“Anonymity is really one of the hallmarks of the internet. A lot of people see it as one of the internet’s biggest strengths,” said Patrick Scanlon, chairman of the Department of Communications at RIT. Websites that highlight the internet’s capacity for promoting anonymity tend to provoke strong reactions from their users and readers alike.
A brief survey of RIT students revealed mixed attitudes on the subject, with some arguing for the consequence-free conversation atmosphere that anonymity creates, and others pointing out the creepy and questionable interactions that may ensue.
Increased capacity for reporting and sincerity sans embarrassment is a frequently cited benefit of internet anonymity. Michal Ostaszewski, a second year Chemical Engineering major commented, “I think people choose to be anonymous because it makes them feel like they have more freedom to say what they want. They can post whatever they want without fear of repercussions because it can’t be connected back to them.”
When students were randomly surveyed about online avenues for anonymity, such as RIT Crushes and RIT Compliments, one male student responded: “I think they’re pretty cool. Nowadays, for whatever reason, it isn’t cool to be sincere with someone. It’s a really nice thing to do but it’s hard to just go out and do it.” He went on to say that spontaneous interactions with strangers in person are often met with skepticism, and so people become afraid of coming across as awkward, or sending the wrong message. While impulsively walking up to a stranger to compliment his attire or hairstyle, for example, is socially acceptable, it is not always perceived as having an innocent or harmless intent.
Chad Krohn, a fourth year Packaging Science major, also cited one’s fear of openly acting upon their emotions as the primary reason that internet users choose to hide their identities when communicating with others. “If something they say is taken the wrong way,” Krohn said, “they don’t have to own up to their response.”
Several anonymous student sources likened the potential repercussions of total honesty to “whiplash” and praised identity-hiding options over the internet for their ability to protect web users. Personal online accounts and profile pages often allow users to select whatever exact degree of anonymity they desire, while options for online avatars and pseudonym usernames abound as ways to hide both face and name. A student source commented, “The internet is just a good place to try being someone different. Someone that maybe you’d like to be but aren’t ready to bet your real life on yet. You can just try it with an expendable username. If it goes well, keep it up.”
Not all RIT students, however, possess an appreciation, or even an amused tolerance, for usage of anonymous websites to communicate crushes, compliments, and stories. One female student pointed out flaws inherent to anonymous interaction, using RIT Crushes as an example. “I think it’s a nice gesture, to know that someone is attracted to you. Oddly, though, unless the person mentions who it is, how in the world will the people ever have a connection? That is where it is flawed.” Another student, however, displayed contempt for the ‘drama’ that ensues from anonymity in social media.
Facebook’s Honesty Box, an optional profile addition launched in 2007, sought to create a specific place for anonymity by allowing users to give compliments, confess crushes, or confront others without revealing more than their own gender. Not long afterward, however, its use became a concern in the fight to end cyber-bullying, and the application quickly faded out of both popularity and use.
Anonymity-promoting websites continuously spark the question of whether or not truthfulness is being maintained by their users. Trolling — the act of deliberately baiting others with controversial remarks or actions online — is a frequent occurrence when anonymity is presented as an option in internet forums. Because these bids for attention are a recurring issue online, people take their accuracy with a grain of salt.
Many people hold an inherent mistrust for anonymous sources as opposed to openly named ones because they are unable to gauge the credibility of the anonymous person posting. In the words of Jeff Hancock, a communications professor at Cornell University who studies deception and information technology, “Most people believe that given the opportunity, everything else equal, people will lie more online than they would face to face.” In a recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive and published by the Huffington Post, it was revealed that approximately 98 percent of Americans feel distrustful of information on the internet.
“The internet invites a lot of anonymity, but people are actually pretty uncomfortable with the concept,” said Scanlon. “People want to know who the communicator is and have the assumption that [anonymous practices] are unethical.”
Attitudes of suspicion have contributed to the “mixed reviews,” so to speak, that anonymous forums encounter on a regular basis. In reality, though, there are countless everyday examples of anonymous authors in action that people rarely give a second thought.
Scanlon has personal experience with anonymity over the internet due to his work as a ghostwriter — an uncredited author who sells work to other sources for publication. Anonymity in this case becomes linked with invisibility, as many sources of information are created though ghostwriters or crowdsourcing, a method by which multiple writers collaborate on a piece.
“Ghostwriting is something that’s been around for a long time,” Scanlon said, although it often goes unnoticed. “Anonymous authors are already pretty commonplace.” As an example, Scanlon referenced official statements from politicians that were more than likely written by an anonymous team of writers. And on a more everyday level, “Every time someone buys a greeting card, they are hiring a ghostwriter.”
In his analysis of the anonymity trend, Scanlon commented that future generations are going to have to grow up with increasing levels of ghostwriting present in the media. “We already rely on people we don’t know for information”, Scanlon pointed out, calling it “unrealistic” to attribute all information to the people that present it.
Overall, Scanlon is “optimistic” on the topic of anonymity’s acceptance in modern media use — although he realizes that his view is not shared by many. Scanlon believes, “We all use ghosts.” But, as he also stated, “It doesn’t have to be a bad thing.”