Written by Mikel Gorostegui Obanoz
In reality, everybody can create some sort of content on the internet, share information with others using different platforms as social networks, blogs, YouTube, review sites and so on. The internet allows people to interact with each other under a nickname or just disclose only a part of their real identity, generating what is called the online disinhibition effect, in which people change their behavior in the online world (Suler, 2004). In recent years the media and some studies have been worried about the effect of anonymity on the internet, arguing that it can foster a violent behavior and particularly in the case of electronic word of mouth can generate dishonest messages and un-ethical business practices.
The purpose of this paper is to analyze the effect of anonymity of the sender in electronic word of mouth.
The expansion of WOM into eWOM
In consumer behavior, the study of people interactions has been exceedingly important for marketing researches (Vásquez, Suárez & del Rio, 2013). The concept of word of mouth (WOM) was developed as a critical factor that influence the purchase decision of a consumer (Torlak, Ozkara, Tiltay, Cengiz & Dulger, 2014) and according to several studies, WOM is considered to be one of the most important driver of a company’s success (Meuter, Brown & Curran, 2013). The penetration of the Internet has changed completely the way in which consumers interact with each other and how people seek information (King, Racherla & Bush, 2014). In the past decades, new channels of communication have emerged offering consumers instantaneous interactions with other consumers and brands (Vásquez et al. 2013). Now people can create their own messages in different virtual sites as blogs, review sites, social networks and so on, expressing their opinion and expanding what it is called electronic word of mouth (Lin, Lu & Wu, 2012). According to the definition of Kietzmann & Canhoto “eWOM refers to any statement based on positive, neutral, or negative experiences made by potential, actual, or former consumer about a product, service, brand, or company, which is made available to a multitude of people and institutions via the Internet” (2013, pp.147-148 ).
WOM and eWOM are important in the decision process, however, there are 6 different characteristics of eWOM that are important to highlight (King et al. 2014, pp.170-171).
1. Enhanced Volume: eWOM is able to reach a bigger audience of people via different channels.
2. Dispersion: There are several online platforms to disperse the message.
3. Persistence and Observability: The information remains online and is available on-demand.
4. Salience of valence: Consumer assigned positive or negative rating when they review a product or service, leading to less misinterpretation.
5. Community Engagement: eWOM channels create consumers communities in which people can discuss and learn from each other.
6. Anonymity and Deception: The users of internet can keep their anonymity in their communication.
These characteristics are what makes eWOM more unique in the way information is distributed and received.
Why the sender engages in eWOM?
To understand the effect of anonymity from the sender’s perspective, it is important to discover which factors drive consumers to engage in eWOM, sharing content and their opinions in different channels. According to Wasko & Faraj (2000), there are two main reasons to share information across communities: an economic purpose that is motivated by self-interest, and a non-economic purpose that is motivated by community interest and moral obligation. They further state that from the economic perspective, people consider information as a private good in which they expect a benefit for themselves in exchange for their knowledge. These benefits can be tangible as money or intangible as reputation (Wasko & Faraj, 2000). In the non-economic perspective, consumers consider information as a public good, they share to contribute to the welfare of others (Wasko & Faraj, 2000). Additionally, Hennig‐Thurau, Gwinner, Walsh & Gremler (2004, p.46) determined 8 factors that drive the engagement of eWOM and can be interpreted as:
1. Platform assistance: Need to write to the company to solve a problem
2. Venting negative feelings: Hurt the company and reduce the personal anxiety or frustration.
3. Concern for other consumers: Help others to get positive experiences and reduce the probability of bad experiences.
4. Extraversion/positive self-enhancement: Self-expression
5. Social benefits: Social recognition and feel part of a community.
6. Economic incentives: Get a reward in exchange of the information.
7. Helping the company: The consumer is loyal to the company and try to expand their message.
8. Advice seeking: Desire of get tips and a feedback when information is not clear.
Without these factors, it would be difficult to assess a consumer’s engagement.
Anonymity and effects in the behavior of the sender
As is stated by King et al (2014), anonymity is one of the main characteristics of eWOM , people can hide their identity by using a nickname or can disclose only part of their identity as their name, country, gender and so on. According to Tsikerdekis (2012) “[a]nonymity refers to the state of an individual’s personal identity, or personally identifiable information, being publicly unknown” (p.3). One of the effects of anonymity is that people say or do things whereas face to face they would not, this effect is called the online disinhibition effect (Suler, 2004). This effect has two contrasting directions: a double-edged sword. The first one is when people reveal personal emotions, secrets or wishes of themselves, this is called benign disinhibition, which can drive to people to be more generous with others in online platforms (Suler, 2004). The second is called toxic disinhibition, and is when people take an aggressive behavior, using rude language and sending violent messages to others, hiding themselves in anonymity (Suler, 2004). The toxic disinhibition effect also leads people to navigate in what can be called the dark site of the internet as pornography or crime websites (Suler, 2004). Consequently, Tsikerdekis (2012) explained that in the online world, people can protect themselves and may think that they are not responsible for their online actions, they may believe that the online world has different rules than the real one, this is called dissociative anonymity. Other driver of the disinhibition effect is the dissociative imagination, in which people create virtual identities that only live in the online world, as Suler (2004) stated “[o]nce they turn off the computer and return to their daily routine, they believe they can leave behind that game and their game identity” (p. 323).
Another trigger of the online disinhibition effect is the minimization of authority. Suler (2004) indicated that on the internet, everybody is able to say what they want, even if there are some figures of authority, their power does not have too much influence on the action of the others. Supporting this, Joinson (2007) stated that there are a reduction of social cues, social hierarchy and social status in the online world that increase the disinhibition, thus it seems that people are possibly more equal on the internet. Additionally, in market research, the use of research methods in which the participant can stay anonymous, has been used as a tool to reduce social desirable answers (Lelkes, Krosnick Marx, Judd & Park, 2011). The honesty of the participants in this type of research, seems essential to gather accurate results. However, the social desirability tend to make people give less honest answers, especially in topics as politics, alcohol abuse and racism (Lelkes, et al 2011) although there is no strong evidence that supports this fact.
As is stated at the beginning of this paper, the media is concern about the implications of anonymity on the internet. One example of this is the criticism to the review website TripAdvisor, which is one of the principal generators of electronic WOM, where people can review places and hotels around the world, even without ever visiting those places (Starmer-Smith,2012). Newspapers, such as The Telegraph and The Guardian, stated that anonymity allows the creation of fake profiles from part of the companies to improve positive eWOM and the creation of negative eWOM in the reviews of their competency (Cochrane, 2011; Starmer-Smith, 2012). As a result of this bad practice the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned Tripadvisor to claim in their website that all their reviews are honest or correspond to real people (Hall, 2012). Additionally, the website has been criticized for the lack of control in the use of aggressiveness, hate speeches and the use of rude language in their comments (The Economist, 2012; Starmer-Smith, 2012), that could be explain by the anonymous option of their users.
In conclusion, anonymity has several implications on the behavior of the sender in eWOM, as it is stated in the online disinhibition effect theory. As a double-edged sword, on one side, people can play a role game with the internet, and create new identities to say and behave in ways that they would never do in real life, thus, it seems that anonymity could be dangerous to encourage people to say what they really think. On the other side, it appears that elements like the minimization of the authority and the reduction of social cues can foster people to behave and feel more comfortable with what they think in the online world. Therefore, the effect of anonymity give people to opening to either be honest or fake. For future research, it would be interesting to study the correlation between honesty of the message and anonymity in eWOM, because people interact in different ways when they are online than offline, thus, this could help towards a better management of eWOM. Essentially, it is clear that eWOM has great power in the consumer buying decision process. Therefore, marketers should pay attention and consider what people are talking about with their brand in the online world. Further, they should also consider who are talking and what are their motivations for talking, which in turn companies should be able to make better decisions.
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