Do You Trust Anonymous?

Anonymity iStock_000010799839Small.jpgIt may sound like one of the most obvious platitudes of all: trust increases as you get to know people.

After all, you wouldn’t hire a financial planner without talking to their references, would you? You wouldn’t hire a new employee without finding out their work history, would you?  You wouldn’t let your kid stay overnight with unknown neighbors, would you?  Don’t we always equate trust with transparency, openness, getting to know more about others? 

Well, not necessarily. In fact, sometimes—no. Like all trust-related things: it depends. Trust is a bit like Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity: you may know it when you see it, but it sure is hard to define.

Anonymous Blogger Meets Anonymous Blogger

Take the case of two anonymous law bloggers meeting in Las Vegas—“Ed” of Blawg Review  and “Kael” of Legally UnBound (Not their real names–I mean, what’d you expect?)  Both are distinguished in their fields.

Read “Kael’s” account of their meeting,  and you discover some serious, powerful ways in which anonymity does not decrease trust—it actually increases it. Anonymity can free you to speak truths. Anonymity forces people to confront you as you ‘really’ are, not as your accumulated biography. (Remember, part of Bernie Madoff’s charm was his resume–decidedly public, entirely non-anonymous).

More interesting is the question it raises about just “who” it is that you’re trusting when you trust someone anonymous. Here’s “Kael”:

What do I mean by persona? You see, all I know of Ed is what Ed allows me to see. While I’ve seen ‘him’ (the opinions and thought of Blawg Review), I have not seen ‘him’ (the man that may have been married and raised children). But the only Ed that I want to see is the Ed that he allows me to see. The same is true, from my end.  Thus, our trust and our relationship is based upon the information that each allows the other to see.

Much too often, I believe that our collective, societal opinion of a ‘trusting relationship’ is FULL DISCLOSURE. I disagree. I think that our curiosities about others and our desires to place judgments upon others is the basis (in part) of the relationships in which we engage. Our trust is therefore contingent upon the amount of disclosure we make to the other entity, instead of simply taking whatever disclosure is given and either finding a basis for commonality, or not.

The terms ‘keeping it real’ and ‘puttin’ my heart out there’ are all too commonly the basis for our understanding of what it means to ‘trust’. We don’t have to ‘keep it real’ to establish trust. We only have to identify the boundaries and the common goals, then allow for the personal disclosures to build the trust. Yes, personal disclosure is the key to trust, not TOTAL disclosure.

Principles Before Personalities

Ed and Kael (I’ll drop the quotes now, we know them well enough at this point) are not cranks. Some of the more successful organizations in the world are the 12-Step programs, originating in Alcoholics Anonymous.

The common view of “anonymous” is that meetings assure anonymity to those who don’t want outsiders to know of their condition. But the 12th Tradition (the organizational correlate of the 12 Steps for individuals) is “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personality.”

In other words, the (main) purpose of anonymity is not to keep outsiders from knowing members’ names—it is to prevent members from forcing their particular biographies on others, both within and without the organization. You are trusted, in other words, if you remain anonymous, so that others can see that you speak only from your own inner truth, unclouded by your, and their, inevitable prejudices.  That way we minimize the judging that Kael speaks of.

Both Kael and AA speak the same truth: the ‘you’ that matters is not the ‘you’ of your lineage, your family name, your profession, your accent, or your resume. There is another authentic ‘you’ within, and—in a sense—that is the only ‘you’ that can be trusted.

Trust increases as you get to know people. Yes? Or no?

As with all things trust-related, and human-related–it depends.

13 replies
  1. doug cornelius
    doug cornelius says:

    Charlie –

    I will have to dwell on this a bit. I wonder if we should be talking about anonymity or pseudonyms or personas.

    It would seem that you could not truly get to know someone if they are anonymous. You can get to know a persona or a pseudonym.

    But what caught my eye was this story in Wired Magazine: Who is Minerva? A self-taught Korean economist blogger was very influential and used a pseudonym. Influential enough, that it led to a government investigation. But once his true identity was known, he was discredited and ignored. He lacked a formal background in economics.

    From a compliance perspective I get concerned that people use anonymity as shield to do things that they would not do if their true identity were known. The example I cite when it comes to anonymity/pseudonyms is the Cisco patent troll blog and the problems associated with that. But perhaps that blog posts were more truthful because of the hidden identity? Perhaps the blogger said things he should not have because he was hidden?

  2. Ian Welsh
    Ian Welsh says:

    Anonymity/pseudonymity has its upside and downside, and it’s the same one: you can say what you want without bearing the consequences.  Sometimes that’s good—whistelblowers often need anonymity to avoid horrible retaliation.  Sometimes it’s bad, in the "you wouldn’t say that to my face, because I’d punch you in the nose" sense.

    I’ve used my real name since I started blogging, many years ago.  Mostly I’m pretty hardcore, I just say what I think.  Still, sometimes you think twice.  "This is true.  And someone should say it.  But I’m going to alienate friends and colleagues if it’s me…"

    One of the best financial bloggers I know is pseudonymous.  And I know why: he’s someone wh couldn’t say what he’s saying and keep his job.  But his position also means he has a huge understanding of financial matters, and people learn a lot from him.  If he were forced to publish under his own name, well, he wouldn’t at all, and his readers would lose.  Same with an intelligence analyst I know—he’s very valuable, but if he had to post under his own name, he couldn’t.

    Pseudonymity, as opposed to anonymity, allows you to build up a reputation.  I know these guys are good trustworthy writers because I’ve followed them for years.  I trust them as much as people who sign their real names.  For some things, perhaps I trust them more…

  3. p
    p says:

    Hmm, Charlie, something here feels "off" to me.

    If Ed or Kael, whom you "trust," came to town for a meeting and that night wanted to take your daughter to a Metallica concert, would you be trusting enough to give your OK. Or, now, would there be some type of "trust, but verify" thing needed?

    I don’t have any experience with AA groups. I know folks who attend and who are sponsors. I know from them that anonymity is critical for folks, such as airline pilots, doctors and others whose professions and clients, if disclosed, could be seriously affected. (Hmmm, is that a social-societal "trust" issue?)

    I do know (spiritual; psychodynamic-based) process groups to which I’ve belonged and participated for the past 12 years – all of which have intensive 7-11 day retreats that incorporate deep, intensive "group process work." In my experience, anonymity in any form and reluctance to disclose are areas to be worked on, not lauded. In my spiritual/psychological experiences, there’s Basic Trust and False Trust. Basic Trust is that soul quality we’re "born with;" False Trust is a "defended" state where the ego "plays at" trust but it’s not a genuine, authentic, trust. False Trust allows us to feel we are trusting but, deep down, we know that "I’m holding some part of myself back." Or, perhaps unconsciously, have no idea that I’m doing so, but I know that I’m not being "up front." The deeper question is "why?" And are my answers to this questions truly "reasons," or excuses. Just the same as those who "deep down" know they engage in obscenity or porn, but fine a way to disengage from the truth of it – the way an abuser says he’s not being abusive b/c he only hits her with an open hand, not a clenched fist.

    When you say, "Well, not necessarily. In fact, sometimes—no. Like all trust-related things: it depends. Trust is a bit like Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity: you may know it when you see it, but it sure is hard to define," my question is who is it that says it’s hard to define and why? The legalities abound; the deeper truth is obvious, to me. When the ego-mind starts to parse these issues, then we lose sight of the deeper Truth which is where true Trust emanates. Then, it’s about superficialities masquerading as truth.

    Concerning speaking the truth, and given Ian’s and Doug’s comments, why does one really need anonymity (false truth?) to "speak the truth?" Why all the "mea culpa" books after the fact?

    This statement, "Anonymity forces people to confront you as you ‘really’ are," is confusing to me. I AM my biology and my biography. That’s who I "really" am. I am not "real" wearing a mask, regardless how one slices and dices it. I may be lots of things wearing a mask, but "real" is not one of them.

    When we cherry pick, ("…I have not seen ‘him’ (the man that may have been married and raised children. But the only Ed that I want to see is the Ed that he allows me to see. The same is true, from my end. Thus, our trust and our relationship is based upon the information that each allows the other to see.), are we being "real?" Hmmm. Yes, there are elements that may not be in the "foreground" at a particular time or place, elements that don’t need to be in the limelight or in the conversation this moment, but if I’m choosing to withhold for some defensive reason, well, that’s a good place to explore "why?" Is that the "real" me?

    Full disclosure does not mean spilling our guts, but it does mean to allow for whatever needs to arise in the moment and if I’m feeling reluctant to do so, being inauthentic and fearing feeling vulnerable and then withhold, then I have a question about "trust" and being "real."

    Two folks’ withholding to find a place of commonality may not be about "trust;" it’s about colluding. Big difference. And we know how colluding affects trust.

    As for anonymity being the spiritual foundation for all our traditions, that’s one view. I accept that; I also disagree. Also, what is their definition of anonymity? As for principles before personalities, why can’t "be open, honest trusting and trustworthy in disclosing" be a principle?

    You write, "…the ‘you’ that matters is not the ‘you’ of your lineage, your family name, your profession, your accent, or your resume. There is another authentic ‘you’ within, and—in a sense—that is the only ‘you’ that can be trusted."

    Me: I see much of this as an attempt to repress, suppress and even deny that True and Real, authentic "me" and allowing my Ego-self to come up with excuses for doing so. Nice, simple, but, IMHO, wrong.

    There’s still something "off" here for me and I can’t get my arms around it; I’ll have to reflect more.

    Thanks for tugging on my sleeve, Charlie. This’ll keep me noodling throughout my day.

  4. Kael Garvey
    Kael Garvey says:

    Kael here.  Thanks for taking note of our (Ed & me) meeting on your Blog.  I enjoyed your thoughts.  You are spot on.

    Placing "principles before personality" is the key to anonymity.

    The real ‘point’ I was trying to make in my Blawg Post was that we rely TOO MUCH on our accomplishments, our awards, our schooling, our religion, our parents, our history and our future to DEFINE us.  There is another side to us all, it is that person inside, without prejudgment…who is that person? 

    My New York friends will often say about a buddy, later in life, "he ain’t nuttin’, I used to know him in the old neighborhood, he ain’t nuttin’".  If you’re a Bible-type, not even Jesus was accepted in his own hometown. 

    What this means is that our history follows us, for good and bad.  Then, all our thoughts and opinions are tainted with that old powder.  If we free ourselves from ‘who we are’ and focus on the ‘principles’ of what is being said, not the ‘personality’ that is saying it, we are able to address the truth of the discussion and to a certain extent the truth in any relationship.

    The next time you debate someone on a Blawg, watch to see if they do one of the follow (as they try to avoid your arguments): comment on your spelling/grammar, bring your education or reputation into discussion, ask/comment about where you are from, seek to discuss other assumptions they make about your past experiences.

    You see, we want people to be placed ‘in context’…we want to apply stereotypes to them so that we know how to deal with them, know whether to trust them, know how to insult them, know how to love them, etc.

    I agree that anonymity can be used for bad and good (many anonymous blogger say some of the most disgusting things).  However, that is the beauty of anonymity.  As the worst comes out in some, the best comes out in others.  A society with this type of free speech will always have to suffer the first, so they enjoy the fruits of the second.

    Speak your mind, trust liberally, but hold onto your respect for those that truly deserve it.

  5. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    What a great discussion!  Thanks to all, and I know there are some others out there with great ideas on the subject we’d love to hear from as well.

    My take is that above all this dialogue shows how broad a range the word ‘trust’ covers.

    For example: I trust my dog with my life–but not with my ham sandwich.

    For example: I trust an algorithm on Amazon linking strangers to recommend books to me, but (to use Peter’s example), I wouldn’t trust one of them with my daughter.

    For example: I instinctively read Doug’s example of the anonymous Korean economics blogger differently than he does.  My first reaction is here was someone who was clearly making sense to the masses, undone by the bureaucratic orthodoxy that insists on truth as being the sole property of the academic community who bestow credentials.  (It’s entirely possible that such examples show more about the listener than about the anonymous one: if you are conservative, in the very broad political/cultural sense, you will view credentializing as a positive, and anonymity to be a violation.  If your thinking tends more to libertarian, then you see the same example as repressive, authoritarian, etc.)

    The Korean blogger and similar cases are perfect examples of how things cut both ways: we look very harshly on doctors who are found to have practiced without licenses.  We make judgments based on our preconceptions about their degree or absence thereof.   At the same time, we condemn racial profiling–because we don’t want people making judgments based on their preconceptions.

    It’s for this very reason, as I understand it, that the major orchestras of the world have blind auditions: a musician is required to play behind a curtain, specifically so the judges cannot be influenced by their own inevitable preconceptions of age, gender, and culture.  In such a case, anonymity is the guarantor of truth and honesty, not the enemy of it.  (This is precisely the logic of 12-steppers).

    The bigger truth is, as Ian suggests–it depends.  Sometimes anonymity enhances truth and trust, and sometimes it doesn’t.  Anonymity is not, by itself, a dispositive indicator of trust.  Nothing is, as far as I’ve been able to tell.  When it comes to trust–it depends.

    One other thought: of the three commenters above, I have never met two, and the third I’ve met only once.  I’ve only had extensive phone conversations with one.  Yet I would say I trust all three of them–though in different ways. 

    It makes no sense at all to say I trust Ian more than Doug, or less than Peter.  It depends.  It depends particulary on the issue, and somewhat on our history of discussion. I find most trust surveys to be misleading–it simply isn’t that reductive.  Trust is a lot more like an x-dimensional continuum.  If it varies with so many dimensions, and even "anonymity" has its own shades of grey and continua, then it’s no wonder we all see different parts of the same elephant.


  6. Ian Welsh
    Ian Welsh says:

    One interesting finding is that accuracy in analysis correlates fairly heavily towards outsider status.  As with Minerva, I have no significant formal education in economics, but I write on it fairly often.  And my track record is better than most economists with formal credentials.  Not having credentials costs me in terms of being taken seriously by some some folks, but I often think it’s one of the reasons I get things right as often as I do—not just that a formal economics education is damaging (though it can be) but because since I’m not part o the club I don’t have to stick to what the club thinks it is ok to say.

    I don’t know Minerva, never read him.  But unless he claimed to have credentials he didn’t, he should have been judged on his track record and writing.

    This is a version of the "I don’t care what the author/actor was like in real life.  Their work stands separate from that and shouldn’t be judged based on that."

  7. Vinay Chaganti
    Vinay Chaganti says:

    This is an extremely wonderful version of discussion that I have found on anonymity.

    "principles before persona" was a perfectly point with imperious validity to reality. I would also like to extend and question people (including those who use anonymity, pseudonymity, and those who have only one identity – the real one).

    How easy is it to really practice that "principles before persona"? The users of anonymity/pseudonymity should have faced and answered this question by now.

    How was it a justified principle that our identity can be kept in the dark/be disguised for saying what we want to say? While I accept that legally we have all the rights to keep our privacy in tact, by principle – I would like to see something that can encourage the community at large accepting it as a norm.

    Please do not mistake me as someone against anonymity, but then – I am just questioning the rationale behind using that channel. Are there more reasons that are stimulated from fright of not being accepted as who you are that trigger the use of anonymous communication, or are there more genuine reasons? Include pseudonmity also to all those questions.

    And talking about the extent of disclosure, whether full disclosure or personal disclosure or any such type, the human mind is I guess conditioned to the fact of having more information as secure than having lesser information. More so I need to stress, we may not even know how much information (disclosure here) can put us in that spot of information sufficiency and security. One comforting answer to that is, we are driven by our instincts. Interestingly, instincts can also be scientifically seen as an extension of anonymous communication – in that anonymity that we talked here was communication from others, and that instinct is a communication from within; both of which lack proper identity of the source of communication. What is of even more interest now is that – we can trust our instincts (probably based on the knowledge of our persona), but not so easily the anonymous communication from outside.

    Now, if I have to answer, whether trust increases as you get to know people – on a safer side, I may have to bet YES, while what my instinct says and I believe is that the correct answer is NO.

  8. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    I’m very much appreciating this dialogue.


    So, after some deepr reflection I have some additional thoughts:


    What comes to me is the notion, "ignorance is bliss." There’s an expression, "The more I know you, the more I love you." Here, for some, the push seems to be, "The less I know you, the more I trust you and the less you know me, the more trustworthy I am." Really?


    Another expression, "I wasn’t born yesterday" should now become "I was born yesterday." The meaning here is" "Why don’t we all just assume that nothing-no event, no circumstance, no subconscious elements-have affected or imprinted my brain, my psyche, my emotional self, my psychological self, between the moment of conception and this immediate moment, right here, right now" and so why don’t we all interrelate as "blank slates" without any history whatsoever and just be BFFs –  two or more completely spontaneous, anonymous entities with no history. And extend the flavor of the  "don’t ask, don’t tell" notion to all of life. We’ll just self-edit and self-censor to show up as "real" and trusting and trustworthy souls. Hmmm.


    Might work for hooking up, or a night out with the boys/girls…or, a more realistic (for me) notion: for those who consciously or unconsciously feel threatened, insecure, deficient, lacking, resentful, fearful, jealous, envious, hateful, etc, by another’s "history’ – education, profession, role, position, possessions, etc.


    No one can make you feel a way you don’t want to feel. No one. But, here, we’re saying, (are we?), there’s something about you that may make me feel uncomfortable so can you just hide it under a bushel basket? And, BTW, I’ll do the same so hopefully we’ll all be "real" and anonymous in this make-believe world of "being real."


    As for principles before personalities, are we really saying that these "principles" are somehow dropping down from the ethers, that no "personality" is actually proffering them? Even well-meaning spiritual principles these days come from a "spiritual ego-mind" which belongs to a (well-meaning or, possibly, defensive?) personality. So, really, really, whose principles are they anyway? And why would such personalities feel the need to forward such principles and make them sacrosanct?


    If we’re being "real" here, for me, the real spiritual-intelligence question is "Why can’t I be OK with the person across from me, in spite of their history?" Why can’t I see him/her with the eyes of God (or Spirit, Love, or…), and listen with the ears of God, and speak with the love and acceptance of the voice of God, and not allow their "history" to interfere or get in the way of how I respond to him/her?


    Why can’t I be OK with this person without allowing their degree, their net worth, their whatever, to cloud our relationship and interactions? Why do I feel the need to create some "principle" that absolves me from experiencing my dark side, my negative feelings and emotions to create some spontaneous, yet false, fake and phony interaction which needs to be stripped of anything that would cause me discomfort? And, then call it "real?"


    For me, denial is not a very life-affirming or positive-growth principle, any more than relying on alcohol, drugs, food, or other chemical or non-chemical medication to numb out to my self or others in an attempt to make my life or relationships palatable. We are our history-like it or not. However, we don’t have to be held hostage by our history. The deeper question is how can I work with my history, embrace it, understand it and learn from it so I can heal and show up authentically, with all my vulnerability, and be in a "conscious," healthy, sincere, and trusting relationship with another whoever they are, whatever they do, whatever they have? Certainly, not by denial or anonymity.


    And, Charlie, I’m also wondering how the "anonymity" thing fosters a deeper understanding and conscious awareness of the four elements of your trust quotient: Credibility, Reliability, Intimacy and Self-orientation. I’m really stuck and confused about this. If there’s no "there" there, how does this compute?

  9. Rajesh Setty
    Rajesh Setty says:


    The politically correct thing to do here is to agree with the statement – "principles before persona" and move on with it.

    In reality, we all know that persona comes first as that flavors whatever the persona is trying to communicate. This is the core of personal branding. If you have a powerful personal brand, your message is heard.

    Case in point: If this was a blog post on a blog by an anonymous person (the entire text being the same) we wouldn’t have this discussion going. You have a personal brand that establishes trust about your thought leadership on trust and hence people want to give attention. Without that, it will be too noisy and can be overwhelming.

    Tomorrow if you start writing about Indus Valley Civilization and there is not enough proof about your knowledge on the topic, it would be hard to get the attention of people.

    The history of people, their accomplishments, their thought leadership on the topic will act as filters to get an entry ticket in the minds of people to consider what is being said.

    In this fast moving world, people need shortcuts and all the background information provide the necessary shortcuts.

    Yes, with this approach you might miss some gems that are out there. That’s a risk one has to take to optimize their time.





  10. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Rajesh, thanks for those nice things you said along the way to disagreeing with me! 

    This dialogue has helped me get a little more precise, I think. Let me try this.  In matters of branding, public dialogue, business behavior and regulation, I think transparency is an unmitigated virtue.  We want our judgment to be informed, and the more informed it is, the better it can be.

    But there is another realm of life, where ‘informed’ can mean ‘prejudiced.’ 

    –Orchestras may blind-test soloist candidates–because reviewers are biased. 

    –Many studies show that resumes and bank home-loan applications from minority-sounding names routinly get rejected more often–because reviewers are biased. 

    –Accents on national broadcasters in the US and the UK are chosen for or coached in gaining ‘neutral’ (US) or upper-class (UK) accents–because listeners are biased. 

    –We pass anti-bias laws regarding specific groups because we aspire to race-anonymity in the face of prejudice.

    –We offer anonymity to whistle blowers, because, well, some people are prejudiced.

    In the 12-step canon, it’s one step further.  Anonymity is partly to keep people from making judgments about others (he’s Jewish, his name ends in a vowel, he’s a laborer); and partly to keep people from inflating their own ego (I’m a doctor, I know important people, I live in Hightown).

    So I’m thinking when it’s important for our higher faculties to know more, we favor transparency.  When our prejudices lead us astray, anonymity can play a powerful role. 

    What do you think?




  11. Rajesh Setty
    Rajesh Setty says:


    Thanks for the clarification. Now this is clear and makes a lot of sense. For some reason, I didn’t get this perspective when I read the original post. So – sorry if I misunderstood the premise of the original blog post.

    Thanks and have a great week ahead.




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