anon answers May 3, 2013 10:23 AM   Subscribe

I'm curious what the status is on the idea of having an anonymous option for answering questions in askme.

I know this has been discussed at certain points, I recall as something the mods were considering. I'm curious what the up and downsides of this are, or if there are technical issues that make it especially challenging.

Seems to me there are certain kinds of questions that would get much more in depth and better answers if there was an anon answer option. While asking the OP to memail is one workaround, it still might not feel anonymous enough for everyone or every situation, and also looses the value of having an answer on the site for posterity and googling purposes.

Thanks!
posted by latkes to Feature Requests at 10:23 AM (44 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

The mods will sometimes post an answer on behalf of someone who doesn't want to identify their username. Also, I believe that this is an acceptable use of sock puppet accounts.
posted by gauche at 10:25 AM on May 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


I've answered with a sockpuppet, and it works out well enough. Just need to remember to take your hand out of the sockpuppet before posting again!

It has struck me that it would be great if each sign-in came with an anon / incognito mode, but that's kind of a really cool solution in search of a problem. As gauche noted, the mods will help you out if need be. Perhaps, if you don't want even the mods to associate your response with your account, you could email them with an email account not associated with your username?
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:35 AM on May 3, 2013


Yep, both the things guache said are true, and those are the current methods we have for facilitating "I want to answer but don't want it to be tied to my established Metafilter identity" situations. There's more detail in this related metatalk.

The automatic anonymous answering thing is something we've discussed, as you say, but not something we've ever come to a "this is a good idea and we should do it" place on. I get the arguments for it and so I understand where the idea comes form, but there's some notable potential downsides that come into it. Off the top of my head:

- making it trivial to toss anonymous answers into the thread erodes the continuity-of-identity thing that's pretty central to how people interact here

- context for someone's previous asking/answering history goes away

- differentiating multiple anonymous answerers from one another becomes an issue that doesn't exist otherwise

- formalizing the function sends the message that anonymous answers are considered the norm rather than the exception, which is not something we're really onboard with

- we moderate anonymous questions differently than we do non-anonymous ones (e.g. stuff that you can post under your own byline may not be approved if it were submitted anonymously) and moderating anonymous comments may add the same sort of friction-bearing dichotomy

- the question of how anonymous anon comments are vs. anon questions, and what's in the database vs. not and mod visibility, would be an added information load for users to deal with and potentially be confused/concerned by

Basically, there's a lot of moving parts to something like this, both at the day-to-day mechanical level and in terms of how it effects overall community expectations about how to use the site and to what extent folks are accountable for what they say on the site in terms of continuity of identity.

Right now, everything that happens anonymous/pseudonymously goes through the contact form or is tied explicitly to an account we can generally relate to a known primary account. That that's a bit of a gating mechanism is I can totally understand frustrating sometimes for someone who might want a zero-friction way to post anonymously, but it's also very useful to keep things in check and keep the focus on non-anonymous participation here, and the friction in practice is still pretty minimal.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:43 AM on May 3, 2013 [7 favorites]


I think automating the ability to answer anonymously would lead to an explosion of anonymous answers. I also think that would be bad for the site.
posted by COD at 10:54 AM on May 3, 2013 [15 favorites]


Indeed. I think the current set-up where the occasional anonymous-response-via-mod works for special cases, but seeing fifty or a hundred anonymous responses to some delicate question is not an appealing prospect to my thinking.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 11:04 AM on May 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wonder if there is a way you could limit anon answers to once a week or something...
posted by latkes at 11:04 AM on May 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think we've long worried about abuse of such a feature (people saying nasty things to one another behind a cloak, etc), but looking at Quora, which allows for this in an unlimited way (but they sort answers by most votes, so it's not apples-to-apples), I've noticed that only some sorts of questions get anonymous comment use, but then it's almost every single comment.

Touchy stuff like "What horrible things happen at Google behind closed doors" and everyone anonymously recounts terrible stories without having to burn their career bridges, or obviously sex and/ or money questions are heavily answered anonymously. It seems every week there's a question along the lines of "What's it really like to be crazy rich" and all the top rated comments are anon with people recounting what it means to have $100million in your checking account.

The pattern of use there is interesting though, I rarely see it until I see an entire thread of it. I've even used the feature once to tell an embarrassing story I didn't feel comfortable tying to my name forever online. I wish they published details of usage there, it might be interesting to see how it gets used there before we'd reconsider using it here.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 11:13 AM on May 3, 2013 [8 favorites]


I get the gating mechanism thing, but it causes more than frustration for commenters -- it means fewer good answers for posters. It's hard to know how large that effect is, of course, but I'm one; there have been times where I would have shared my brilliant insight anonymously, but I'm not in AskMe enough to have a sock. (And yeah, objectively it's close to zero friction, but it was enough in practice.)

The other thing I would add to the "pro" column is in some ways an anonymous feature sounds better for the community than sock puppets. Socks have many of the same downsides in terms of lack of continuity/reputation, lack of context, etc. that anonymous comments would, but it's less obvious when they're being used or misused. Maybe the fact that something is posted anonymously/through a sock is helpful for readers and moderators to know when deciding how to read it, and it helps if that's more clear. And if someone is posting anonymously in a way that isn't really in the spirit of "you have one identity here," you'll definitely know that; whereas if someone is posting through a sock, you might not notice.

I'm not (at all) saying you're wrong about the overall balance, cortex, just tossing out some things I want to make sure you have in the "possible arguments for" pile.

I do also agree that this would be a bad change unless it was basically only used in the situations where it's cool to use sock puppets now. latkes' once-a-week limit might be a way to get that point across without adding much cognitive overhead since that's already a concept on Ask. And it works with the general Mefi "make good choices" vibe because it doesn't try to spell out when anonymous comments are OK, just encourages the user to be thoughtful.

Maybe you could show a little extra help text only when the "post anonymously" box was checked, like "You can post at most one comment per week anonymously, and moderators will still be able to see your name. Please use this option sparingly." And then all of your problems will be solved forever and no one will ever be confused.
posted by jhc at 11:21 AM on May 3, 2013


Incidentally, those anon answers posted by mods--are those typically sent via the contact form? Memail? Regular ol' email? I'm just curious.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:46 AM on May 3, 2013


OP, email me, I'll give you access to my sockpuppet, shakespeherian.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:47 AM on May 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


Goddamnit.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:47 AM on May 3, 2013


Goddamnit.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:49 AM on May 3, 2013 [7 favorites]


*emailed shakespeherian* Got return message "Brandon who?"
posted by Cranberry at 11:50 AM on May 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Incidentally, those anon answers posted by mods--are those typically sent via the contact form? Memail? Regular ol' email? I'm just curious.

Contact form, usually. Most mod requests come through the contact form (as we strongly recommend.)
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 11:51 AM on May 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hey guys it's me shakespherian
posted by shakespeherian at 11:51 AM on May 3, 2013


shakesBlatcher here!
posted by shakesBlatcher at 12:12 PM on May 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'd love to play along, but my joke budget is only $4/month.
posted by phunniemee at 12:17 PM on May 3, 2013 [15 favorites]


phunniemee: "I'd love to play along, but my joke budget is only $4/month."

THANKS OBAMA
posted by Chrysostom at 12:19 PM on May 3, 2013 [13 favorites]


THE SWIRL
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:19 PM on May 3, 2013


Jokes?
posted by shakespherian at 12:20 PM on May 3, 2013


I've been on more than one forum that was killed stone dead by anonymous postings. I vastly prefer having some small hurdle to anonymity, whether it's a $5 sockpuppet account or commenting via the mods.
posted by Etrigan at 12:21 PM on May 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Using a sockpuppet seems like the idea solution here. If you can't spare the $5, then the mods will occasionally post on behalf of an anonymous person.
posted by asnider at 12:22 PM on May 3, 2013


If you think your question would benefit from people who will be unwilling to answer in thread, you can always put your email address in your profile so they can totally anonymously respond to you. Doesn't fix the 'preserve for posterity' but will get your answers, and in some cases it would be ok to post the answers back to the thread yourself.
posted by jacalata at 12:27 PM on May 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


I want to chime in on this, but i dont want anyone to know my suggestion came from me.

Oh, sweet irony.
posted by softlord at 3:28 PM on May 3, 2013


Well, I just don't post the answers that I wanted to post anonymously. I've never been clear on the logistics of having a mod post my answer for me (ok, contact form, but then do you say something like "please post this answer in this linked AskMe thread"?) and the little bit of friction makes me figure that probably whatever I had to say wasn't important/useful enough anyway. There have definitely been a couple of times that I have wanted to post an answer in a thread that I wasn't willing to have linked to my account.

But it just doesn't come up enough to need a sockpuppet.

I like the "you can respond anonymously once a time period" idea. Even better would be that anonymous responses were subscripted in the thread (Anonymous1, anonymous2...) to disambiguate anonymous responders.
posted by leahwrenn at 4:53 PM on May 3, 2013


I've never been clear on the logistics of having a mod post my answer for me (ok, contact form, but then do you say something like "please post this answer in this linked AskMe thread"?)

Yeah, that's exactly it. Just send us what you want to paste in the thread. We reserve the right to decline to post it if there's something problematic about it, but that happens very, very rarely.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 4:58 PM on May 3, 2013


I AM SPARTACUS.
posted by jenkinsEar at 5:30 PM on May 3, 2013


The current system works for me, I'd be concerned if the usage of free for all anonymous responses were allowed.
posted by arcticseal at 6:20 PM on May 3, 2013


What if, when posting a question about a sensitive subject, the asker could check a box for 'anonymous responses allowed,' and anyone could choose to post anonymously but only in those threads? And of course mods could always take off that flag without deleting the question, if the privilege was being abused or the question just didn't seem sensitive enough.
posted by pete_22 at 2:27 AM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I feel it's been reasonably well covered in the first couple of comments in this thread that the contact form is open for everyone to comment anonymously, so I doubt that an additional mechanism is strictly necessary. That's not to say we can't brainstorm, just reiterating what's been said upthread.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane (staff) at 3:10 AM on May 4, 2013


I think there's a technical solution to this that would avoid all the anticipated problems ... except that it would be non-trivial to engineer.

You could limit anonymous comments only to AskMe. You could add thread specific identifiers to each anonymous identity in that thread. There could be an AskMe flag for "inappropriate use of anonymity" and mods could delete such answers (and thus enforce an ethos of limited use of anonymous answers). You could put a limit on anonymous answers per some time-period as is done with anonymous questions.

I think those provisions would avoid 95% of the problems associated with anonymous answers in AskMe. The question, really, is whether such an elaborate technological implementation serves a proportionate need.

I don't regularly read AskMe, so I have no idea. It does seem, as discussed here, that some kinds of questions would be well-served by anonymous answers.

Also, it's worth pointing out that using a sock-puppet for anonymity is much less anonymous with regard to the mods than would be with such a system (or, indeed, as is already the case with regard to anonymous questions).
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:18 AM on May 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


OK well I know we're in the third and final act of the MeTa feature request script (I. Could we... II. No III. jokes) but this seems like one where a compromise is really possible. The relative dearth of mod-posted replies and obvious sock puppets in sensitive Ask threads makes it clear that those options aren't really working.

It would take some technical effort to do something like what Ivan and I are "brainstorming" but I bet it would pay for itself in more racy questions and search volume. Just think of all the people googling for awkward questions about sex/money/health, and the folks at ask reddit or quora getting all the traffic and cackling over the ad money. *

One existing alternative is to phrase answers in the form of a followup anon question like in Jeopardy:

How do I solve (embarrassing sex problem) ?
(1 hr later)
What's the proper term for this technique I use to solve (esp)?
Help me choose a title for my 18-part fan fiction about how captain kirk solves esp as follows...

*I have close personal friends at both companies and am reliably informed that they withdraw their ad money in small bills to pile up and cackle over
posted by pete_22 at 3:35 AM on May 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


The relative dearth of mod-posted replies and obvious sock puppets in sensitive Ask threads makes it clear that those options aren't really working.

That's not clear at all.
posted by headnsouth at 4:47 AM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


"That's not clear at all."

Yeah, it's not. But don't you think that because those options require either significant effort + money or writing the mods specifically asking that, say, your answer about your experience with beastiality be added to the thread anonymously, that it's very likely that the sorts of answers people would want to write anonymously are mostly not being written at all?

That seems obvious to me. What isn't obvious to me is what proportion of AskMe questions call for such answers. There's some threshold below which there's little justification for making anonymous answers much easier. There's some threshold above where doing so would add significant utility to AskMe.

What I think is helpful is to compare/contrast anonymous questions and anonymous answers. AskMe didn't have to include the availability of anonymous questions†, either, but clearly the utility added in the case of questions was thought to be sufficient justification for the effort. Not so, to date, with answers.

And that makes sense especially because of the greater visibility of posted questions.

In this sense (the utility of anonymity) I think that questions and answers differ in degree, but not so much in kind, so it's not a slam-dunk issue to decide.

† As I recall, initially it didn't.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:26 AM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I bet it would pay for itself in more racy questions and search volume.

I don't know that everyone agrees this is a good thing.
posted by box at 6:13 AM on May 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


But don't you think that because those options require either significant effort + money or writing the mods specifically asking that, say, your answer about your experience with beastiality be added to the thread anonymously, that it's very likely that the sorts of answers people would want to write anonymously are mostly not being written at all?

That seems obvious to me.


Me too, thanks for saying it more clearly.

What isn't obvious to me is what proportion of AskMe questions call for such answers.

It's not a static thing though, right? If anonymous answers were allowed, certain kinds of questions would get better overall responses, so they'd get asked more often. Which means that this:

I don't know that everyone agrees this [more racy questions] is a good thing.

...is a reasonable objection. At bottom it may just be a simple disagreement about what kind of content people want to see on this site. I'm in favor of more of the kind of questions that produce mostly-anonymous answers, like what Matt described on Quora. I think Ask Metafilter would often be a better and more productive place than Quora to ask those kinds of questions. But if the majority of people here just don't want to see them...

In this respect, it reminds me of the recent Tanizaki deletion thread, as I think someone already mentioned. We pretend to be arguing about specific features and their pros and cons, but it's really a proxy for a larger dispute about what we want the site to look like.

I'm on the side that would like the site to be a little livelier and more contentious and more varied, even if it offended more people's sensibilities now and then. I'm perfectly capable of ignoring the stuff that doesn't interest me and I wish more other people felt that way too. But hey, if they don't, I get it, at some point the majority rules.

And I'm sorry if my last post was a little obnoxious but I was responding to this oddly passive-aggressive and unnecessary comment from gnfti:

I feel it's been reasonably well covered in the first couple of comments in this thread that the contact form is open for everyone to comment anonymously, so I doubt that an additional mechanism is strictly necessary. That's not to say we can't brainstorm, just reiterating what's been said upthread.

There's literally no content to that except to patronize those of us who are trying to offer constructive suggestions. Is MeTa here for two-way communication, or just a place for the mods to let members vent, then pat us on the head and gently explain why we're wrong?
posted by pete_22 at 7:53 AM on May 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


(Just to reply, I'm sure that gnfti did not intend that to be patronizing at all. It's sometimes not clear whether a given suggestion actually wants a immediate mod response, and I'm sure he was just offering that as a quickie unobtrusive response in case people were looking for a mod response at that point. It's perfectly okay to continue offering suggestions.)
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 8:19 AM on May 4, 2013


I'm on the side that would like the site to be a little livelier and more contentious and more varied, even if it offended more people's sensibilities now and then.

The site, maybe. But responses to Asks are limited to answering the question, and it's moderated to keep it that way. It's not for lively and contentious discussion, and a bunch of anonymous posts responding to an anonymous question in a lively and contentious manner seems the opposite of what the green is for.


But don't you think that because those options require either significant effort + money or writing the mods

I define "significant" differently, because emailing a throwaway email, using the contact form, or spending $5 on a sockpuppet account don't seem like significant effort or expense to me at all. And they all serve the purpose of AskMe responses, which is to answer the question.
posted by headnsouth at 9:21 AM on May 4, 2013


"...don't seem like significant effort or expense to me at all"

It's relative, isn't it? Compared to the effort required to answer other questions or to simply not answer, I think it's not insignificant. Although I'm hard pressed to imagine an anonymity mechanism that wouldn't also be relatively burdensome while also avoiding unintentional anonymity. Still notably less so than mailing the mods or creating a sock-puppet, I think. (Well, okay, maybe a right-aligned red submission button beside the others labelled "Post answer anonymously" that included an "are you sure?" intermediate step would be quite easy while discouraging accidents.)
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:48 AM on May 4, 2013


The relative dearth of mod-posted replies and obvious sock puppets in sensitive Ask threads makes it clear that those options aren't really working.

We actually post a decent number of replies for people but they're not really searchable. I guess I see the anon options as a continuum, or at least a varied number of options

- don't post anon comments at all
- require people to use sock puppets for this purpose
- have a mod or another user post for you
- OP includes follow-up email so people can contact them directly
- have a mechanism for anon comments built in to the site

As cortex said above, it's not so much that engineering the last option is so difficult from as tech standpoint, but that

1. we're not convinced there's a real strong need for it as opposed to some people finding it useful
2. there are a lot of unintended consequences from going this way that are non-trivial
3. there's mission creep (or requested mission creep) with any added feature which itself is extra work
4. the system we have now mostly works and we're not convinced there's something largely missing by not having this

I totally get where you're coming from pete_22 but I think exactly what you are hoping to get, at least partly, is what we're hoping to avoid. Commenters who, freed from the linkage to their own usernames wind up being rude, goofy, lying or otherwise misrepresenting, with very little accountability except us being able to delete their comments.

Right now the anon question feature is a bit of a handful already, specifically because there's a lot of drama and not-okay-for-AskMe stuff that comes through there (as well as commenters misrepresenting themselves, people following up to their own questions pretending to be someone else, MeFi drama) and this gets sort of enhanced because the questions are also often urgent-seeming and involve touchy issues. Since anon commenting would also necessarily often involve touchy issues this is an additional concern that we have.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:11 PM on May 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


If we can learn from our mistakes, wanting to post an anonymous comment wherein one can give the benefit of one's own experience while sparing oneself the personal humiliation of sharing how it was that one happened to drive that particular car off that particular cliff has an appeal. But how to avoid the transition from walking on eggshells to stepping into a minefield....

On a larger scale, if only there were some sort of application that would make what makes sense to oneself make sense to others, like the baby translator in the Simpsons:
Maggie: Blablueeeh (I have soiled myself... how embarrassing)
But that could amount to asking for some sort of universal stupidity prevention. And how many yottabytes would that take ?
posted by y2karl at 8:42 AM on May 5, 2013


I totally get where you're coming from pete_22 but I think exactly what you are hoping to get, at least partly, is what we're hoping to avoid. Commenters who, freed from the linkage to their own usernames wind up being rude, goofy, lying or otherwise misrepresenting, with very little accountability except us being able to delete their comments.

Well, that's what my proposal was trying to address. If the anonymous feature was question-specific, you could just turn it off on any question where it was getting out of hand, rather than continuing to play whack-a-mole with every inappropriate comment.

But I do understand your other points, especially:

we're not convinced there's a real strong need for it as opposed to some people finding it useful

Given the volume of responses on this thread (especially compared to the last one about contact permissions, wow) and how few of us are really agreeing with the OP, it does seem like there's only a small minority that really wants this, so it probably doesn't make sense to pursue it.
posted by pete_22 at 10:07 AM on May 5, 2013


FWIW, I'm personally not drawn to having more lively contentiousness in particular, I just want to be able to answer "How should I get started with anal fisting?" questions without linking my answers to my account (wait... I think I'm doing it wrong...), but I get the sense from this thread that this is not a need a lot of people share.

Thanks mods for weighing in on where this issue is at. For the record, I hope some day there could be an automated, if limited way to have anon answers, but also obviously the site is great without that feature.
posted by latkes at 4:17 PM on May 5, 2013


I actually answered a question at the reference desk of a college library about fisting. It was pretty clear from the look on the face of the undergrad guy who asked the question that he had literally had NO idea what it was before asking about it. I found him a nice book to read about it.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:24 PM on May 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


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