How do you implement anonymity in an online community without impacting social engagement?
Imagine that you are alone and are in an inescapable violent relationship or have experienced another traumatic event. You are full of shame and embarrassment and you aren’t confident to share your story with friends or family. You are desperate to get more information and help.
An online support community is a safe space where there is an exchange of ideas, stories and advice with members that do not want to connect in real life and also wish to remain anonymous because of their situation. In this forum, anonymity is vital to its success to offer help, but also to provide victims with a platform free of judgment.
Engagement and anonymity
Engagement in an online support community is defined as a multi-way conversation within a social network. You contribute by asking questions, giving feedback, creating or sharing content or sharing a personal account.
Anonymity generally refers to “the inability of others to identify an individual or for others to identify one’s self.”
People who are subject to difficult or violent situations and seeking advice in an online forum need to protect their identity. The removal of a link between your name and how you identify in real life and your online identity can encourage participation and promote freedom to ask questions. The distance between these two identifiers allows members to stop worrying about their reputation, social status and focus freely on the creativity and problem-solving aspect of their experience within the community. However, for people to remain open, there must be absolute security that identity will be protected and also there must be an online identifier to connect to the community.
How do you keep your anonymity and yet be part of the conversation?
Victim Support Netherlands
Victim Support Netherlands helps people after crimes, traffic accidents, disasters and calamities. You can go to Victim Support Netherlands for emotional support, receive support in the criminal proceedings and help you get your damages compensated. They promise to help you further today, the moment you want it, in a way that suits you.
The Open Social team discussed the engagement and anonymity concept with the Victim Support Netherlands team with a workshop at the beginning of their project.
The result was that all chances for personal identification had to be eliminated and it was decided to forbid it in all cases. Being personally identified can happen accidentally or because of carelessness from a user. That meant removing all personal profile fields. Members are discouraged from providing private information at every step of community interaction and we hide everything that is uniquely identifying.
Removing the identity ultimately was decided because you are protecting people from themselves. Being personally identified can be dangerous in these scenarios. By disconnecting the content from the actual person – the person has full authority of content and ultimately can remain safe.
However, you want to be recognizable on the platform to some extent because otherwise, you can’t interact with other members, especially since you are dealing with emotional support and advice. While anonymity can even boost engagement from a single user, eradicating the distinct elements of a person will decrease the engagement on the support platform. It is a delicate balance between providing a sense of freedom and privacy while risking a lack of connection.
We also decided that on Victim Support Netherlands, you need to distinguish the difference between the members as well as the official parties on the platform: Victim Support Netherlands staff members, volunteers and police are marked as a different type of user. By clearly naming these users, a sense of trust is created and established. The feeling of authority is clearly defined when dealing with sensitive matters.
In short, the dilemma is that you don’t want the real live persona of your members to be identifiable, but they still need to be a recognizable entity for others to connect with.
Our Open Social solution
Open Social helped create a safe and engaging environment for Victims Support.
Victims Help requires additional safety standards to guarantee the safety of victims. Open Social adheres to strict security standards and implemented extra measures such as reducing the personal data stored and data encryption.
All data is hosted on a European Sovereign cloud of Microsoft Azure in Germany. The information is protected by the strictest data protection measures, certificates, and requirements of the EU, as well as key international standards.
As a member, you want to know who you are sharing intimate details with. Can you connect to yourself and others when a profile photo, profile name, or even previous content is removed?
Within Open Social, a few technical decisions were made to remove the true online identity of members in Victim Support Netherlands:
- First, unnecessary fields were removed from the profile the regular profile
- A sound explanation is given to members about which data is displayed to who (account vs. profile creation). Only the username that you have chosen and the contributions that you place yourself are published in the community and are therefore visible to other members and visitors to the Victim Support the Netherlands website.
- To be able to register, Victim Support processes your email address, password and the user name of your choice (nickname/pseudonym under which the contributions are published). We offer a three step wizard to help people set up an account. The first step lets the user generate a nickname. Secondly they select an avatar from an avatar generator. In the third step the user is asked what happened to them. The answer automatically based on taxonomy offers groups for support to join. That way the individual can get the right sort of help without publicly saying what happened.
- The user is guided through the account creation, and it is explained what each field does and why you should not personalise this and at the end you will be recognisable, yet anonymous and in the right groups.
- Lastly, the information displayed inside has to be constructed in a way that the information will never reveal to others on the platform.
- and all of that only takes 3 minutes!
Discourage sharing personal information
It is imperative that messaging around the sharing of any personal data is forbidden, and will be monitored
- The use of personal information is discouraged by only using fields that are necessary for the profile. Biographies or any identifying factors are disabled in the feature set.
- People are not aware of how sensitive their data is. You can easily deduct the real identity of others using small tidbits of information. Each user must read the community guidelines before signing in
- We offered other forms of identification that are non-identifiable, such as name generators and avatar generators.
- We optimized the flow of the sign-up process, so people don’t need to make decisions for themselves when it comes to the profile creation.
Encourage community building
What sets Victim Support the Netherlands apart and what makes it so successful is the active community management.
- Victim Support the Netherlands makes sure the members use the persona in the right places, share content in the right groups and discussions, make it clear where you can connect, what you can share, and learn how to manage content if people are sharing too much information.
- It’s useful to encourage users to protect others as well and avoid too much detail sharing.
- The community manager or administrator removes messages that do not comply with the rules and in case of multiple cases of abuse, the participants are deleted. This is because we want to monitor the quality, safety and discussions of the Victim Support Netherlands Community.
- The community manager is aware of the real dangers that a failure in the protective system can have serious consequences. After all a lot of the victims on the platform are victims of serious crimes and might be in real danger if those criminals would know that they shared their experiences
At Open Social, our quest for progress and innovation is a priority, but we keep our feet on the ground and listen to the needs of our customers. We use technology to support people, so we have to remain flexible and solution orientated. We interpret the information and turn it into action. Working with Victim Support the Netherlands has earned Open Social an International Splash Award and Victim Support Netherlands won a Web award. It is excellent to see that our work is having real impact and making a difference to people’s lives.