Anonymity on the internet has always tended to be a hot topic issue. Just the idea of being able to say whatever you want to a person and never be caught is a truly alarming thing. Instantly, any accountability you would have for your actions is erased. I remember being a sophomore or junior in high school and the big thing to be on was Formspring. The site basically had you set up an account and anyone could ask you questions; anonymously, of course. I wasn’t too keen on the whole premise of it, but I gave it shot because everyone else was doing it (wise thinking).
To put it plainly, it was awful. None of the insults I received were anything particularly damaging, but to be called names by a faceless icon was quite unsettling. I promptly deleted my account but many of my peers didn’t follow in that line of thinking. Naturally, a wave of cruel cyberbullying surged out of the website, even proving to be provocations for several teen suicides.
Clearly, anonymity has proven to be quite the tool for cyberbullying. On websites like Facebook and Twitter, anonymity exists but is not valued. The sites are mainly used for people with real life connections to post and share. Sites like Tumblr, however, thrive on anonymity. There is no incentive to maintain your real life identity on Tumblr. Many times, people create blogs with the sole reason of anonymity. Here, a person can carve an entirely new identity and be accepted for it. For many, this opportunity for reinvention is greatly accepted. Often times, it is used for the purpose of harmless enjoyment, possibly even escapism. On sites like Tumblr, users can discover people with similar interests and share things that they would otherwise keep to themselves. Tumblr allows an avenue for users to explore things that they enjoy and create an identity without the risk of their real life identity being affected.
At first, the prospect seems harmless. I know that when I first started using Tumblr, I never thought of the implications of having a new identity, independent of my real life one could have. All I was doing was reblogging pictures of cute kittens and funny gifs, but little did I know of the harmful communities that exist on Tumblr.
I first read an article about “Thinspiration” about a year ago. The term, which is a mash-up of the words “thin inspiration”, refers to an entire community on the internet (primarily on photo-sharing sites) centered around eating disorders. However, instead of promoting seeking help and recovery, these communities are often centered around the promotion of users continuing harmful actions. Under the category of Thinspiration come sites that are either “pro-ana” or “pro-mia”; pro anorexia and pro bulimia, respectively. There are several tags on Tumblr that lead one to these blogs. Anyone can access them simply by typing words into the search bar. However, the real problem lies with the fact that users can create anonymous blogs and start partaking in these communities.
These websites and blogs typically carry a warning label that only people who already suffer from anorexia or bulimia should enter:
Pro-ana sites are for those who are already anorexics, who want to be “triggered” and are looking for advice, tips and support from fellow anorexics to help them become “better” anorexics…they allow people with eating disorders to get together and support each other in their struggle to achieve their goals, not towards recovery but towards thinness.
Under the veil of anonymity, users are free to post what they want. On their own blogs they do not have to fear being discovered by family or friends. Naturally, a community forms out of these blogs. Initially, one’s reaction may be to reject these communities, seeing the harm it poses on the users. Clearly, there is no promotion of seeking help on these blogs. With anonymity and a new identity, users can submerse themselves in these communities without people that know them in real life finding out.
Yet, that is exactly what these blogs are—communities. Now that these blogs are being talked about on a public level, many users have spoken out in support. They claim that on these blogs they are able to actually feel like a part of a community. Just as fans of a show or a book may flock to Tumblr to find like-minded people, these users also find Tumblr as a way of finding and creating identity. However, the lack of promotion of recovery remains alarming. In October 2012, fifteen-year-old Tallulah Wilson committed suicide. Wilson had gained over 18,000 followers on Tumblr, posing as an alter-ego who was a drinker and a drug-addict. She began posting images of self-harming and garnered likes and reblogs from her followers which reinforced the behavior. Wilson told her mother that her followers “like me for who I am.” As Wilson shows, a sense of community and acceptance is produced from these blogs. However, Wilson never received help and never recovered. Although there is a community aspect to these blogs, the question as to whether it is enough to justify the action still lingers.
Despite these negative effects of anonymity on sites like Tumblr, there are some positive effects of anonymity for people suffering from eating disorders or mental illnesses. There are sites such as The Trevor Project and I’m Alive that offer anonymous chat for teens with suicidal thoughts. Here, anonymity allows a person to seek help when they otherwise may not have. Even on Tumblr, some people use their anonymity from their real life identity to speak out about problems they are suffering from. This opens up the window for another blogger to find their post and talk to them about their problem. The community aspect works positively here because usually people want to help others that they follow. Those that want to help are more inclined to do so because they are anonymous as well. One user may have experienced the same thing that the original poster is going through. Because they too are anonymous, they can share their story freely. In this case, anonymity’s lifting of inhibitions works beneficially because there is no real life implication of a user expressing their problems or another user wanting to help them.
Anonymity, in this regard, carries its share of pros and cons. There are certainly benefits as well as drawbacks to this online practice. When it comes to trying to police the blogs that handle harmful and potentially damaging content, there really is no clear cut answer. Social media sites have taken precautions to try and limit the presence of harmful images. For instance, Tumblr released a policy against self-harm blogs. Under this policy, the website stated that users were not to “post content that actively promotes or glorifies self-injury or self-harm.” The site is permitting the tags and blogs to remain, but they are prohibiting the promotion and glorification of these actions. They also stated that they will have a PSA pop-up whenever someone searches a tag that relates to these topics, offering the user a link to find out about seeking help. Of course, the question is then raised as to whether this is even enough. Still, removing the use of the tags such as “anorexia” and “bulimia” would lead to another issue of limiting users from speaking out about problems they deal with in their lives. Tumblr is often used as an outlet for many given the value of anonymity it holds. Removing these tags could seem counter to that. Moreover, users would find other tags to use to take the place of these if they were to be removed. It’s certainly proven to be murky water as to how these sites should handle these blogs.
When first thinking about the internet and anonymity, many tend to think of ‘catfishing’, online dating, and websites like Formspring. However, there is also the element of identity that anonymity can hold. Tumblr permits users to create a new online persona, free from any association with the real world. Many seek this avenue as an outlet from their real lives but as we have seen here, sometimes that outlet can be harmful. However, anonymity may also foster a better chance for one to seek help. The pros and cons to internet anonymity are varied and challenging and show that this topic is certainly here to stay.