Birdwatch Aliases

Nov 21 2021

One of the great things about building something that has never been attempted before, like Birdwatch, is that we genuinely do not know what shape the final product will take, or what features are necessary for it to be successful. Our approach has been one of constant curiosity and learning, and introducing Aliases was one example where we significantly changed the product based on the community's and expert's feedback.

Initially, we hypothesized that crowdsourced notes would be more credible if they were linked to the author's Twitter account. After a year of observing, talking to our pilot contributors, and consulting experts, we learned that a significant portion of people felt uneasy about contributing under their names. This concern was stronger among women and black contributors.

In addition to that, in the same year that Birdwatch launched, Chris Bail launched a book in which he finds that online pseudonymity can help prevent polarization, by allowing people to cross partisan lines and share "middle ground" or even opposing views that they wouldn't feel comfortable sharing under their identities due to peer pressure.

These learnings led us to question our initial identity model, and ask ourselves:

How might we keep our contributors safe from harassment while keeping everyone accountable to the quality of their contributions?

Pseudonym identities

Alias selection screen

There are so many ways you can design an anonymous/pseudonymous system. It's a pandora's box of product design decisions:

  • Should people be able to self-select their alias?
    • If so, should they select from a fixed set, or be able to type anything they want?
  • Should people be able to change their alias after they've selected it?
  • How do we ensure people don't feel like all Birdwatch accounts are a bunch of anonymous bots? How do we humanize an account without showing a face?
  • If people are anonymous, will they have fewer incentives to participate? How will they brag about their status in the system?
  • How do we avoid impersonation and other ways of gaming the system?
  • ... and countless other questions.

It took us almost 1 year to reach a design that we felt met our requirements and solved our initial HMW questions. A few of the requirements we prioritized:

  • Aliases are auto-generated by us, in order to limit the risks of impersonation or group identity formation using namespaces.
  • Aliases must be legible to humans so that contributors can refer to each other. Therefore, they are randomly generated but don't include numbers or symbols like in other anonymous platforms.
  • Aliases must reinforce pro-social behavior, therefore the names are associated with birds, nature, and positive terms. Our content partners were heroes here, curating a list of millions of possible word combinations.
  • Alias selection should be somewhat flexible, We couldn't guarantee that a person would like a name we generated for them. Therefore, we show people 5 options they can pick. This was an engineering nightmare but we felt it was necessary for a positive user experience.
  • Contributors must remain accountable. We didn't want anonymity to come at the expense of good behaviors. Therefore, we built a public profile page where anyone can audit a person's past contributions.

Public profiles

Before and after on Note Details, a dialog where users can inspect who wrote a note.

One possible downside of anonymity is that some people may use it as a mask behave maliciously without being accountable for it. In designing our Alias program, we wanted to make sure that this risk was minimized.

Before aliases, we didn't have a surface to display people's history of notes, since this could increase the potential for harassment. With aliases in place, we now have a safe way to do so. Introducing public profiles allows contributors to check on each other's histories, keeping them accountable through the ratings they receive.

Our first iteration of Birdwatch public profiles.

The design we shipped in this first version is very minimal, but we have big plans for this surface. Watch this space!

Reassurance about pseudonymity in the submission form.

The reception was enthusiastic. This is definitely going to be a long road, and I can't wait to see what we learn from this experiment.

Tweet by Chris Bail, researcher of online polarization.
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