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The truths they don't want you to read....

Monday, April 14, 2008

Association of internet researchers: conference paper

My thanks to John Kirriemuir for alerting me to the conference in beautiful Copenhagen in October.

Sadly, I won't be able to attend, but John has kindly provided me with a summary of his paper which has been accepted by the powers-that-be. He must be mad to let me put this in the public domain :-)


Anonymous online content in an isolated community John William Kirriemuir


Research question

"To what extent does the high degree of local name/person "recognition", in the community on an isolated archipelago, contribute to residents anonymising their online identity and content?"

The Outer Hebrides

The Outer Hebrides are an archipelago over 200 kilometres in length, but with a total population of only 26,000. Of these, 8,000 live in one town (Stornoway), while most of the rest are distributed through small villages.
The main industries are fishing, crofting (small-scale farming) and tourism; unlike other counties in the UK, the first language of most residents is Gaelic. The very high cost of travel, on planes and ferries, has resulted in partial isolation, making the socio-economic structures change more slowly than in other first world countries and regions.

Despite the distributed nature of the population, residents possess an unusually detailed knowledge about each other. Key factors for this sociological phenomena are:

- The historical isolation of the islands resulting in many residents being related, either genetically or through marriage. An extremely strong sense of who is related to each other - even distantly - is evident in people's Gaelic names, and linguistic elements e.g. on first meeting, residents ask variations on "To whom [family] do you belong?"
- A large proportion of the population are employed by just a few employers, namely the Comhairle (council) who employ over a quarter of working residents, WIE (Western Isles Enterprise) and the Arnish Shipyard.
- A traditional ethos of co-dependence in industries such as fishing and crofting resulting in fellow workers knowing many of the other workers, even those residing on different islands.

Anonymous Internet-based participation

Internet-takeup within the Hebrides is unusually high compared to the rest of the UK. A local survey in 2004 indicated that over 70% of households had internet access, being used primarily for online shopping and emailing distant relatives. Children, too, are major drivers of Internet provision, with high proportions uploading content to social networking services such as Bebo and MySpace (Author, 2007). However, broadband usage is proportionally the lowest in the UK, primarily due to the lack of such internet access from much of the Hebrides.

As in other parts of the world, new online services such as photo uploading and blogs have developed over time. However, it is here that there are cultural peculiarities. A high proportion of the postings and comments, to such services, are anonymous e.g. or use pseudonyms e.g. Stornoway Chat. This seems to be an entrenched culture over several years. For example, Hebridean Graffiti was a notorious Hebrides website where residents could leave anonymous comments criticising council employees. More recently, a disgruntled ex-employee of the council ( has set up a blog where other residents can also anonymously attack the council.

An informal analysis of some of the comments written by residents indicates possible reasons for this anonymisation:

- Residents not wanting to (openly) attack an organisation they depend on for employment.
- Residents not wanting any negative reaction from the relatives, friends of work colleagues of the person they are attacking.
- Residents using a way of criticising a person who they frequently meet e.g. locally, or at work, without the attackee knowing who it is and therefore avoiding confrontation.
- Residents of one political alignment wishing to attack another political alignment with libellous content, while avoiding legal consequences.

An underlying factor of these, and other potential reasons, is - possibly - the close community, family or work connections between the attacker and the organisation or person they are trying to attack.

The research outlined in this paper impartially examines the frequency and nature of this local anonymous online content, as well as trying to understand the rationale for it. Methodological issues, such as trying to identify "multiple online personality" commenters, will also be discussed.


Stage 1: Examples from five types of online services, where Outer Hebrides residents contribute significant amounts of were identified:

1.1 Comments written on specific blogs operated by Hebridean residents
1.2 Picture comments on Flickr (a picture-oriented social network with considerable Hebridean take-up
1.3 Forums aimed at Hebridean people
1.4 On-line petitions concerning local issues e.g. for reinstatement of a local ferry on a Sunday
1.5 Facebook group postings and discussions

Stage 2: Take appropriate samples of the comments.

Stage 3: Identify content, within each sample, which use pseudonyms or are anonymised. Attempt to identify, from the content and the context of its use, the reason(s) why the content provider has concealed their identity.
Question the owners of the identified services on why they think commenters have anonymised their identity.

Stage 4: Carry out stages 1 to 3 with a control group of content from similar mainland online services. Compare the results with the Hebridean group of content.


! said...

Cheers. Some of the data capture, and research, is done. More will continue.

Really interested in any more reasons why people anonymise their replies. And you can reply anonymously to that :-)

Anonymous said...

Chances of getting any information out of trolls = zero.

However, I look forward to reading the paper; will it be going online?

SYSkeptic said...

Anonymity? I just can't identify with that.....

Anonymous said...

Arnish a major employer?
No Mention of the Health Bopard as an employer (oprobably one of the biggest).
Gaelic the *first* language of mosty people. I would have to argue the point with that one.
Most people may speak it but as their first language?
Other thjan that it will be interesting to see what he says.

Anonymous said...

Hi John,

I think one of the reasons is laziness..less typing.

! said...

Thanks for comments so far. Paper will go up on Slideshare, here.

At that same place, there's a presentation and a paper on previous Outer Hebrides net research. A presentation on how some residents use Web 2.0 services in a conflict; and a paper on video game (and Internet) use on Berneray.

Anonymous said...

Silversprite 3:45

2 main reasons

One A hell of a lot of readers work for CnES and would be dimissed for using the site during working hours - I use the term working loosely.

Two as the article states everyone has a gripe but is frightened to say so in fear of upsetting the status quo. Take wind farms most of the objectors seem to be incomers and yet when it comes to the polls they achieve 80% support. The vocal minority actually representing the silent majority for a change.

Anonymous said...

oh and what exactly did i learn about SYSkeptic's (and i am tempted to leave out the "k") first year of blogging - i learnt he enjoys playing games, i've seen some pictures that may be him or may be friends, that like most young (this is an assumption) people he likes to boast... in short HOW AM I ANY BETTER OF KNOWING A PSEUDONYM THAN HIM CALLING HIMSELF ANONOMOUS?

SYSkeptic said...

I can only assume that anonymous 12:27 PM is one of those people whose first language is Gaelic! However, setting aside the mangled syntax and assuming I know what he means (now why am I so sure it's a he?), in response to the interesting philosophical point raised in his final sentence (HOW AM I ANY BETTER OF KNOWING A PSEUDONYM THAN HIM CALLING HIMSELF ANONOMOUS?) may I just respond (somewhat more sotto voce) that a pseudonym is a form of identity by which various of one's attributes, such as beliefs, opinions and values, may be known, while others, such as name and address, may remain conveniently concealed. A succession of posts from "Anonymous" might all be from the same person or they might be from different people. Not very helpful. In my own case, and in the interests of furthering silversprite's research, I decided to post pseudonymously because as a Comhairle employee I did not think that advocating Sunday sailings and ridiculing the local god squad would improve my future career prospects.

Anonymous said...

you still have not answered my basic question... by the way i am not the right age to have had Gaelic as a first language!

Anonymous said...

as an irrelevant and pointlessly anonymous aside - does one have more credibility and cudos if one speaks gaelic as a first language than if one speaks it as a fifth language.....?