6 July 2010

I wouldn't put my name to this but...

Nethaera has just unveiled an upcoming change to the forums, and it's a belter. In the not-too-distant future, you will be forced to post under your real, full name.

This change, along with some other stuff I don't really care about (read the thread if you're interested), is designed: "to help improve the quality of conversations and make the forums an even more enjoyable place for players to visit." In other words, it's a troll hunt:
"The official forums have always been a great place to discuss the latest info on our games, offer ideas and suggestions, and share experiences with other players -- however, the forums have also earned a reputation as a place where flame wars, trolling, and other unpleasantness run wild. Removing the veil of anonymity typical to online dialogue will contribute to a more positive forum environment, promote constructive conversations, and connect the Blizzard community in ways they haven’t been connected before."
I can see how Blizzard has been backed into this decision. Unfortunately, it's a terrible one, and real-world experience tells me it is destined to failure.

Ask yourself two questions: how will this affect the behaviour of those it is targeted at, and how will it affect the rest of us?

Firstly, can this really improve the quality of discussion on the forums? Does the kind of person who posts unwanted comments care that their real name is against them? I'm sure some do — but not nearly all of them. These are already people who show an unwillingness to consider the consequences of their actions, or else lack the social skills to appreciate the impact of their words. And this is the internet, a medium which by its very nature imparts a (sometimes false) sense of anonymity — whatever they say on the forums, you can bet it's tame compared to their Facebook wall. I once moderated an internal staff forum for a FTSE 100 company. Even with their full names visible, and in front of their colleagues and managers, people were willing to write things that they would be shocked to hear spoken in person. Forums do that to some people. So even with the best will in the world, I fear this is not going to solve the problem.

It will, however, do irreparable damage to the forums by discouraging genuine users from participating in the discussion, because fear of being branded a troll is nowhere near the most important consequence of this move. The people you most want on your forums — the thoughtful, intelligent, considerate ones — are going to be discouraged because of privacy concerns. I, for one, have taken great care to avoid all possible connection between my real name and my gaming activities because I fear it will harm my chances with some career opportunities. Recruiters can, and do, Google candidates, and some would invariably disapprove of online gaming as a pastime. But more significantly, exposure on forums would give identity thieves an extremely powerful vector of attack, not just for WoW accounts, but in the broader world too. How many of you have passwords with WoW-related terms? For some, privacy concerns go much further, whether it is out of a general wish to remain anonymous, or a need to keep your name a secret from others.

I appreciate that these concerns probably don't bother all players — younger players, particularly, who don‘t need to think about jobs or data protection — so they may go on happily chatting away without fear. But it will turn many more into lurkers at best, or drive them onto other forums altogether at worst.

The only effective way to clean up a forum is to moderate it thoroughly and consistently against well-defined guidelines and to enforce a strong set of punitive measures for offenders. The Elitist Jerks forums remain such a valuable and highly-respected resource in strong part to their moderation policy. Some find it a little... heavy-handed... but it works for them. Sites are free to carve their own identity.

The trouble with this approach for Blizzard is the resource needed to moderate the vast quantity of forums they host. The cost would be unjustifiable. And, as I found out to my expense in my FTSE 100 company, official moderators run the constant risk of accusations of censorship and propaganda. What starts out as a neutral space can rapidly devolve into a war zone. That's not a position I would ever wish on Blizzard.

Instead, they could have turned to the community for moderation support, but if they considered this, they may have discounted it for all the complications that it would have entailed. How do you recruit them? How do you manage them, and ensure the effectiveness and consistency of their work? It works for fansites, sure, but a corporation would have to take a more professional approach, with all the legal and ethical ramifications that implies.

So at the end of the day, I completely understand why Blizzard felt they needed to take action, and why they eventually plumped for this plan. But I don't have much hope for its success, and I for one will be deleting my historic posts and giving the forums a wide birth when the changes go live. (The change will only apply to new forums created near the Cataclysm launch.)

It's a sad day for the community; maybe the trolls win after all.

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