Friday, August 22, 2014

Unrestricted evil

Online services before Facebook were mostly anonymous. At least, no one required real names and SMS confirmations. You sign up and write anything. I mean anything.

There were scary fairy tales about writing anything without putting your real name on it. Various regulations imposed on the Internet, especially in non-democracies, rely on these tales. But is the opposite—real names and full disclosure—really necessary for a good-standing community?

Let's check. The anonymous culture is still alive on some resources. Today is not about 4chan, but about Stack Exchange, a major Q&A website. Stack Exchange has an open data tool for querying data. The tool is quite useful for testing various hypotheses about human communities. It would be a service to humanity if other web services offered similar openness, but so far we have few.

Stack Exchange (SE) doesn't ask names and so on. Though real names are common and some employers ask candidates for links to their SE profiles, the service is basically anonymous. We expect dirty things to happen.

One dirty thing is excessive downvotes for questions and answers others post. Kind of vandalism. And here's the graph:

The graph shows net votes (upvotes - downvotes) for each user with 10+ upvotes or downvotes from a 1% sample (about 31K users). That small tick on the left is users who mostly downvote.

A slightly different perspective:

(The axes were log-linearized for easy reading.)

User behavior happens to be extremely balanced. Few users tend to upvote or downvote extremes. Most of them try to be honest.

So, showing your name is not necessary for good behavior. Online communities can manage themselves without references to the official world, regulations, and witch-hunting. It only matters what environment people want to be in, and then they'll be able to recreate it online.

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