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This feature request is inspired by the question on Programmers.SE on whether it is appropriate to ask an interview candidate for their Stack Overflow user.

Stack Overflow is a site aimed at professional programmers, and it is used by some employers and some employees to examine or showcase the candidates abilities. I don't see any problem with that, but there is one aspect I'm a bit concerned about. Certain SE sites are far more private than the professional sites like SO. Anyone that participates in Christianity, Judaism, Islam or Biblical Hermeneutics is likely giving out a significant amount of information about their personal belief or world view to anyone who can connect the user name to the actual person. Another example would be controversial topics on Skeptics or Politics; not everyone would like to give their employer access to that kind of information.

The fundamental problem is that the SE platform does not allow for any separation inside one account. Of course one could create separate accounts for private and professional topics, but that requires a significant amount of clairvoyance and a rather annoying user experience juggling separate browsers to log into different accounts at once. An additional problem is that SE has automatic user merge features that can be triggered by logging into two accounts in the same session. I'm not sure how they work exactly, but I suspect that having your two accounts accidentally merged is a real danger if you are not careful.

There should be a mechanism to hide the connection between SE accounts, without having to use separate OpenIDs. For example, if I would like to use my SO account in job applications, I should be able to separate it from all my other accounts. The separation would only be for the publicly accessible part, moderators could still be allowed to see the connection between accounts. And behind the scenes it would just work as it is now, just without any links between the accounts.

The aspects that would need to be changed that I can think of are

  • the accounts tab in the user profile, that shouldn't show any connections for separated profiles
  • copying the user profile to other sites should not work for separated profiles
  • the network profile should not show the connections between separated profiles
  • Area 51 should also not show the profile connections

This separation would not have to be bulletproof, but it should prevent users googling a specific person to make connections the user does not want to make public.

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similar question at TWP meta: Can you add an ask anonymously feature for Stack Exchange sites like this and onstartups? (note also ones in it's "linked" section: "How can I remove this (The Workplace) account association from other stack exchange sites so that It cannot be traced back to me at my office?" etc) –  gnat Sep 19 '13 at 21:16
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Although the number is likely to be tiny - It's possible (although admittedly unlikely) that users wishing to participate in certain SE sites are potentially put off by the automatic association with a network wide account and therefore choose to not join such beta sites etc... –  Jon Clements Sep 19 '13 at 21:30
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@JonClements My concern is mainly that it is pretty much impossible to separate accounts later. If you intentionally create separate accounts for private and public stuff from the beginning you can manage it (but it is annoying because you have to separate the browser sessions), but most users don't plan that far ahead. –  Mad Scientist Sep 19 '13 at 21:33
    
@MadScientist Or, may not want to/otherwise can't have multiple browsers/sessions open, in which case they won't bother... Plus, the whole sign up thing would have to change - it's remarkably easy to pop to a sister site, click a button and you've signed up... Maybe there should be a notice at that point of possible options... –  Jon Clements Sep 19 '13 at 21:38
    
This will also impact how meta.SO is handled since it acts as a kind of catch-all for many network-wide requests. This can easily give away some associations you have connected to your 'main' SO account. –  jmac Sep 19 '13 at 23:29
    
@MadScientist what about linked accounts but able to hide specific accounts from your public profile? –  psubsee2003 Sep 20 '13 at 1:46
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Yes, please, or at least a way to not display it in the linked accounts. This is especially important for beta sites, which can go in different directions from what you anticipated when you joined and contributed content. Short of disassociating (which is a really big hammer that shouldn't be necessary), there's no way to excise a site you later have misgivings about. –  Monica Cellio Sep 20 '13 at 1:59
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Related question - Solution for semi-anonymous posts / accounts. –  Dukeling Sep 23 '13 at 1:19
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Maybe you want to emphasize that you're talking about the ability to sever the PUBLICLY-VISIBLE connections? Completely separating accounts was possible at one point, but made the login system overly complex - probably not ever going back to that given most folks do like the ability to sign on/off once without having to go site-by-site. –  Shog9 Oct 2 '13 at 22:07
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@Shog9, but would that go as far as creating aliases? It's one thing to not have hyperlinks between accounts, but if the account has the same name everywhere, it's not rocket science to correlate. This week I actually decided not to share my careers page with a potential employer, because I realised that it was pretty much impossible for me to guarantee that 5 years of interactions on 32 sites were going to leave me looking squeaky clean. Ironic, because on its own I think my SO account looks quite good! –  Benjol Nov 14 '13 at 7:07
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Similar request from a child meta (if not disconnect then at least hide the connection from public view). This is especially important for beta sites, as noted in an earlier comment. –  Monica Cellio Jan 9 at 21:12
    
Just maintain a completely separate account, accessing it only from Tor from separate browser. –  Vi. Jan 20 at 12:30
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@Vi. that's fine if you anticipate the problem, but once the association is made there's no way to break it, hence this request. –  Monica Cellio Jan 20 at 16:08
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@Shog9 - I just decided against posting about 90% of my Q/As to Parents.SE (where on Meta there is about 2 years' worth of public laments over lack of questions keeping them in Beta as the only bad stat). The MAIN and ONLY reason? I don't want extremely personal information revealed on Parenting to be visible to possible future employers when I give them my SO account. In the face of that consideration a super-minor annoyance of having to type in an extra login is NOT an issue to me as a user. Same applies to Workplace, Personal Productivity, and late Relationships. –  DVK May 19 at 4:05
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@MadScientist - Amen. I faced that with late and somewhat lamented Relationships site, where I logged in to Beta, only to realize that I can't create a brand new account (this being public Beta) and thus immediately went into CYA mode instead of choosing the best content to post. I'm nearly certain that this was one of the main reasons for Relationships site failure. –  DVK May 19 at 4:09

2 Answers 2

You can already create a second account - using a different OpenID - but that does require that you either use different browsers or continually log in and log out to post on the relevant sites. Not ideal and prone to error.

I like the the idea of being able to mark my account on site A as not publicly visible (to non-moderators) on other profiles. This would also mean that no other profiles would appear on my account on said site.

However, I can see a potential problem with the account association bonus. If this were applied to the account then it would become clear that this is a linked account so people would starting asking "Why has this account with no other accounts got the association bonus?". I think in this case you would have forego the bonus if you wanted to keep this account separate.

There's also the "copy profile to all accounts" option to consider. It would have to know which accounts to ignore.

Another solution would be to allow users to create their own site groups. So (for example) SO, UX, Programmers and Game Development could be in Group A, while Gaming, SU and AskUbuntu were in Group B and DIY, Cooking and Mechanics were in Group C. Each would only show the other accounts in that group to the public.

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If you forego the association bonus you might just as well create a new account... You could just have some greyed out text that states that the user is active on other SE sites instead. –  ben is uǝq backwards Aug 6 at 10:21
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@benisuǝqbackwards - well indeed. Which is why I highlighted that first. –  ChrisF Aug 6 at 10:22

I see a potential breach of the CC license if this is not implemented and the software automatically merges accounts that were meant by the user to be separate. To be more specific, merging accounts in such cases amounts to removing the pseudonym which was given by the post author.

The terms of the CC-BY-SA 3.0 license explicitly mention that pseudonyms should be preserved:

If You Distribute, or Publicly Perform the Work or any Adaptations or Collections, You must [...] provide, reasonable to the medium or means You are utilizing: (i) the name of the Original Author (or pseudonym, if applicable) if supplied

If a user goes to the trouble of setting up a separate account and using separate browsers, then that is a strong indication that the separate account is a pseudonym and should be preserved as such. Having a trigger-happy system which may (will?) immediately tell on the pseudonym as soon as the user slips and uses the wrong browser makes for a horrendously complicated user experience.

Instead, the answer is simple - allow users to set up pseudonyms within the system. This means account separation as per Mad Scientist's request.

I understand the need to watch out for sockpuppets and the fact that many duplicate accounts are due to user mistakes. However, the ethos behind this trigger-happy system, which is echoed clearly in this post by Jeff,

what legitimate reason would you need for multiple accounts?

is outdated and obsolete now. The network now contains a number of religious and hobby sites alongside professional sites and being forced to have them all together makes it very hard to use the professional profiles in public.

Personal Productivity, My Yodeya, Christianity, Islam, Biblical Hermeneutics, Politics, Hinduism, Buddhism, Personal Finance and Parenting all revolve around personal matters; I won't even try and list the number of hobby-driven sites for which it should be a personal choice whether to divulge one's participation in them.

Sites like The Workplace and Academia often require anonymity for many good questions to be asked. On the other hand, sites like MathOverflow explicitly encourage their users to use their real names. These goals can be completely incompatible in many real-world cases.

If this is not implemented, then account mergers should come with the possibility to dissociate the account from some of the content, and this feature should be visible and discoverable.

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