Online communities depend on continuity

by Martin Reed on 14 July 2010 in Articles

continuity and relationships in online communities

On July 6th, Blizzard Entertainment announced that within three weeks, all forum members would be forced to use their real names when posting. According to Blizzard Entertainment:

Removing the veil of anonymity typical to online dialogue will contribute to a more positive forum environment, promote constructive conversations, and connect the Blizzard community in ways they haven’t been connected before.

They felt that their forums had earned a reputation as a place of flame wars, trolling and other forms of abuse and hoped this would change if members were forced to use their real names.

Such a radical change was never going to work. Within 24 hours there were over 1,000 replies to the announcement – the vast majority of which were negative. A week later, Blizzard Entertainment reversed their decision and announced that anonymous posting would be allowed to continue.

Anonymity isn’t (really) the issue

Serious discussion is possible in online communities without the need to prevent anonymous posting. Just because you allow anonymous usernames doesn’t mean you’re destined to end up with a community based on negativity and abuse.

Yes, anonymous posting can lead to trolling, flame wars and abuse – after all, there are limited consequences to bad behavior when nobody knows who you are or where you live. That being said, anonymous communities don’t have to be this way – it would take a brave person to argue that the VisaJourney community suffers because people don’t have to use their real names to contribute.

Privacy concerns are over-hyped

Many opponents of the proposed change expressed concerns about privacy – they didn’t want others to know their real names.

The fault with this argument can be expressed in just one word – Facebook. Millions of us volunteer huge amounts of personal information to Facebook and everyone who accesses the site. Every now and then there is a surge of concern but, by and large, we’re happy to share personal information and our real name with Facebook because we receive enough value in return and because that’s how it’s always been.

When we registered with Facebook, we knew we had to give our real name. Our friends use their real names. It’s the accepted culture and practice of the community.

When people wanted to use Blizzard Entertainment’s forums, they registered with their choice of username (as did everyone else). Not many people registered with their real names – that wasn’t the culture or the practice of the community.

It’s extremely difficult to change such established practices.

Relationship & reputation building in online communities

One reason why there is such a high failure rate for online communities is the fact that it’s hard for members to build relationships. When we go to a friend’s party or a business meeting, it’s far easier to communicate with people compared to when we’re online. In an online community, all we have is the written word. We lose vocal expression and body language. We can’t shake hands. It’s harder to make the mental connection that behind each username is a real human being.

When it comes to developing relationships, online communities rely on reputation. New members of an online community are often ignored or welcomed by only a small proportion of other members. The most powerful members of online communities are usually those who have made the most posts. New members aren’t really ‘in’ until others have got to know them – and that’s done by the new member making a lot of posts and getting noticed.

Members track the activity of other members in online forums in four ways: their username, avatar, signature and writing style/appearance. These are pretty much the only personal identifiers members of online communities have, and they’re guarded jealously. In these four identifiers, an individual’s entire reputation is stored.

Blizzard Entertainment’s proposal to force members to use their real names caused controversy because members didn’t want to lose control of such a major component of their reputation and standing within the community.

Such a change would have caused uncertainty. All the equity that members had built up in their previous username was now at risk.

The uncertainty of change

Members of online communities don’t like change. Change can be hugely disruptive to an online community. You’re making it more difficult for members to build and maintain relationships with every change you make. If you need to make changes, make them slowly and make them minor.

Taking away such a critical aspect of relationship building and removing a member’s opportunity to create (and develop) their online reputation and persona was never going to work.

The proposed change failed because it would have fundamentally affected every member’s reputation. It would have affected the relationships they had established with other members. It would have affected the established order and hierarchy of the community. It would have changed the subject of conversations, their tone and their content. The entire culture of the community was threatened.

Once an online community has its own culture, it’s virtually impossible to change (as Blizzard Entertainment discovered) – that’s why you need to spend a huge amount of time planning your community before it launches and proactively managing your community from day one.

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Andrew July 15, 2010 at 4:02 am

Most people are actually shy types in real life but online, since they can use usernames and not real names, they tend to be bolder because of that. It becomes the shield, the protection or the armor. Now, if you will remove that then there’s vulnerability and people may tend to shy sway altogether.

CC July 15, 2010 at 7:19 pm

For what it’s worth: “Within 24 hours there were over 1,000 replies” should read “1,000 pages of replies”. BBC got it wrong. World of Warcraft is serious business.

mike July 16, 2010 at 11:53 pm

I agree with Andrew, the ability to remain annoynomous to a certain degree certainly makes you feel more free and safe to put forth your views and opinions on online communities. You can still see this shyness though on a lot of forum boards where people post for the first time.

Brinstar July 17, 2010 at 1:16 am

Privacy concerns are not over-hyped. I feel you’re speaking as someone who has never been stalked, harassed, sexually harassed, has never had to take out a restraining order on an abusive ex-husband, and is not a member of the target group for those activities.

I think bringing up Facebook and the fact that people on Facebook are not anonymous doesn’t discredit Blizzard’s decision at all. Facebook’s privacy settings allow users to choose whom they can grant access to their online activities and other information. Blizzard lifting the veil of anonymity on its users removed this choice.

The fact of the matter is, had Blizzard gone ahead with the real-names-on-forums plan, it would have further marginalised people who are already marginalised in online communities, and driven them away from Blizzard official forums. For a better understanding of how Blizzard’s plans could have affected users who are already vulnerable to abuse by the majority (young white men on Blizzard forums), read this post from a woman gamer:

And here are a few links from women gamers and others about the whole fiasco:

As a community manager, it’s important to understand that not everyone in a community is the same. There are people who rightfully have concerns, and whose concerns should not be diminished simply because those concerns are not a part of one’s experience.

Martin Reed - Community Manager July 19, 2010 at 8:29 pm

Brinstar – I wouldn’t say privacy concerns don’t have their place; I just don’t think they were the real issue here. People can fall victim to harassment regardless of whether they use their real name. In fact, I’d argue that most victims of this kind of abuse don’t use their real names – they’re tracked down by the personal information they choose to share.

How many people make full use of Facebook’s privacy settings and block their full names and other personal information? I don’t know the exact numbers, but I’m pretty confident it’s only a tiny proportion of active members.

The real issue here was change. If people knew from the outset they had to use their real names, there wouldn’t have been a problem. Letting people build a reputation and then forcing them to use their real names was never going to work.

Thanks for sharing your links – they certainly add to the conversation and bring a different perspective, which is a good thing.

james johnson July 27, 2010 at 7:12 pm

All communities thrive on trust, and decay without it. If whichever service provider consistently breaches that trust, people will look elsewhere, regardless of the popularity of the platform. The phrase “once bitten, twice shy” certainly rings true in this case.

George Hopkins August 6, 2010 at 10:30 am

The beauty of internet forums is the fact that you can be whoever you want to be. It allows for more exchange of thought. The problem is that some people will always be crude and tactless. One bad apple will ruin the barrel.

Matt August 12, 2010 at 8:46 am

I think online communities are never going to be the same as a real life community as people say things online that they never would face to face. That doesn’t mean to say online communities don’t have their place, I think they’re a great idea, but you’ve just got to see it as a different type of community and get over the trust issue.

adam September 1, 2010 at 8:11 pm

annominity and also the ‘reduction’ of ones normal inhibitions, means you can be and say anything you want online. Flames wars can occur and do, and sometimes lead to real life bad situations (for example using Facebook to start a fight with a school friend)

still, if sites were going to dissalow annonymous users… well..
1) how do they know that adam is real? or that george or matt are for example

2) so what if you use a real name. what diff does that make

how many adam smiths are there in the world>

the only way of security is to ahve the people registered with an email address and to log their IP address (and log it everytime they come online)

and ensure that “privacy” will be null and void.

Darth Continent September 11, 2010 at 12:27 am

I wonder how attitudes towards rapid changes in online communities will evolve as users of same get into their “golden years”.

My mom and dad are both only familiar with the very basics of computer usage, and they tend to get frustrated when some subtle change has been applied to a site they frequent. Even my relatively young self gets aggravated when say Facebook decides to implement something which the majority feels is a necessary modification, but which “everyone else” could certainly do without, yet as with many things the majority seems to rule.

I think a powerful online community would incorporate more AJAX elements which allow the user to shape their interface to a community’s resources. I’d like to be able to drag-and-drop, determine where certain gadgets appear and tie those to my profile to be remembered at each visit. Implementing these would detach users from the data, leaving them to shape the interface to view that data in a way they’re comfortable with over the long term.

Natalie Louise September 17, 2010 at 8:09 pm

My company has built and manages over 200 communities. We have found that the number one key to engagment is the combination of a need within a niche. For example, we have a community built around the niche of Long Term Care professionals. The need is finding a job or a job that pays more. We bring together LTC professionals with LTC recruiters, and then we fill the network with videos and blogs specific to LTC professionals.

Tom November 22, 2010 at 5:49 pm

Good post and very important. One of my greatest respects was changing the site in a major way without, really, the full support of the core member base – I thought I knew what was best in the -long term- so went ahead anyway, only to find most previously loyal members unhappy and disillusioned. They liked it the way it was, I was too busy chasing -new- members I forgot about my loyal regulars.

Another good point on continuity, is to continue your own presence. Or at least the presence of who your regulars see as the site manager.

I’m busy in real life at the moment so don’t have much time for the net, and because I was the main overpowering presence as site manager the forums have gone quiet.

I’ve learnt from these mistakes and making only minor tweaks now to improve the community whilst keeping lay-out, design, functionality the same – and also put in place a new site manager whilst demoting myself to ‘site developer’, in the long run she will become the main presence and is loyal, there everyday, everyone knows and loves her and thus is much more suited to the job than myself who can’t always be there.

Tom November 22, 2010 at 5:50 pm

Respects? I meant regrets, haven’t slept in 2 days, my keyboard is drunk!