernames do not mean a great deal to me, if someone wants to have another for the purpose of free expression and privacy thats fine by me, its the content next to the usernames that is of prime concern.

Love the site Martin

Thank you

Martin Reed - Blog Author March 19, 2009 at 8:00 am

Opie – Administrators shouldn’t have the same luxury because they are not the same as ‘other members’. I am not sure I understand your argument regarding the discussion of incest – firstly I would question whether such a topic would be appropriate in the first place. Secondly, if you feel the need to be anonymous in order to discuss something it suggests your community isn’t very strong.

A community manager shouldn’t be anonymous. They need to be seen as a real person. You can’t form a community based around anonymity. Trust only forms when human relationships are involved. How can you build rapport with someone who only calls themselves ‘admin’ and who refuses to share any information about themselves?

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