Anonymity and trust online: an interdisciplinary project

This research project funded by the Swedish Science Council is a three year project and is based at the Department of Sociology, Stockholm University. The project lies at the heart of SIRG. It focuses on the varying effects, both positive and negative, of online anonymity on two separate online arenas; online auctions and digital gaming. This mixed methods project draws from the interdisciplinary nature of the researcher and strives to bring new insight into the workings of social interaction on the Internet.


Project Members

Lina Eklund, PhD, Department of Informatics and Media, Uppsala University.

Emma von Essen, PhD, SOFI, Stockholm University

Magnus Johansson, PhD, GAME, Uppsala University

Fatima Jonsson, PhD, Department of Media Technology, Södertörn University

Jonas Karlsson, PhD-Candidate, Department of Sociology, Stockholm University.

Charlotta Boström, PhD-Candidate, Department of Economics, Stockholm University.


Project description

The Internet has grown rapidly, both in number of users and the number of uses, and is now a part of everyday life in both work and leisure. The Internet is used for searching information in a variety of areas, bank errands, buying and selling goods as well as services, and also to socialize and relax through social networking and gaming. Unlike offline, online interaction in its basic shape is characterized by a high degree of anonymity, which creates an environment of low trust and weak reciprocal behaviour. Theoretically, this should lead to frequent breakdown of social order as the destructive behaviour of individuals would complicate any form of cooperation.

In many cases, including online bullying or spam, we see that the virtual anonymity creates negative effects that are difficult to avoid. The success of the Internet and the degree of functional collaborations reveals, however, that there are many markets where the negative effects are mediated or even negated. Though what results in a functional or negative environment is still not understood. This project aims to investigate the link between anonymity, trust and reciprocity on the Internet.

We will examine how collaboration occur and are maintained on the Internet from two perspectives. First, we will investigate how anonymity affects the discrimination of women and people with foreign names in these ‘anonymous’ places. Secondly, we will investigate the linkage between structure and agency in how anonymity is organized on the Internet.

To do this, we have selected two large and economically strong markets: Net auctions and social digital games. Within each of these markets anonymity is important but is expressed differently. On online auction sites anonymity is maintained only during the bidding with identities disclosed to the successful bidder and seller respectively when auction ends. Anonymity is therefore temporary in nature. However, in online social games, also known as MMOs (massive multiplayer online games) the game company does not reveal players’ ‘real’ identity, but it is up to the players themselves to manage and limit anonymity in order to achieve successful collaboration. Anonymity, as such, may therefore be permanent. Another significant difference  can be found in the effects of deviating from rules of anonymity. With online auctions breaking the rules-trading in a dishonest way-can be a criminal offence, while in the case of anonymity in social gaming-leading to a breakdown of collaboration-is part of the risk within the game.

The project is interdisciplinary consisting of four different studies using different methods to understand the effects of anonymity online, conducted by researchers with backgrounds in Computer and Systems Science, Sociology and Economics. In the first two studies randomized experiments will be used to investigate discrimination at online auctions and how the system of trust that exists is affected by temporary anonymity and use of pseudonyms. In studies three and four; interviews, participant observation, and content analysis of games will be used to understand how anonymity can be limited between strangers to create a working relationship and the exclusionary mechanisms created by these strategies.

A fifth study will use the results from these four studies to draw general conclusions regarding anonymity effects on trust and reciprocity on the Internet. Thus creating a greater understanding of how anonymity, trust, and reciprocity interact. The results of this project may well be of use for institutional change and policy proposals aimed at reducing the negative and enhance the positive impact of online anonymity.