Why anonymous?

The signature (and blogger) i1277 contributed a thoughtful comment to the brief debate on this blog about press ethics and discussion forums (scroll down to see the comment). On his/her blog, i1277 expands on the issue of anonymity (in Norw.) in a longer post.

I do see the arguments for choosing anonymity/nicknames in certain web/net contexts. In many discussions and user groups it may not be important to the others if you are a 15 years old girl from Bergen or a 69 years old retired colonel from Austin, Texas, as long as you contribute something valuable. But there are contexts where openness about who you are is essential, where anonymity subverts your own credibility and devalues the debate for everyone else at the same time. I think serious political debate is one of those contexts, hence my problems with the nickname-dominated discussion forums such as VG Diskutér. If participants in political debates are anonymous, how are we to know that we’re not witnessing, say, provocations or manipulation from the youth cadres of established political parties? As blogs become more important, such questions also gain momentum.

Discussion groups and editorial principles: Education, education, education

Danish online media magazine eJour summarizes two recent studies of discussion groups by Jakob Linaa and Ibolya Maricic:

  • Anonymity: Participants who identify themselves with their full name generally are more respectful and better able to argue their views than anonymous participants, according to Linaa.
  • Moderation: A moderator/editor has a positive influence on the debates.
  • Rudeness: Participants feel “liberated” from normal behavioural constraints because they can say whatever they want without being held accountable.

In a report I wrote about commentary journalism and the internet in 2002-2003 (available here, in Norwegian, pdf), major Norwegian newspaper websites’ use of discussion groups was one of the topics. Though I didn’t perform any thorough research, what I found was quite disturbing. All the sites allowed anonymous postings. They still do. And though all of them have implemented a system where users can alert the editors/moderators about unacceptable posts, you didn’t have to read many posts to find utterly embarrassing/crude/dumb statements. A very superficial test of VG Diskutér today again seemed to confirm that first impression.

There are many good points to be made for allowing as free a discussion as possible. The question is how news websites and other sites that are run according to editorial principles should define their role when they host discussion groups. VG, for example, explicitly waives responsibility for all statements made by participants in the forum. This is in fact a quite astonishing abdication from time-honoured editorial principles which VG would never contemplate for its readers’ letters page in the printed paper.

Traditionally, the chief editor is legally responsible for everything the newspaper/website publishes, whether it is written by reporters or readers. Controlling and editing all posts before they are published in a web discussion group would be very costly and tedious (though that might ultimately become necessary if an editor is taken to court over something that was posted in a discussion group. Remains to be seen). An alternative, or a start, could be to raise the entry level:

  • Identification: Demand of users that they register with their real name.
  • Limited anonymity: Maybe allow for anonymity in some types of groups, as Ibolya Maricic recommends – groups that deal with traumatic and very personal issues.
  • Increased intervention: The editorial team could initiate and intervent more often in debates.

The best argument for such a change in editorial policy is to compare discussion group culture with blog culture. Blogs seem to encourage quality, identity, pride in participating in substantial debates, respect for other people’s views – values that are often sorely lacking in the anonymous groups. Now that we have blogs, we see what the discussion groups are lacking.

Journalists and editors should have the guts to go back to the roots and admit this: If we want meaningful debates, we need to demand more of our users. So does education, education, education mean a return to paternalism? Definitely not, because here both sides are teachers. But the editors still must assume responsibility – they decide the rules, their obligation is to strive for the best debate possible. Which is, interestingly, what many bloggers do on their own sites.

There is no such thing as universal usability

Heike Edinger sent me a comment from Berlin on my post about web usability for drunken sailors. With her permission I post it here, translated & lightly edited.

“Drunk or not – one issue shouldn’t be forgotten: When it comes to user interfaces, there are culturally specific patterns of orientation and use. In China, for example, websites that drown you in links (such as sina.cn) are seen as “rich” or “transparent”. The criteria that define a user-friendly website are very different from the USA or Germany. One can also say: that the web and usability has a lot to do with culturally specific opinions about “aesthetics” – exactly as you put it: For the Norwegian newspapers it’s important not to look too intellectual and boring. Yahoo, for example, reacts to such cultural differences by putting fewer links on the start page (what for an American signifies “efficient, lucid and tidy”) than in China (where many links means abundance, density, “richness”). I think researchers use the terms “High Context” and “Low Context” cultures – high context correlates with collectivist societies (China, Japan, but also France) and means: The user prefers to receive a broad range of information – no preselection. That leaves all possibilities open for him to “research” – also in a playful way with emotional navigational elements (often implying non-verbal and above all non-linear patterns). In low context (mostly individualist) societies the user expects that everything will be clearly prearranged, and that the navigation can be trusted to guide him through the content in a linear way, so he won’t have too much work finding the “most important” information. Because the web still bears a strong American imprint, it is often claimed that transparency/lucidity/tidiness has a lot to do with reducing complexity, although the opposite might be the case. Also interesting here – with RSS and Tagging in services such as Flickr and Delicious, preselection of links by authors/experts is becoming less and less important – it’s very efficient when users define the taxonomy themselves.”

Outdoor news

Nettavisen has changed its navigation and typeface. It’s getting tougher and tougher to find important news on the start page. This is disturbing. But since I’m on the navigation track for the moment, check out the “Nyheter” submenu in the navigation bar. You get the choice between national, politics, foreign news and… “friluftsliv” – outdoor activities! And below that, “kart” – maps. It’s fine that reporters – and readers – can be compared with hunters and gatherers, especially today and especially in this country, but come on!

The Drunken Sailor theory of web behaviour

I’m sad I can’t claim a Norwegian origin for the expression “spending money like a drunken sailor” (more frequently used in English, Mr. Google says). But maybe it’s more instantly recognized here. After all, over the years there have been plenty of drunken Norwegian sailors spending their hard-earned money in unadvisable ways. Let’s just say there’s something here that might help explain why Norwegian news websites stumbled over a highly original approach to web navigation. Have a look at the three leading sites, VG, Dagbladet and Nettavisen. Start with quantity. There is no shortage of links, right? On Dagbladet’s homepage I counted well over 300 before I gave up. Nytimes.com has around 100 less. Then look at consistency and logic. Isn’t that what usability experts teach us – don’t confuse the user with unclear hierarchies and navigation tools that disappear? Well, a couple of clicks on Dagbladet.no and you have already encountered numerous different navigation bars, horisontal, vertical – all there. You don’t have to drill deep (nice dotcom term!) to reach sedimentary layers of Dagbladet.no’s old navigation layout (example).

So what, then? It works, right? Maybe it does. Dagbladet.no and the other two sites are tremendously successful in terms of users, and they are selling lots of ads. Recently Dagbladet.no were looking for 10 new journalists while the mother printed newspaper must reduce its staff, VG is hiring three new now. Illogical navigation and pages that look very carnevalesque, that doesn’t scare the users away. On the contrary, they behave like drunken sailors, spending that precious web currency, the clicks – so then you should pack the site with links, right?

There’s another argument, where Norwegian press tradition connects with those websites’ design and navigation. A sober, logically arranged, correct look would send the wrong signals – lofty, intellectual, cultural, and worst of all, boring. In Norwegian printed newspapers, high and low are always mixed. Sophisticated political reporting next to the most horrid crime stories. An aversion to cultural analysis, and a love of sports analysis. The most successful websites replicate the model online.

Many of those sites also long ago grasped the dynamic that Steve Outing describes: That you need to give users lots of choices also on story level, and possibly display lots of links from the homepage on lower level pages. Now that development gains new momentum from the expanding use of rss feeds etc.

So even the drunken sailor theory has some logic. Still I want to believe that the force of gravity still works – that the beauty of logical navigation wins in the long run. That’s a challenge to Norwegian websites: A drunken sailor also deserves some guidance.