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Is user-generated content better off when user identity is revealed?

Research suggests that identity disclosure on user-generated content is a double-edged sword.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – User-generated content (UGC) – from the photos and videos posted on social media to the product and service reviews shared on websites – is an increasingly important tool for companies looking to sell their goods and services. In recent years, the popularity of anonymous user-generated content has raised questions about the credibility of those photos, videos, blog posts and reviews.

In order to bring about transparency, companies like Amazon have given users the option to share their identity when posting reviews, while Yelp and TripAdvisor have integrated user accounts with their Facebook accounts. While transparency in users seems to be helping curb the issue, the behavior associated with being anonymous or not when generating content is top of mind for researchers at the University of Florida Warrington College of Business.

Liangfei Qiu, Jingchuan Pu and Kenny Cheng.

From left: Liangfei Qiu, Jingchuan Pu (Ph.D. ’19) and Kenny Cheng.

Liangfei Qiu, PwC Associate Professor of Information Systems, and Kenny Cheng, John B. Higdon Eminent Scholar, with Pennsylvania State University’s Jingchuan Pu (Ph.D. ’19) and Shanghai University of Finance and Economics’ Yuan Chen, studied the effects of identity disclosure in user-generated content in a first-ever investigation into the issue.

The researchers studied the behaviors of an international conglomerate’s employees in the company’s internal online community. The company had previously chosen to disclose user identities in one section of the online community, while the second section was anonymous. In this setting, the researchers found that when users identities were revealed (in the “focal section”), they put greater effort in content generation, but created fewer pieces of content, as compared to when they remained anonymous (in the “neighbor section”). The researchers note that this is likely due to the increased social presence in the online community when a user’s identity is known.

However, in contrast, when users remain anonymous, they put less effort into each piece of content, but generated a greater amount of content. This is likely due to the displacement effect, the researchers note, which describes the phenomenon when one policy is inconsistently implemented in two areas, like when the policy of identity disclosure is implemented in one area, but not in another.

Taken together, the researchers find that when identity in one section of the online community was revealed, users exert lower effort on each piece of content and generate a greater amount of content overall.

“These findings demonstrate that that identity disclosure is a double-edged sword,” Pu, Chen, Qiu and Cheng write. “On the one hand, identity disclosure increases users’ effort on each content in the focal section. On the other hand, this benefit comes at the cost of reduced users’ effort per content in the neighbor section. The content volume is significantly inhibited in the focal section, and users tend to displace the inhibited content to the neighbor section.

For managers of user-generated content websites who recognize that content is necessary for their business, the researchers suggest comprehensively evaluating the effects of relevant policies on behavior.

“When inconsistent policy is implemented in different sections of a UGC website, practitioners should take the possible displacement effect into account and design a better reward system,” Pu, Chen, Qiu and Cheng write.

This research was published in Information Systems Research, and is available to read in full.