What is the reason to allow for anonymity in our web community?

Is it so that in case one makes a mistake they do not need to be embarrassed? In real life our Sages say (Avot 2:5) us: לא הביישן לומד "One who is embarrassed [to ask questions] will never learn". Indeed, scaring users away doesn't seem worthwhile for Mi Yodeya.

Is it so that one need not correct his own mistakes?! That doesn't seem like a value to promote on Mi Yodeya.

Is it to hide so that one can say unpopular ideas that he would be normally afraid to say because of repercussions? (That's not a bad reason sometimes!)

Is it to hide when not acting with good character in a Torah discussion? We'd much rather have users behaving appropriately when participating on Mi Yodeya.

In my experience on the web, anonymity has rarely been justified. It just gives people with self-esteem problems a tool to put others down in a drive-by style of shooting comments from the hip without properly thinking through the repercussions in real life of those comments.

(YS has made an excellent point regarding safety as the reason for anonymity so I will rephrase the question: If it is unsafe to let others know who you are and at the same time, remaining anonymous puts us in danger of doing bad things (even Torah prohibitions) such as slander, do we have the right within the bounds of Jewish Law to continue this "community"? Meaning, should a religious Jew participate in a site if the only way to have that site function is one which risks promoting slander? I think this question should be asked on an individual basis to one's individual rabbi.)

Here's an article that just came to my attention that is related to this question: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/12/technology/12comments.html

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2 Answers

NOTE: The content below is partially obsolete. I wrote it when this was an SE 1.0 site that I administered autocratically. However, the arguments I present in favor of allowing anonymity remain valid. To contact the moderators, chat is the best forum.

Here's how I see it:

Possible benefits of allowing anonymity

  • It would be a great deal of work for me to prevent anonymity.
  • Such a major restriction on users, however it's implemented, would prevent many people from using mi.yodeya.

The above two factors are big enough for me that I would have to see a very strong argument for preventing anonymous participation to even seriously consider how to do it.

The following philosophical point is nearly as important to me as the practical ones above:

  • To underscore the point that if your argument is well-reasoned, founded properly in the sources, and well-presented, it really doesn't matter who you are in an informational (i.e. not for professional advice) forum like this one.

Here are some additional reasons that may be important to some users:

  • As you suggested, to allow people to express [globally or locally] unpopular ideas that they believe in without it affecting their real-world reputations.
  • To allow people to ask or answer questions about uncomfortable topics or about topics that it would be damaging for others to know that they're dealing with.
  • To allow people to participate in the site even if they have a general fear of people spying on them, knowing their business, etc., as exemplified in YS's answer.

Why anonymous participation shouldn't be a big problem here

I agree with you that anonymous expression can lead to big problems on blogs, in blog comments, in discussion forums, and the like. Where the order of the day is free-flowing discussion, some people naturally gravitate toward things like attacking other people - either attacking others within the same forum or using the forum as a platform to attack people outside of it.

Using mi.yodeya to attack others

However, I don't see that as a big potential on mi.yodeya. This is not a discussion forum or someone's blog; it's a knowledge exchange. The point is not to discuss whatever's on people's minds but to ask and answer questions about Jewish life and learning. Sure, someone could phrase a character assassination as a question or an answer, but there's been almost none of that to date, and I don't expect much, as long as mi.yodeya remains active in its intended mode. Why shoehorn your attacks into the knowledge exchange format when you can just create your own blog or post on a more free-flowing discussion forum?

Attacking others within mi.yodeya

There remains the potential for attacks on other people within mi.yodeya. I suppose this could happen, especially within the comments on a question or answer, since the comment feature exists particularly for response to and discussion of questions and answers outside the main Q&A exchange. However, the comment feature was deliberately designed to be much lower profile than the main content, so whatever happens there is going to be seen by fewer people. In any event, this phenomenon, too, has also been mostly absent to date.

There are many built-in remedies

The bottom line on any potential harmful content is that we have a large menu of ways to deal with it:

  • Anyone can email me directly at info@yodeya.com or using the "Contact mi.yodeya" link on the sidebar to bring issues to my attention. Those who've tried this can testify that I'm pretty responsive.
  • Every user with at least 15 reputation points can click the "flag" button on a question or answer, marking it as offensive in their eyes and bringing it to the moderators' attention.
  • Every user with at least 125 points can vote down content that they deem objectionable. When a question or answer has a negative score, it's likely to get less attention, and there's a clear message that the community doesn't like it.
  • Every user with at least 2000 points can go in and edit out content they don't like. As I write this, only one user has attained that mark, but others will follow soon enough. You, for example, are almost halfway there after only 23 days of participation.
  • Moderators (two of us, as I write this), can delete any question, answer, or comment that we feel warrants it and do anything else that it takes reputation points to do.

If you see objectionable content, I encourage you to carefully avail yourself of these tools to get it downgraded or removed.

Conclusion

I think we can agree that anonymous participation, at worst, isn't a problem in and of itself but a potential enabler of bad behavior. The bad behaviors it could lead to haven't been a big problem to date, and we have mechanisms in place for dealing with the bad behaviors themselves, should they crop up. Unless and until anonymous participation actually leads to serious problems that the community and moderators can't deal with, I don't see a pressing need to either ban it or ask my Rabbi about it. As always, I welcome feedback on this topic in the comments or via email.

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Here's an article that just came to my attention that is related to this question: nytimes.com/2010/04/12/technology/12comments.html . I already posted it at the bottom of my question. –  Yahu Apr 12 '10 at 23:49
    
Interesting. I think that newspaper article comments are part of the class of free-flowing discussion fora that mi.yodeya is different from in important ways. –  Isaac Moses Apr 13 '10 at 0:03
    
So true! I was comparing and contrasting. –  Yahu Apr 13 '10 at 18:42
    
WHy is the email option gone? –  Yehoshua Apr 21 '13 at 5:16
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@Yehoshua, when I wrote this, I was the autocratic administrator of mi.yodeya, before it joined the Stack Exchange network, and I owned the yodeya.com domain and pointed that email address at myself. Now that the site is administered by Stack Exchange instead of me and governed by the community and its elected moderators, it makes sense to use Stack Exchange's built-in methods for expressing concerns rather than emailing an individual. In addition, since I transferred the yodeya.com domain to StackExchange, it no longer provides email forwarding. –  Isaac Moses Apr 21 '13 at 5:55
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It also prevents people from getting private information, Identity theft,and all other good stuff.

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Any 14 year old with basic searching skills can find your address the amount of kids their ages and even their hobbies and use it against them steal credit card numbers and general blackmail it is Masseh Bkol Yom –  SimchasTorah Apr 8 '10 at 0:36
    
Good point! But then how do we avoid the behaviors such as the one I mentioned in my previous comment in this "community"? –  Yahu Apr 8 '10 at 0:42
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I really don't think that identity theft is a major concern. If someone wants to steal your identity, it's going to take a great deal more than your name and Jewish interests. No one steals credit card numbers one at a time by social engineering anymore, when you can get them using various automatic hacking techniques or by simply buying a list of them from another hacker-thief. –  Isaac Moses Apr 8 '10 at 5:08
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