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Currently, if you want to make your own posts anonymous, the only ways to do this are to write to SE and ask them to disassociate particular posts from your account, or to delete your entire SE account. The ability to ask for a removal of attribution is also a clause in the Creative Commons license, so this is not an optional feature.

The biggest issue with disassociation is that it is a feature that can be abused. It severs the connection between user and post entirely, it doesn't just hide it. This means it affects question and answer bans, it can make it harder for moderators and SE employees to figure out behaviour patterns for that user.

The consequence of this is that each disassociation request is handled manually by an SE employee.

What I'm proposing is an alternative that has far less abuse potential, and could be given into the hands of the users themselves. This would eliminate the manual work associated with the current disassociation process, and it would potentially reduce the drama around these issues as it makes it easier for users to just remove themselves from a post.

I'd imagine the mechanics of it working roughly like this:

  • the user name is hidden on the post and not linked, exactly like for disassociated posts
  • the user loses all reputation associated with the post (mostly because not doing that would mean it's impossible to figure out where that user got their rep from)
  • the anonymization is irreversible (for the user). This should emphasize that users should only do that if they are truly serious about it, and not on a whim.
  • moderators and SE employees would still be able to see the posts in the user profiles (just like deleted posts)
  • all automatic mechanisms like question bans would still see those posts connected to the user

There are some ways I could imagine to shoot yourself in the foot with this, for example by anonymizing all your posts while being question or answer blocked. This probably needs a big, blinking warning in this case.

I'm not entirely sure if it is worth the effort to implement, but that depends a lot on how complicated the implementation would be, which is something only SE can judge. So I thought I'll put it up here for discussion anyway.

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    On one hand - "its about the post, not about the user". On the other hand, IMO, the situations where anonymity is essential is pretty small. – Journeyman Geek Sep 8 '17 at 8:53
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    Badges should also be removed. The first post I'd abandon if this is implemented gave me a "Great Answer" gold badge. That's a direct link to the answer from my profile, not good if I want to distance myself from it. – yannis Sep 8 '17 at 8:55
  • "the user loses all reputation associated with the post" this has to be delayed with a random time to avoid keeping a link between the anonymisation time and rep lost time. (I think it exists for the rep loss of a downvote) – Tensibai Sep 8 '17 at 9:19
  • And then those anonymous post must have a different link in SEDE queries also (community user maybe ?). This sounds a very complex system to lighten an unknown number of request to SE employees. – Tensibai Sep 8 '17 at 9:26
  • @Tensibai Rep lost time? I assume rep will be recalculated, there won't be any visible rep loss since the post will be like it never existed in the first place. – yannis Sep 8 '17 at 9:35
  • @yannis I didn't understood it that way, more like a deleted post where the rep change is visible when you delete it/undelete when it's not too old. Adding a rep recalculation sounds a high load. – Tensibai Sep 8 '17 at 9:47
  • @Tensibai Treating this as a normal deletion doesn't make sense. For one, deletion is reversible, disassociation isn't. Also, rep recalculation happens very often. I don't think it's that costly. Even if it is, then we could simply rate limit the feature. – yannis Sep 8 '17 at 9:58
  • @yannis makes sense. I'm still unsure what the current load on SE employees is for those requests and I'm usually reluctant to add complexity to a system while not knowing the expected gain. Not that I have something about the idea in itself, it sounds perfectly reasonable. I'm just worried about the practical impact on code complexity and have nothing to balance it. That's not my business but I feel that's a concern to be voiced. – Tensibai Sep 8 '17 at 10:04
  • @Tensibai I wouldn't know about the load either. However, I did remove a number of my accounts across the network once SE simplified the process. I wouldn't bother removing them the old way, that wasn't fully automated. Wasn't worth the trouble. I assume it will be the same with this, a lot of us would like to distance ourselves from certain posts, but not enough to trouble SE employees to do it. – yannis Sep 8 '17 at 10:07
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    I don't see why we should make this process easier for users. Should we not rather be encouraging them to either post anonymously or with a secondary account in the first place if they don't want content associated with them? – Catija Sep 8 '17 at 12:56
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    @yannis Why does it need to be simple? This post doesn't explain why this is beneficial to do this simply. My understanding is that disassociation is rare - why do people ask for it at all? Are there some sites where it's more necessary/common? – Catija Sep 8 '17 at 14:13
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    @Catija Why does it need to be complicated? It's not our place to ask why people may want to distance themselves from their posts, the important thing is that SE must honour disassociation requests. However, disassociation requests are commonly abused to evade post bans and suspensions - which is the only reason they aren't automated. A feature that would both make legitimate disassociation requests easier and allow SE to track and limit abuse has zero downsides. – yannis Sep 8 '17 at 14:34
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    @yannis Of course it does have downsides. On meta, people could use it to post "grievances" that only the mods can follow up on because no one else can see who they are. How many times has someone come here to complain about unfair treatment but if we can't see who they are, we can't address it with links to the actual stuff they did. Only the CMs could deal with it. I'm sure there are other problems that you just aren't considering. – Catija Sep 8 '17 at 14:45
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    @Catija People do regularly ask for it, for good reasons and for bad ones. Often when they notice that they can' delete their questions outright. But it doesn't actually matter that much if the reasons are good or bad, the users imply have the right to do this according to the licence. The main benefit would be that SE doesn't have to manually handle those requests, and that it makes certain kinds of meta drama easier to stop or avoid by pointing the users towards this feature – Mad Scientist Sep 8 '17 at 15:06
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    @yannis Badges wouldn't have to be removed. There is already logic for replacing the link to post with "(post deleted or otherwise unavailable)", which happens often for Reversal badge, for example. – user315433 Sep 8 '17 at 15:43
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I'm going to go right out and say it: We need something like this to be implemented.

As someone who deals with post disassociations regularly, I can say that we've hit a bit of a tipping point where these requests have fallen into blatant abuse territory and are becoming increasingly common - a bit too common. Some of the reasons we see:

  • I want to clean up my profile so that it looks better to potential employers.
  • I don't like the responses I got to this question.
  • I want to reset my account so I can ask questions again.
  • I did something completely wrong and want it erased from my record.

Now we really don't want to get into legal battles as a company, but these are all quite horrible and abusive reasons to disassociate something. But that's only because of the way we have implemented how we remove credit. Completely removing the post from their account altogether is going a bit overboard on the cooperation. While it's easier implementation-wise, it causes a lot more side-effects that just make handling them annoying.

But there are concerns with throwing this tool into the hands of the users. I do still think that staff are needed to approve these requests, even if it's allowing users to submit a specific "disassociate" request and dropping it into a queue for staff to either click Approve or Reject. It would allow us to see patterns and look closer at situations where there's a bunch of requests from a single user in the queue - a signal that perhaps we should talk to the user instead.

Getting back to what I said earlier, the main reason that post disassociations are such a pain for us is that we are very reluctant to actually process them because of the way we process them. We don't actually need to put control completely into users' hands, we just need to have a better system of removing credit that lets us not worry about post disassociations nearly as much. Having to analyze the situations and determine how credible their reason is or if they're trying to bypass some block yada yada ya - that's time consuming and shouldn't be necessary. It wouldn't be necessary if our system was properly designed to handle these requests. But right now we're just stuck with a really old, simplistic tool that kind of does the job but really poorly.

I'm going to be thinking more about this problem and hopefully draft up some ideas about how we'd actually want this to work and what would make it simplest for us to handle. One of the biggest concerns here is that any way we try to do this, it's probably going to require a lot of reworking of many parts of code throughout the site, and that means a lot of developer time. If we can find a way to minimize that as much as possible, that would be great.

Past all of that, we need to reinforce the idea that Internet participation is permanent. Most of our pages get saved to the Wayback Machine, where users could probably just look up who posted it anyways. As well, other users may still remember who posted it, and we can't prevent them from actively telling other people who the original owner of the content was (we won't delete chat messages saying "this was actually posted by user123" just because you desire that).

Removing credit as an idea is already a poor one at that - all you're doing is making it harder to find the information, not really erasing it. The original intent behind the disassociation clause of the license was to allow users to walk away from something that has completely changed from what they originally created or is incorporated into something they never wanted to be associated with, not to just walk away from anything they feel like. Pretty much the only reason we comply with disassociation requests is because we don't want to deal with the potential legal implications of not complying with them.


As a follow-up to this, we decided to go very heavy on the information aspect of this problem and see what happens. This primarily involved completely rewriting the FAQ about disassociation to include more details about the implications and why it probably won't help you (rather than just saying "here's how - go do it"), as well as wiping some information in other spots and directing users there instead.

In addition, comments that merely tell users to go to the contact us page and request disassociation rather than linking to the FAQ are subject to immediate deletion. We do not want users just directing people directly to the form and giving the impression that this feature is an everyday use feature with no consequences. Please always link to the FAQ, and never to the contact page.

As a result of these very minor changes, we've seen a very noticeable decline in the amount of abusive disassociation requests we've been receiving as of late. That doesn't make the rest of the problem invalid - we definitely do need to fix the disassociation system at some point, but we're very happy with this decline in what we considered abuse of a feature.

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    What proportion of people who request disassociation do so more than once? I'm wondering if a "first one's free" (automatic, no staff action needed) policy would lighten your load while preventing the abuse cases we're worried about. (I also think any disassociation should produce an annotation so moderators/CMs will have the info if they need it for other investigations.) – Monica Cellio Sep 8 '17 at 19:57
  • @MonicaCellio isn't your concern about mod access addressed in the question, "moderators and SE employees would still be able to see the posts in the user profiles (just like deleted posts)"? (the only part about this that I don't quite understand is whether this new "privacy access" would need change in mod agreement or it's already covered by existing PII part of it) – gnat Sep 8 '17 at 21:31
  • @gnat I was suggesting a possible simplification to animuson to see if it would address 90% of the current workload with only minimal system changes. Maybe it's good enough, or if not, maybe it's a useful intermediate step while the team figures out what they want to do long-term. And I'm confident that the existing mod agreement would cover those annotations, given what else we can already see. – Monica Cellio Sep 8 '17 at 21:50
  • @gnat The moderator agreement would frankly have nothing to do with disassociation. Your name previously being attached to a post is not protected information in any regard. – animuson Sep 8 '17 at 21:54
  • @animuson after I learned that deleted posts visibility to 10K users can be argued as license violation I am not sure about anything anymore. "Oh you show disassociated post to moderators as mine, that counts as public distribution, stop that" – gnat Sep 8 '17 at 22:24
  • @gnat You seem to be trying to apply the license in a regard it simply does not cover. The license only requires us to remove the name from the post in the usual spot. Other users discussing who originally owned it on their own time is not covered by the license in any way and that is not private information protected by the mod agreement. This gets back to my point about Internet participation being permanent. You can never really disassociate yourself from content, only make it harder to find. And there's nothing anyone can do about that. – animuson Sep 8 '17 at 22:29
  • well one can argue that for moderators the usual spot is user's profile and keeping association in there still counts as distribution. Reasoning of that guy in the referred comment arguing that deleted posts are still distribution has taught me that common sense can be totally perverted for legal matters. And in this case I bet folks will try just that - you said it yourself that some of them want this to get out of ban and when they discover that this trick doesn't work they will just try harder – gnat Sep 8 '17 at 22:36
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    @gnat A key phrase in the license is "to the extent practicable" - and the counterargument is that moderators knowing who created the content is essential to maintaining site quality and preventing abuse, thus hiding the information from a moderator is not practicable. It would actively inhibit our site, so that part of the license simply does not apply to that situation. – animuson Sep 8 '17 at 22:38
  • I see, thanks. "to the extent practicable" - that way should probably work – gnat Sep 8 '17 at 22:42
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    To clarify a bit more here: we use that same exact argument for why we refuse to completely delete a user's email address from our system - it will always exist somewhere no matter how much profile deletion you complete. As well, we have always recorded disassociations, and moderators can currently find a list of every post that's ever been disassociated from a profile. It's just not in a convenient place that moderators frequently look, so it tends to go unnoticed. – animuson Sep 8 '17 at 22:46
  • yes, sure, and "practicable extent" part should cover you there too (and I think it covers pretty well - simply because if it didn't then people would use some other license) – gnat Sep 8 '17 at 22:49
  • There on MSE it could be a good idea, as new idea or feedback vs another user can be hard to bring. I would add an option there when we ask the question, if it get posted like a community wiki's post, and with a needed review queue approval. (no point gain for the OP, but the question is more anonymous for him) – yagmoth555 Sep 9 '17 at 18:03
  • "I want to reset my account so I can ask questions again." that really works? Disassociation allows you to evade quality bans? – Braiam Sep 11 '17 at 10:11
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    @animuson would it be possible to put that FAQ info in the help center on our sites? I never remember this exists when I need it; just a few hours ago I directed a user on a site I moderate to the "contact us" link (oops), after some comment discussion. I do routinely link to help topics on my site, though, so if this were there it'd be easier for me to get it right. Thanks. – Monica Cellio Feb 28 '18 at 23:34
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    @animuson could we please add these entries to the help (one for users, one for mods)? I updated my previous draft to incorporate your FAQ guidance. – Monica Cellio May 31 '18 at 0:53

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