The other day, I received this really nasty e-mail in my inbox. In it, the sender said all sorts of mean, nasty things about me and about people who manage online communities in general. “I have to say right off the bat that I don’t like you,” the e-mail began.

This person is, as far as I know, a total stranger. I don’t have any record or recollection of talking with someone with the e-mail address used, nor does the username part of the e-mail address ring any bells. The person signed only a first name to end the e-mail. By “her” own admission, she has only “followed [me] somewhat and read excerpts from [my] book and reviews on”

In so many words, she intimated that I hate forum users, including my own and that people who manage communities also hate their users, are all power hungry and love to ban people. She said that I am ignorant to the possibility of administrators abusing their power and that I am further encouraging said ignorance through my writing. Due to this, I am without credibility. The message wasn’t worded as kindly as I am wording it here.

These comments are absurd, disrespectful and not worth my time to address. The e-mail reeked of someone who has been banned from a community and feels that they have been wronged. And maybe the person had been wronged – who knows – but that isn’t important and is no excuse for talking to me in this manner.

Anonymity is An Enabler

But, what this message reminded me of – and what I wanted to talk about today – was that anonymity will always be a challenge for everyone who is attempting to run a productive or civil online community.

This person signed only a first name and they used an e-mail address that Google cannot find one reference to. I would have liked to have seen this message sent by someone who included their full name, their town of residence and their online bio, including their employer, if any. I provide that information and more. I am here, out front and accountable for what I say. I don’t send anonymous nasty e-mails to people. That’s not how to earn credibility.

Anonymity allowed this person to feel like they could send this e-mail to someone they do not know, to say these things to someone that they would never say to their face.

I was recently had a (short) conversation about internet conduct with my 11 year old brother. The only thing he does online is look up information for school or for video games and play Flash games on sites like Armor Games. He doesn’t participate in any social spaces, leave any comments, etc., so he has no concept for it. It’s interesting to talk to someone who is literally a fresh slate. I told him that he should always act online the same way he would act offline, if he were talking to someone face to face.

Anonymity is liquid courage. It makes people feel invincible and untouchable (which they are not). It is, therefore, one of the bigger problems that online community administrators have to deal with because some people simply view the internet as alternate reality, where normal rules of decency fail to apply.

Combating Anonymity

So, how can you combat this? Just keep it simple. See violation, remove violation, take action. Treat everyone fairly and be consistent. You have to hold people accountable for their actions, whether or not you know who that person is. You have your guidelines, you have your policies – make sure they are applied fairly and evenly.

Over the 10 years or so I’ve been managing online communities, I’ve had probably around a dozen or so people tell me how they could change their IP with ease and how banning them doesn’t matter and on and on. That’s cool for them. That is definitely one way to spend your life and I wish everyone well. But, our guidelines still matter. If we had to ban them, and they circumvent it, cool – they can try to hide. Have fun. We aren’t going to drive ourselves nuts over it. But, if they slip up, we’ll see it and then they can go back and start with a new account again.

Just because people can join again, that does not mean that your guidelines should never be enforced or should lack meaning. It just means that what you see, you deal with. What is placed in front of you, you tackle. Keeping it that simple keeps everyone focused.