I have been using online public forums for a long time. In fact, I was lurking in forums with a 300 baud dial-up modems on a Commodore 64 way back when. Of course, back then they were called electronic BBS systems (anyone remember Wildcat) and were usually run by some local computer user group or enthusiast. Trust me, insults and flame wars can still exist even when only traveling at 300-baud speeds.
The odd thing about being around public forums for so long is that I have become accustomed to the rather large noise ratio. Public forums are rowdy places and part of their charm, if you will permit the characterization, is that you have to look hard for the gems of knowledge that make the other garbage posts bearable.
With that being said, the recent story about Blizzard/Activision's attempt to instill civility into its forums by requiring everyone to use their actual real name when posting a comment, and then backtracking on the idea after users complained loudly, was very telling. The long established tradition is that participants in public forums have the "right" to be anonymous and they are not going to give up that "right" anytime soon.
You can read the responses in the World of Warcraft forums to see some of the arguments against using real names. Some are legitimate reasons and some are dubious at best - which sort of mirrors what happens in forums, ironically. Personally, my name is already somewhat public because of my position here at TechRepublic, so I do not have the same fears others may have. Of course, I have also developed a pretty thick skin. (Hint to the clueless: Calling a typical American male over 40, fat, is not much of an insult.)
Toni Bowers approached this story from the business perspective of knowing your users and, to Blizzard/Activision's credit, the willingness to admit you were wrong and change policies. I would like to approach the story from the gamer/geek/forum-poster perspective.
Would you use your real name in an online forum? Is anonymity that important to you? Why is anonymity so important, what does it accomplish? Would forums be more civil if the participants were not anonymous?
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Mark Kaelin is a CBS Interactive Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He is the host for the Microsoft Windows and Office blog, the Google in the Enterprise blog, the Five Apps blog and the Big Data Analytics blog.