The Hidden Costs of Requiring Accounts

Should online communities require people to create accounts before participating?

This question has been a source of disagreement among people who start or manage online communities for decades. Requiring accounts makes some sense since users contributing without accounts are a common source of vandalism, harassment, and low quality content. In theory, creating an account can deter these kinds of attacks while still making it pretty quick and easy for newcomers to join. Also, an account requirement seems unlikely to affect contributors who already have accounts and are typically the source of most valuable contributions. Creating accounts might even help community members build deeper relationships and commitments to the group in ways that lead them to stick around longer and contribute more.

In a new paper published in Communication Research, I worked with Aaron Shaw provide an answer. We analyze data from “natural experiments” that occurred when 136 wikis on started requiring user accounts. Although we find strong evidence that the account requirements deterred low quality contributions, this came at a substantial (and usually hidden) cost: a much larger decrease in high quality contributions. Surprisingly, the cost includes “lost” contributions from community members who had accounts already, but whose activity appears to have been catalyzed by the (often low quality) contributions from those without accounts.

A version of this post was first posted on the Community Data Science blog.

The full citation for the paper is: Hill, Benjamin Mako, and Aaron Shaw. 2020. “The Hidden Costs of Requiring Accounts: Quasi-Experimental Evidence from Peer Production.” Communication Research, 48 (6): 771–95.

If you do not have access to the paywalled journal, please check out this pre-print or get in touch with us. We have also released replication materials for the paper, including all the data and code used to conduct the analysis and compile the paper itself.

13 Replies to “The Hidden Costs of Requiring Accounts”

  1. Maybe this is out of date, but I always liked it:

    “Registration keeps out good posters. Imagine someone with an involving job related to your forum comes across it. This person is an expert in her field, and therefore would be a great source of knowledge for your forum; but if a registration, complete with e-mail and password, is necessary before posting, she might just give up on posting and do something more important. People with lives will tend to ignore forums with a registration process. ….”

    Btw lol, posting here requires a (maybe fake) email.

  2. What you say makes intuitive sense: it’s what I’d expect. If I have to create an account to comment, it raises the bar quite significantly. Especially if I don’t entirely trust your motives, as would commonly be the case with a commercial site.

    But what happened to universal registration via OpenID? When that was more widely supported it looked to me like a Best of Both Worlds. You’re asking for some level of ident, but not asking the user to jump through hoops just to make a one-off comment.

  3. Is the cost really hidden? ) Registration, ratings, carma, reputation, ranks, etc. etc. etc. are just annoying (if not scaring) users and driving them away. On the other hand, some services are trying to tie users to social IDs (bad for privacy), and some even invent elaborate hidden tracking techniquies (also bad) while appearing “registrationless”.

  4. great stuff!

    that seems to confirm the aphorism that the best way to get a correct answer on the internet is to post a wrong one.

    “correcting” seems to be quite a strong drive for a lot of people

  5. Anything commercial and exploitative WILL require an account, probably some other data too, before allowing participation.

    The problem I see, is that asking for something similar sets up a ‘commercial and potentially exploitative’ vibe. It’s not as if well meaning online properties in the past have not ended up in the hands of exploitative companies.

    For this reason, I’d be wary and I get a lot of privacy aware folk would also be wary of signing up and contributing.

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