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.