The Danger or Power of Anonymity?

by / 0 Comments / 338 View / December 20, 2014

Before the rise of social media, finding out about a person involved a Google search that often yielded few results. Now, it’s easy to gather information about people’s lives, from their birthdays to their graduation pictures to their current vacation spot. People trade a piece of our privacy in order to have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms. Yet in the mix of constant updates, photo collages and hashtags, there emerges a foundation for anonymous thoughts to spread profusely.

Several students have created pages for their colleges for the purpose of publishing anonymous submissions. Whether it’s “NYU Secrets,” “Wake Forest Compliments,” or “Tufts Confessions,” there are bountiful places for unauthored thoughts. Most sites are managed by student moderators, but due to anonymous submission forms, even they are kept in the dark. The benefit of contributing to such pages? Being able to see the public reaction without ever having to own up to them or worry about targeted judgment.

Over the course of the months that I’ve read my school’s secrets and crushes pages, I’ve read posts that make me laugh, cringe and think. Sometimes, there are heartwarming messages or inspiring recounts. Other times, there are deeply disturbing or tragic stories that leave me feeling uncomfortable or devastated.

That’s why these pages are impossible to define as good or bad–with anonymity comes a mixed bag of opinions, confessions and nonsense. There’s also a lack of responsibility because no one has to own up to writing a post. By not knowing who is behind the writing, it’s hard to fully grasp firstly, whether or not the post is serious or just meant to incite a reaction. It’s also difficult to discern the purpose of the posts, or to know how to respond properly. Is the person relating his depression in need of help, or does he just want an outlet to express his struggles? Are the two anonymous posters arguing about racism on campus unable to see each other’s perspectives because they’re both unaware of each other’s identity? Are issues ever resolved through these pages?

The answer to the last question, of course, relies on what the purpose of these pages is. It’s important to be able to use social media to create places for open discourse. At the same time, taking responsibility for one’s words can be crucial. Moderators may exist, but what if cyberbullying, hate speech or threats arise within the submissions? Then comes the question of whether or not moderators can censor such posts. Arguably, however, because these posts are anonymous and done through another entity’s page, the moderator can decide what should or should not be posted.

It’s also fascinating to see the obsession that crawls around these pages. At UChicago, students scroll through the Crushes page daily in hopes of finding a familiar name or description. Over 4,000 students have liked the page to follow the threads. Several of my friends have told me, half-jokingly, that it’s their dream to get a UChicago Crush. After all, there’s something very uplifting about having your name broadcasted to the student population about how attractive or desirable you are, even if it comes from an unknown source. It’s not really about who originally wrote it, just about the fact that now your name (and Facebook tag) is out there. And hey, maybe one day Anonymous will be the man (or woman) of your dreams, and propose to you in a dramatic, romantic fashion. Or, he could turn out to be your best friend trying to mess with you.

Let’s not forget about perhaps the most widely used anonymous platform across campuses. Yik Yak is a mobile app that allows users to write and vote on posts anonymously within a 1.5 mile radius. Users earn “Yakarma” points to keep track of their activity. Yik Yak has been “fenced” out of areas near certain elementary and secondary schools due to cyberbullying concerns with a technique called geofencing. Yet it retains its presence in college towns and even contributes to building the culture of the school. It can be hilarious, it can be informative and it can also be dangerous as a weapon of mass procrastination.

Anonymity is an extra layer of protection; it’s what holds these types of platforms together.

 It’s crucial to take everything that’s posted in such a manner with a grain of salt, and to be glad that at least in the United States, these spaces for freedom of expression can exist. At the end of the day, they provide some interesting insights into the unfiltered mind of the college student.