Electronic Social Networks are a modern phenomena. They depend for their success on the ability of people to easily share information and ideas with others. Their attractiveness comes from the ease with which people can join and leave groups, and from the ability to remain anonymous if desired. Unfortunately as they become more popular rogue elements invariably try to take advantage of the openness and pollute the social environment. This pollution takes different forms. Some of these are:

  • Bad manners – forums and blog comments can become very confrontational with some people seeming to delight in negative, often abusive comments, attacking others behind the shelter of anonymity.
  • Stolen identities – celebrities seem to be a favourite target for frivolous passing-off, but stolen identities can also take a more sinister form particularly amongst vulnerable groups such as those involving children or distressed people.
  • Fake identities – these are especially concerning when people pretend to have qualifications or expertise that they do not possess.
  • Slander and defamation – where, under the guise of anonymity, people slander or defame others.
  • Misuse of the network – people use the network to promote products or services inappropriately.
  • Multiple identities – Sometimes people have multiple identities in an attempt to gain an advantage.
  • Clues to reputation – We always make choices on what to read and with everyone potentially contributing we need mechanisms so that we can focus on those we think are likely to be worthwhile reading.
These problems can be addressed if we introduce the concept of responsibility with anonymity. That is, people can participate in some activities without publicly identifying themselves providing they first establish some level of identification with the system and they agree to abide by the rules of the network. If they break the rules then they can be excluded. Their identity may be shown to any aggrieved party or revealed to the whole community, or it can be given to authorities for civil action to be taken.
Not all access and activities on social networks are subject to abuse and for those there is no reason for the access to be open and anonymous.

To achieve control where it is required we need simple ways for people to identify themselves to a level appropriate to the task or content of the site. That level of identity would then be displayed on the social network site so that people can still see how trustworthy the person is – without revealing who they are. The person need not reveal anything about themselves including a pseudonym.

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