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Anonymity: A Gift or a Curse?

Digital Anonymity

Anonymity in a digital environment is a complicated issue that will continue to cause controversy as long as digital technology continues to evolve. The desire for anonymity is as much linked to the typical societal desire for some semblance of personal privacy as it is to the desire to impart influence or opinion on other people without the consequences associated with one’s actual identity. In the most basic sense, anonymity is essentially defined as “namelessness” or “being without a name”. We as a society deal with anonymity on a daily basis, despite the fact we often do not realize it. People do not walk around in public spaces with a description of their identity taped on their back for various reasons. Often we like to maintain a sense of privacy; other times we wish to avoid embarrassment.

To exemplify the latter, I will use a hypothetical person named John. Say for instance John has some type of rash on his body that for some reason he finds embarrassing. John knows that he can head down to his local Rite Aid and pick up an ointment to remedy this issue, yet due to his embarrassment he wishes to avoid the risk of seeing somebody he knows at the store. Therefore, John goes out of his way to visit a pharmacy that he believes he will not be recognized at. Sentiments such as this translate directly into the digital world. Perhaps John finds that he needs to seek a medical opinion as his condition worsens, yet he is too ashamed to face his doctor. The Internet gives him a way around this fear; John can simply create an anonymous account on a medical forum, inquire about his affliction and receive feedback in a judgement-free environment. This is the beauty of online anonymity, but as every aspect of technology has a flip-side, there is also a darker aspect of online identity.

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Gossip Sites

While anonymity online allows for people to investigate matters, engage in conversation and seek advice in a very privatized way, it also creates an ample opportunity for people to behave in immoral ways while evading detection. This is among the more controversial aspects of online identity. Gossip sites such as JuicyCampus.com allow users to remain anonymous while engaging in conversations revolving around gossip and rumors.  Initially started as a place for college students to goof around and interact in a humorous way, it soon got out of hand.

Originally started by Stanford University MBA student Matt Ivester as a way for students at his Alma Mater, Duke University, to gossip freely and anonymously, over time the site grew into something much more vicious. Online anonymity allows for users to attack and degrade unsuspecting people, leaving the victims with no means of identifying their attacker and therefore no means to seek retribution. In this article, written by Richard Bernstein of the New York Times, the author notes that in one instance, a very insulting question was posed; “Who is the sluttiest girl at Cornell?” urlMany people would be appalled at the vulgar nature of such a question, yet the feature warranted nearly fifty responses, many of which apparently gave names of real students at the university. In a real-world setting where anonymity is more difficult to maintain, such an attack on an individual could warrant legal sanctions for harassment, yet in an online forum, there are no means by which to identify these users, leaving them free to spread slurs and libel. On JuicyCampus.com’s very own homepage, the slogan reads “C’mon, give us the juice. Posts are totally, 100% anonymous”. In the most basic sense, one could call this the most basic, morally corrupt incarnation of the First Amendment. Minjeong Kim, a professor at Colorado State University, poses in her dissertation The Right to Anonymous Association in Cyberspace: US Legal Protection for Anonymity in Name, In Face, And In Action…

“…Much research has been done regarding online anonymity as a legal right, but it is speech rights that receive most emphasis by the legal scholarship. The right to anonymity is considered worth protecting because the content of speech, such as a dissenting opinion or an unpopular idea, is valuable – if not crucial – in a pluralistic democracy. Yet the context of online communication forces us to ask whether this speech-focused argument can capture the full spectrum of the role that anonymity plays in cyberspace…”

The problem is not the fact that people are saying this nasty things to others online, it is rather that they are able to do so anonymously. Recently, after the demise of JuicyCampus, another similar site called CollegeACB sprang up in it’s wake. With the ACB portion standing for  Anonymous Confession Board, the site gives students another forum in which they can verbally degrade and harass other students without revealing their identity to the masses. The controversy over whether to block the site has been met with opposing viewpoints on campuses across the country.

Why do these harassing individual cherish anonymity?

In his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, renowned sociologist Erving Goffman, presents two stages where an individuals assume different roles and present different information. Goffman refers to these stages as the front & back stage; the front stage is “where the actor performs and adheres to conventions that have meaning to the audience”, while in the backstage “performers are present but the audience is not, therefore allowing performers to step out of characters without fear of disrupting the performance”. Essentially the front stage serves as a platform in which we are observed by our peers and those around us, therefore people typically tend to act accordingly and behave in a manner which they believe (correctly or incorrectly) those around them will respect. The front stage is exemplified through sites such as Facebook, where the common user employs real information about their lives to fill up their page with digital content. The back stage is exemplified well by gossip sites such as JuicyCampus, as the anonymity factor hides the users true identity from his/her audience, allowing them to act in any manner they please without fear of repercussion or backlash from the audience directly unto their person.

Recently, the creator of another anonymous online gossip site for colleges, a Penn State specific site called PSUacb.com, posted a list of names citing people who had posted to the site under the guise of anonymity. In reality, the sites creator had tracked the user behind every single post; he outed the names in the hope of teaching students a public lesson in cyberbullying. He began the post with this message “Moral of the story: Grow the fuck up and stop talking shit on the Internet.” In fact, as media outlets dug deeper into the story, they discovered that the group behind the site was actually using it as a social experiment the entire time. In the wave of feedback that piled in after the big reveal, ironically the creators were forced to post their information and responses anonymously for fear of the users whose names they had revealed. On the other hand, support from the Greek community and those students who had been harassed on the site was overwhelming.

A Positive Spin on Online Anonymity

At this point, the argument against online anonymity seems rather one sided, yet it might be appropriate to label the above issues with the hashtag #FirstWorldProblems. Along with the more detrimental effects noted above, anonymity in terms of usernames on the internet can also open up the world to people who may otherwise be severely restricted or limited in terms of freedom. Chief Internet Evangelist and Vice President of Google, Vint Cerf, discusses this notion of anonymity…

In oppressed countries such as Iran or Iraq, anonymity online can mean the difference between life and death for many citizens. Here in the U.S., we take for granted the freedoms we are given; identity is almost like a badge of honor, we often wear it proudly. While many young adults are quick to remain anonymous when making disparaging remarks about peers or friends, most have no problem openly voicing political opinions in a public space, willingly letting their identity be known. In nations such as Iran, where public opinion is suppressed and the internet is heavily censored, anonymity gives users a chance to have a voice in a culture where they are typically forced to remain silence. Anonymity even gives people a chance to try to bring an end to these oppressive regimes; hackers use their identity, or lack thereof to spread influence and wage digital warfare against those who wish to keep them quiet. Hacktivism is becoming more commonplace by the day, as the recent Egyptian Revolution has spawned hope throughout the Middle East. With a tongue in cheek name and millions of people to liberate, the hacktivist group known simply as Anonymous “describes its members as vigilante defenders of free speech and opponents of censorship”. Cases such as these tackle the issue of anonymity from a standpoint which often seems to have more serious implications for its users.

There are two sides to every coin.

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