The False Safety Seen in Eliminating Online Anonymity

March 9, 2017

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” — H.P. Lovecraft

The virtual world we’re connected to through our devices is endless and always changing. Today’s technology was someone’s crazy, impossible dream just several years ago.

While many of the early fears about the internet have been examined and shown to be misconceptions, several beliefs about the potential dangers of the internet have lived on without reevaluation. One area ripe for further attention was the notion that the ability to communicate anonymously on the internet was inherently problematic.

Fortunately, MIT PhD candidate J. Nathan Matias has stepped in to reevaluate this notion. As he explains in “The Real Name Fallacy,” published on The Coral Project blog, the fears around anonymity online are based more in myth than fact.

Matias explains that common misconceptions stem from a study in 1984 led by Carnegie Mellon Professor Sara Kiesler. The study put unknown groups of people together and observed them communicating in three different contexts: face to face, anonymous communication through computers, and non-anonymous communication through computers. Kiesler’s team noticed communication was more objective and uninhibited through computers and anonymous communication. In a lengthy “Implications for Future Research” section, Kiesler emphasized the importance of continuing to pursue and develop research on these topics.

Over time, Matias explains, Kiesler’s nuanced findings about anonymous and non-anonymous computer-mediated communication began to be exaggerated and taken out of context, which he believes led to the formation of two common misconceptions. The first misconception was that social problems were the result of the design of computing systems, and the second was that anonymity was at the root of the problem. These misconceptions and misunderstandings about anonymous communication continue to this day.

J.Nathan Matias writes:

“Requirements of so-called “real names” misunderstand how people manage identity across multiple social contexts, exposing vulnerable people to risks. In the book It’s Complicated, Danah Boyd shares what she learned by spending time with American teenagers, who commonly manage multiple nickname-based Facebook accounts for different social contexts [24].

Requiring a single online identity can collapse those contexts in embarrassing or damaging ways. In one story, Boyd describes a college admissions officer who considered rejecting a black applicant after seeing gang symbols on the student’s social media page. The admissions officer hadn’t considered that the symbols might not have revealed the student’s intrinsic character; posting them might have been a way to survive in a risky situation. People who are exploring LGBTQ identities often manage multiple accounts to prevent disastrous collapses of context, safety practices that some platforms disallow [7].”

As Matias’s writing makes clear, the notion of anonymous communication remains somewhat foreign to most people, even though researchers have been studying the concept for decades. As is typical with fear of the unknown, many have a gut negative reaction to anonymous communication without having fully thought through the issue. In our experience at After School, the benefits of anonymity in a moderated environment are clear: more young people feel liberated to share, support, and be supported around their deepest secrets, feelings, and insecurities.

In October 2016, After School CEO Michael Callahan spoke at TEDxNornal about the importance of anonymity for today’s teens. “This (anonymity) gives a completely different experience from what most people are used to with social media — where at the forefront is your identity, and you have to tailor that and you have to be thinking cognitively about how the things you post are going to be viewed. But not when it’s anonymous,” says Callahan. After School allows users to communicate anonymously while promoting positivity and removing potentially harmful posts. “If you take the activity that everyone does anonymously and you remove the negative content, you’re left with some pretty good stuff,” continues Callahan.

This post was a collaborative effort written by Cleveland State University Graduate Student Nicholas Chmura and After School’s Michael Luchies and Jeff Collins, and references J. Nathan Matias’ thoughts and research written in “The Real Name Fallacy.”

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