This past year was a tough one for a variety of reasons. Many personal and professional things happened behind the scenes that seemed to ratchet up the stress and anxiety level to ten. Some of this may be due to our second child turning three as well. 🙂
One specific series of events sent me spiraling off into some pretty unhealthy spaces. My family was there to help talk me through it, and the small things, like hugs from my children, meant the most. I also felt a need to reach out to other academics to get some feedback on how to proceed as it was related to my professional life.
In this situation, I was afraid, hurting, and looking for someone that would just listen without judgment. I didn’t want an answer, or even a response, I just needed to vent. This was a new phenomenon to me as I’ve never spent much time understanding, or finding a need for anonymity online. I wasn’t thinking about how reaching out to vent might impact my identity. The opportunity to freely share my story out online, without the judgement or retribution that would come with this sharing.
I see people openly share their foibles, flaws, and failures on social media, and (for the most part) others are there to comfort, reassure, and give some resolution. Most of this sharing I see occur on Facebook, where anonymity doesn’t exist. I’m usually struck by the bravery of individuals as they share these narratives openly with others. I also (admittedly) judge some others depending on how frequently they use the social networks as a sounding board.
Ultimately, the situation resolved itself. I made a big situation out of nothing because others made a big situation out of it. But, I learned a lot from the situation about the pain, and the seeking for solace from others….while still shrouded by some of the cloak that online anonymity can provide. This led me to think a bit more about the power of anonymity in online spaces.
What is online anonymity?
There are numerous reasons why an individual may seek to be anonymous while online, but this is a choice that people are increasingly making. There are also a variety of tools, practices, and habits that can be used to achieve anonymity online.
One of the best ways to understand anonymity online comes from social science. Morio & Buchholz (2009) separated this into three levels (visual anonymity, disassociation with real and online identities, and lack of identifiability.
- Visual anonymity – When individuals communicate without seeing each other. A good example of that is using text-based chatting programs over the Internet. People’s physical appearances are obscured in that scenario.
- Dissociation of real and online identities – A single individual can create more than one online identity using more than one screen name & avatars. Individuals then have the ability to become more than one person with dissimilar personalities. They also have the ability to adopt new genders & races.
- Lack of identifiability – This is the level closest to true anonymity online. When individuals cannot be identified, their behaviors are not distinguishable from others. An example would be an online forum in which people can post anonymous comments without attaching usernames to that post.
The challenges of online anonymity
Examples of extreme abuse, ranging from bullying to harassment are some of the biggest arguments against anonymity online. These online interactions can include personal threats about kidnapping, sexual assault, hate speech, or threats to disclose personal/financial information.
Online anonymity also presents challenges as some people believe anything that they read, or they find in print. Being able to “write” anything online also makes it much easier to share, and as a result, any information can be freely shared with others globally. This provides challenges as individuals/groups can anonymously share false information online with the purpose of confusing or gaslighting others.
The benefits of online anonymity
There are numerous benefits to online anonymity. These range from freedoms of speech and movement to issues of identity construction and personal safety.
Identity protection isn’t something we think about until we’ve lost obscurity. In normal social settings, we can sit in a downtown area, and not have concerns that everyone will know us, and all of our information. In a sense, we relish this opportunity to fade into the background and “people watch.” People that have global recognition, often have concerns about their privacy and security when everyone knows your face and name.
Online anonymity is also very important when we consider its role in freedom of expression. The Internet and social networks have been used to allow voices that are actively being silenced to speak without fear of retribution. This may include a whistleblower for a company, a citizen showing a video clip from their neighborhood, or an individual speaking up against a regime in their country. In any of these circumstances, the revelation of their identities may (and has) come with dangerous consequences.
The final major area where online anonymity holds enormous value is those that have questions about personal and/or health topics. Many individuals already do this as they “Google It” to find a remedy to a health ailment before (or instead of) speaking to their physician. We also see instances where individuals are struggling with their sexuality and they search online to find out more information, or ask questions in an online discussion board without revealing their identity and risking negative exposure.
Some people believe that if they have nothing to hide, they don’t have to worry about online anonymity. The truth is that as our lives become more connected in digital spaces, we regularly leave behind a trail of digital residue that contains social updates, pictures, video, location data, and other information about our lives.
The situation I described at the start of this piece provided me with an important lens through which I could see (and feel) the need for online anonymity. My challenge is that most of my life is an open book. In terms of a continuum that I see existing between open and closed, I tend toward the open side of things in my digital identity. I blog about everything, share manuscripts, and freely share my work and ideas online. Perhaps it is due to my privilege, or perhaps I haven’t felt the emotional impetus to reach out while remaining thinly protected.
With great power comes great responsibility. The Internet allows all individuals to share their voices and narratives online. This means that we’ll see and hear from the best…and the worst…that is out there. I believe that we need to empower and advocate for all voices, while protecting everyone’s right to share.
As our lives become more digital, we need to think about the privacy of our data and traffic. We also need to save these spaces for the voiceless, or those looking to be heard.
For more information, please review these sources:
- Anonymity on the Internet Must be Protected
- The Influence of Anonymity on Participation in Online Communities
- The Anonymous Internet
- An Analysis of Tools for Online Anonymity
- Now You See Me, Now You Don’t: A study of the relationship between Internet anonymity and Finnish young people
- Definitions of Anonymity and its Dimensions in an Electronic World
- Anonymity, Social Norms, and Online Harassment
- Effects of Anonymity, Pre-Employment Integrity and Antisocial Behavior on Self-Reported Cyber Crime Engagement: An Exploratory Study
Also published on Medium.