Thursday, August 14, 2008

Anonymous / Pseudonym edits in Wikipedia: a good idea still?

In the last few months, a somewhat sticky issue around the use of pseudonym occurred on this blog. A writer for a newspaper called SF Weekly, was being attacked online for writing an article about editor wars, in which she focused on an Wikipedian named "Griot". We blogged about this article, and a bunch of both anonymous comments as well as pseudo-anonymous comments ensued. I was hesitating about stepping in to censor the comments, since our research very much believed in "social transparency". This means presenting all of the information for everyone to see, and letting the social process sort out the truth.

Yesterday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation helped Wikipedia win an important lawsuit, which "found that federal law immunizes the Wikimedia Foundation from liability for statements made by its users." An interesting question is whether this includes _all_ statements, or just some of it. What if someone pretends to be someone else (which happened in the comments section of our blog post)? If I obtained a handle (pseudonym) of BillGates or BarackObama, and pretended to be him, can I really say anything I want? What about libel, slander, and defamation?

How far does anonymity gets us in eliciting all of the material that needs to be said? And how damaging is it to have it as part of Wikipedia? What about the use of pseudonyms? These are interesting research questions. Giant experiments like Citizendium are trying to answer some of these questions. What about different degrees of pseudonym like non-disposable pseudonym vs. disposable pseudonym, or pseudonyms that resolve to a real person and a real name under court order? (Disposable pseudonyms are handles that you can throw away easily and simply obtain a new one; here has this option in the commenting feature, for example.)

In the spirit of "social transparency", I believe that disposable pseudonym can be quite destructive to an online community. When accountability is not maintained, quality of the material is suspect. "Social transparency" means an increase in accountability. It's a form of a reputation system. Some researchers are suggesting that online accountable pseudonyms is the way to deal with these identity problems. SezWho, Disqus are examples of how to deal with these reputation and identity problems in the blog comment space. I think it is inevitable that we will need better reputation and identity systems on the web.

As linked above, a good discussion about pseudonyms can be found in:
An Offline Foundation for Online Accountable Pseudonyms. by Bryan Ford and Jacob Strauss. In the Proceedings of the First International Workshop on Social Network Systems (SocialNets 2008), Glasgow, Scotland, April 2008.

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