Identification in Online Communities

There are many many online communities, each one having different rules, regulations and favored bahaviors. Access to these communities is given via mail, web, newsgroups and other Internet based communication systems.

Some have agreed to sign comments (aka posts, mails, replies, …) with the author’s real name. In some communities you have to pick a nickname — here you can either use your own nickname or invent something new (this would be a screenname, see below). Of course you can type your real name in this field, but you are neither required nor obligated to do so.

Several flavors exist, where you use your forename, or your full name, or your surname only, perhaps prefixed with the appropriate address.

Regardless of which identifcation is used in online communities, their purpose is always the same: to give an otherwise faceless user a face and to attribute her contributions to the user. Intimately connected with the identification is usually a more descriptive profile, giving more personal information about a user, for instance her mail address, website, or freetexts like hobbies, likes and dislikes, other means of communication the user is reachable with and so on.

There are five types of information an online identification consists of.

  • Technical data used by the community system to make it function.
  • An — within the community — unique identification to address users.
  • Information about ways to contact users outside the community
  • Personal information users can enter freetext in.
  • Special information important to the context of the community.

The purposes for each of these types are:

  • Technical data: manage the user on the software level of the community. E. g. attribute contributions to users.
  • Unique identification: address users directly, for instance when replying to a thread.
  • Contact users: get in touch outside the community.
  • Personal information: give users a room to express themselves and introduce themselves to the community.
  • Special information: for instance what type of car you drive — this may be very interesting in a car community. (This is not general personal information. In a gardening community this information is out of context.)

Each community must or already has asked the question what types of information do we want to collect and use and how do we implement it? Along with this question come others like what username policy do we use? or how can users protect their profile from access from non-members? and so forth.

Over the lifetime of a community these questions might pop up more than once, triggered by occurrences in the community, by new technical posibilities or just out of curiosity of new members who simply ask why?.

Of course there is a sixth type of information about users: how they are perceived by other members of the community: helpful, annoying, whatever. This informtion is seldomly used, most of the time it is not very helpful (sorry, in German only).

Inspired by (or just readable in this context):
Volker Weber: [When a blog is not a blog][1], [Site news: Full name or bust][1] (Which role do I play today?, How do we identify members?)
Stefan Rubner: [Hast du Bretter, brauchst du Kopf][3] (Comment to Volker)
Markus Breuer: [Anonymitaet und Authentifikation Online][4] (Why do we want to identify a member?)
Martin Röll: [Anonymität und Pseudonymität in Online-Communities][5] (same as above)
Alp Uckan: [ Privatssphäre schützen durch Datenreduktion][6], [ Registrierung nur für Mailinglisten][7] (Which informtaion do we gather and why?)
Silke Schümann: [Online Community - ein paar Gedanken][8] (On what are communities based?)
Jeremy Zawodny: [Microsoft Comes A Knockin’ (again)][9] (What information about members do we disclose?)


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