According to respected psychologist John Suler’s study, “The Online Disinhibition Effect” CyberPsychology & Behaviour, the online disinhibition effect is a loosening (or complete abandonment) of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal face-to-face encounters during interactions with others on the Internet. This effect is caused by many factors, including dissociative anonymity (or, more precisely, the appearance thereof), invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection, dissociative imagination, and minimisation of authority.

The effect has long been regarded as a manifestation of all that is negative about online behaviour with trolling and cyberbullying at the fore. However can the online disinhibtion effect be a useful ally to engagement professionals and are we getting this all wrong?

It’s an interesting conundrum – anonymous input versus traceable data, and both have their pros and cons. Moderated content where participants login and where users can be traced leads to strong demographic data and ensures that any input cannot be skewed by one person inputting multiple times.

On the other hand, unmoderated discussions can allow discussion to flow to unexpected areas enabling new discovery. Furthermore research into online behaviour indicates that users are far more willing to have frank and unfiltered discussions online as opposed to face-to-face due to the shield of protection provided by the anonymity of the Internet. It goes without saying that it won’t work for everybody, but if your project’s goal is to get a clear understanding of sentiment, or a clear response to an issue that may be filtered due to political, personal or business implications, an open online forum may just work for you, by leveraging this effect. After all, it’s our role to better understand the true values of a community so this may prove to be a very useful tool in our arsenal.

So the next time you look to ask questions of your community online, consider how anonymous responses may provide you with some unique data to help you better understand values. It’s a challenging option to consider but one which may provide you with new and challenging insights.