Trust and anonymity

I used to teach at MECIT in Oman and some of the lecturers there had written about the increases that occurred in the amount of communication in forums once they allowed pseudonimity in the posts. Oman is a Sultanate, with an extensive royal family, so there’s a considerable and highly structured social hierarchy based around closeness of relationship with the sultan. For this reason many students don’t use their surname, just giving their first name twice because otherwise it would influence their relationships with other students. Hiding their offline identity further, so not revealing sex or ethnicity extended their freedom further. Online names were all inanimate objects, but even flower names weren’t used (as in most languages flowernames are female). The amount and depth of the communication increased substantially.

In eastern Asian cultures as well there is a lot of importance attached to creating a public social identity associated with the concept of face which can be very different from their private identities. So for these reasons they use different social media platforms like Weibo, since this enables people to go online without revealing their offline identities. In the west there are a lot of communities in which people want to protect their offline identities because of their sexuality (predominantly but there are other concerns). A lot of social media platforms don’t permit this, Facebook and google being particularly bad perpetrators of disclosurism – disclosurism is a term given to people who want to know your offline identity in online interactions. This gave rise to the so-called “nymwars” when they introduced these policies. I think it’s a failure of privileged white guys not realising how difficult it can be for people not at the top of the social ladder. A lot of women pass as men in order to avoid harassment, for example.

The worry is that being anonymous licenses a lot of inappropriate behaviour, because there is no consequence for abusive behaviour, but I’ve usually found that pseudonymity is very different from anonymity. Even if you don’t know someone’s offline identity, if they are sufficiently invested in their online identity, antisocial behaviour is still not consequence-free because they can find themselves cut out of their online-only relationships if they transgress certain rules.

The most troubling of the positions I find with the requirement to disclose a particular name; the whole a/s/l insistence, is the concept of a “real” identity. Identity can’t be packaged or defined in a particularly nuanced way. Telling someone your age, sex or location doesn’t actually inform them about anything important. At an ALT-C conference I once declared that you can tell a person’s gender more easily online than offline. It was a statistic I made up, but I did so to see if anyone quibbled with it. No-one did. Most people aren’t transgender, and yet there are enough transgender people around that you can’t presume you can tell someone’s gender by being able to see their sex. My made-up statistic was meant to reinforce the possibility that, once online, we are freed of the imposition of the physical onto who we are. Online no-one knows you’re bald, no-one can impose a gender; you can claim to be any age, any height, any species. And no-one has a right to interfere with, or prevent you from, defining yourself how you wish. We shouldn’t necessarily assume that this is about hiding one’s true self, it can be (and maybe is more frequently) about revealing one’s true self, once all that pesky physical reality stuff is dispensed with.

Whichever route we as educators go down, pseudonymity, anonymity or onymity (it’s a real word there is nothing more fruitful than a discussion about the pros and cons of the course taken with students. I’ve had some fascinating conversations about it in class (OK I mean specifically when teaching digital identity – I can’t see how it would crop up in a physics lesson). Essentially the pros and cons of either route need to be explored.



The Only Way is Ethics Ep 2

The second issue brought up was that of online harassment and the balance that needs to be struck between censorship and freedom of speech. The causes of cyberbullying were seen as the cyberdisinhibition that comes with being online, particularly when people are anonymous. However, there is still some bewilderment at the mentality of people who do harass others online, and there was seen to be a need to understand more the reasons why people do it. Steve raised the phenomena of harshtagging and tweckling, that there is a kind of feeding frenzy that occurs when people begin to criticise others and we recounted occasions where we had seen this take place in conferences, where because everyone sees a criticism, there are sufficient numbers in the room who agree that join in and others outside the room also then become involved. Previous experiences of cyberbullying are another reason why some students may be reticent to participate, and this can expose them to renewed harassment or cyberstalking. Confronting the behaviour can be counterproductive – feeding the trolls – but sometimes there can be a desire to address it. There are pros and cons to both. The problem of harassment can be constrained by removing anonymity, but then this runs counter to the needs of pseudonymity stated in the previous post. These two conflicting needs driving the nymwars we’ve seen in many social media.

3. Intellectual Property. The third ethical issue discussed was that of IP of content in social media. Who owns anything placed in social media and how do we protect the intellectual property of students who use it? There is the precedence of shareware within online interactions, and creative commons, and perhaps IP is not as big a deal as it used to be, because we are more accepting of the concept that ideas are free. We all noted that it’s the colleagues who are more reticent to share that are the weaker ones, the fewer ideas you have, the more jealously you guard them. Accrediting ideas in social media is also more difficult, and it’s more likely to fail, but it was noted that people are more forgiving of accidental misuse and inadvertent plagiarism in social media.

4. Authenticity of voice. There were also issues about knowing who is whom online. There is spoofing of identities, sometimes inadvertent, and false claims of experience, sometimes for fraudulent reasons, sometimes to be part of a group, sometimes because of a syndrome known as Munchausen’s by Internet (a version of Münchausen‘s by proxy),  nearly named after the fictional character Baron Münchhausen who was prone to lying, but for some reason people have dropped one of the aitches (although kept the umlaut). I noted however that actually for many people having an online identity that is different than their offline one can mean it’s more authentic, not less. Many people only feel they can be themselves when online because their sense of self is at odds with their physical form, or because their immediate peer group cannot accept their true nature. Again another reason for protecting pseudonymity. In the discussion later, it came up that there are a range of cultural reasons why people may need to perform in a particular way online (not using their real names, not using their image) and we should not enforce particular behaviours, since it’s impossible to anticipate what all of these issues may be.

Using social media to support online collaboration

Today I presented a session at Teresa MacKinnon’s seminar “Realities of social media in learning and teaching” part of the HE Academy’s Changing the Learning Landscape seminar series – more details at

Most of my research at the moment is in online collaboration for design, but I wanted to support the seminar, so looked for an overlap between what I’m doing and social media. Online collaboration involves social media, but on reflection I realised the link is closer than that. Social media really forms the safety net for collaborative design.

The argument I was putting forward is that online collaboration can be as effective as offline collaboration as long as trust is maintained in the team. When trust diminishes (usually because one part of the team fails to fulfil allocated tasks) then the difference between online and offline collaborations becomes apparent. If you’re working in an offline team, then you can collar the weaker links in the corridor, or drag them off for lunch, and re-establish the sense of social commitment that underlies most effective collaborations. If you’re working online there are no real ways to do this.

However, research going back to the 1990s shows that trust is developed in online computer mediated communication by socialising, disclosure, joking around. By encouraging usage of social media, then the online teams would have a social recourse to re-establishing trust. However, the students we’ve worked with in online collaboration don’t actually socialise within the groups online. One of the reasons raised by the participants in the workshop was that maybe they don’t want to – which is true – if you’re falling out with someone over work, the last thing you want to do is swap funny cat pictures. However, doing this is (according to the literature) the way to re-establish rapport.

It might seem odd that digitally literate students (and they are) don’t use the communication platforms to socialise. They do create Facebook groups, but these are nearly always purely functional, they are just there to arrange meetings or discuss work. Partly this is because they felt the necessity to maintain a professional demeanour online, since their perception was that this is what you’re supposed to do. With more experience of the world of work, I think it becomes evident that being too professional is counter-productive – peers want to see an authentic online personality. I think another reason, and this was confirmed by the students in the room at the seminar, is that there is a generational difference between people of our generation and those who are younger, one that we see particularly in evidence in virtual worlds. For the middle-aged, we conduct a lot of our relationships online, we have jobs, families, employment patterns mean we’ve moved apart from our peer groups, and so we are comfortable with having online relationships that are solely online. For students who are usually of a younger generation, online relationships are almost exclusively extensions of their face-to-face ones. They usually don’t get to know people only online. They’re not seen as “real friends”. Encouraging students in online collaborations to form these social bonds online therefore can’t be left to chance – the process needs to be scaffolded with activities to facilitate the online socialising process.

There is a link to my presentation on slideshare following. At the moment it won’t let me in because it doesn’t seem to recognise the password that my browser has stored. So either Firefox has let me down on remembering the password, or Slideshare has screwed up my login details. Either way, this technology is not as easy to use as it should be. If I get the reset email (which hasn’t arrived yet, so either my email account is playing sillybuggers or Slideshare is way too slow at sending out my password reset link) then it will appear in my next post.


Harlem Shake

One of the things that makes social media so fascinating is the speed with which trends appear, morph and then disappear. February 2013 was the month of the Harlem Shake. It seemed to appear at the start of the month, proliferate madly and then by the end of the second week it was already becoming passe … as evidenced by the very first one I saw, which was this Since then we’ve seen record attempts (like the one at Warwick) , The Norwegian Army doing it, some of the cast of Twin Peaks did it. There have been TV newsrooms, Lego Avengers (probably about the funniest), it’s been done in World of Warcraft and Minecraft at the Welsh Open snooker, and now even the Simpsons have had a go. I even know someone who’s done one, or at least the people in his company have  (though I’m pretty sure that’s him at the start with the box on his head). The syntagm is a simple one, first 15s someone (usually masked) dances to the Harlem Shake while everyone else does routine stuff, then the baseline drops and then there’s a jump cut to lots of people jumping around on the screen. The appeal is that they actually seem like a lot of fun to do, not so much to watch, after a while though. Full story is here

What’s also great about social media is the speed with which it can clash with authorities. An early seemed to arouse the ire of a couple of NYPD officers, then when it was attempted on a larger scale there was a bigger backlash  However now it seems to becoming a mechanism for opposing oppression in Tunisia The first seem to have unintentionally wound up the authorities, but now there are hundreds of copycat activities going on.

It still seems that the powers that be (or is that the powers that were) in a lot of countries haven’t really come to grips with the power that the Internet can provide. It’s not just about posting videos or images, (or blogs), it’s how when you bring together and connect a mass of different people then doing anything, sometimes funny, sometimes insightful, sometimes just plain stupid, can occasionally just trigger a wave of activity, often without any discernable root (i.e. a stand alone complex). It’s still surprising that that this growing wave of self-expression and/or fun still comes into conflict with the authorities though. You’d have hoped by now that these regimes would have learnt their place. Yes they have their allegiance to the status quo, but with us all connected together to this extent, and able to act together and share ideas, then ultimately, they should probably be shaking too.