The power of privacy and anonymity when building a community

(Matt Mecham) #1

I recently came across a piece of research that looked at the social benefits of online forums.

The research paper made the distinction between social media and online forums and the benefits of the latter.

One thing that really stood out was that forums allow users to disclose as much or as little personal information that they are comfortable with and how this encourages them to join and contribute.

When you consider that when you join a Facebook Group, it only takes a few clicks to learn a lot about an individual; more than enough to get a good snapshot of their life, where they live and what they like.

This makes it uncomfortable when discussing stigmatised topics such as illness, debt and so on.

Some of my favourite quotes include:

People may strategically express identities when they think they will not be punished, and/or connect them to an audience that is valued

Initial levels of forum identification are low as a rule; users do not tend to join a forum with a sense of already being connected to other users (who are strangers) by more than shared interests. Forum identification develops over time.

For example, people with an obscure interest may join an online discussion forum to obtain information or social support that is not available in their own community. Because online communication provides disparate gratification opportunities compared with traditional media, individuals may find it superior to face-to-face communication

A key aspect of our argument is that some of the benefits of online interaction may accrue particularly to people with stigmatizing conditions, whose need for a sense of community may be harder to meet in the course of normal, day-to-day offline interactions

Taking these first two sets of analyses together, we conclude that people joining forums are not very attuned to the community-building utility of forum membership; they are more interested in its instrumental value as a site of information transfer between members. Indeed, the latter analysis affirms that online forums are perceived by their users as an exceedingly successful means of information transfer.

To summarize, then, our research suggests that users of discussion forums may find themselves with improved well-being and may also find themselves empowered and galvanized to work for the forum cause offline

Indeed, we provide clear evidence that online forums afford users a way of being genuinely “together, together”, as opposed to what calls “alone together.”

It’s worth a read especially if your niche is stigmatised or obscure.

(Piper_Wilson) #2

Wonderful. Thank you for sharing.

(Nick Sandberg) #3

We run an online community dedicated to legal cannabis cultivation by licensed professionals and the ancillary services and vendors that service this rather new sector of industry. Given the legal (or lack thereof) status in many countries and quasi-legal status in the U.S., we are constantly striving to maintain people’s privacy to protect them while always offering the best information and a community where legal cannabis people worldwide can connect. This synthesis can be a challenge.

Thanks @mattmecham for pointing out the benefits of private forums vs. social media. Sometimes these lines can become blurred for us. We find that being welcoming and inclusive to the max is one of the best strategies for maintaining that sense of community for many who have, in previous years, been branded as “outlaws”. We often find that in that anonymity we have many lurkers. I am always looking for ways to bring these folks out of the shadows so to speak. How might you recommend bringing an outlaw lurker into the limelight?

Thanks again for sharing that read and some of your favorite quotes from within, @mattmecham. Thanks to the Feverbee community for always being a tremendous resource (especially for us newer CMs. :wink:)

(Matt Mecham) #4

You’re welcome! It’s refreshing to come across fairly current research for forums.

There’s also a lot in there to get your teeth into about forum engagement driving real world engagement for causes.

(Matt Mecham) #5

Thanks Nick!

With regards to enticing lurkers to post, I would host a “Lurker’s Week” (

The key points you want to get across are:

  • Privacy and confidentiality. Only admins have access to email addresses, you can choose a username that does not reveal your real name and likewise with any avatar/photo. You don’t even need to reveal which country you are from (again IP addresses are admin only)

  • No judgement. Your community is a safe space where you do not need to defend your usage or needs.

  • Just say “hi”, you don’t need to write a bio. Just drop in say hello.

I wrote an article on LinkedIn based on this research and got a few great quotes from people running communities that thrive on anonymity (one is a support community for those recently diagnosed with HSV and struggling with the shame)

Good luck with your lurkers!

Also going to tag in @joelr who recently hosted a Lurker’s week and may have some more specific advice for you.