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Destler Dodge

"I can ask dumb questions and get answers with nobody judging me. I feel included in the social culture here. I feel reassured when other people feel and deal with the same shit as me," said an anonymous Yik Yak user somewhere in the general vicinity of Midnight Oil on a Wednesday late last Spring semester. 

This particular user is by no means alone in seeking recourse in the form of Yik Yak anonymity. Other individuals indicated that they used the controversial, anonymous app because it allowed them a platform to vent, a place to seek advice or the opportunity to confess feelings without judgment. 

"Everyone here who is a student is in a particular position in this institutional hierarchy, and so they are vulnerable in some ways," said Sabrina Weiss, who teaches in RIT's College of Liberal Arts and specializes in Science, Technology and Society. "Anonymity is great because it helps to circumvent those power dynamics."

According to Weiss, there are several reasons people — not just students — find themselves drawn to platforms that allow them to express themselves anonymously. There are multiple factors that come into play when we are evaluating how we feel about someone with whom we are having a face-to-face conversation, including perceived gender, culture, class background, confidence and attractiveness. All of these things and more influence how we feel about what our conversation partner is saying, even if it doesn't have any actual bearing on the content of their message. Anonymity, specifically on the internet, helps overcome these inherent biases.

"Anonymity is great because it helps to circumvent those power dynamics."

"The 'ideal way of communicating,' face-to-face in public, it has power dynamics, and it has assumptions about what is good, about who is able to succeed and all that, and it inevitably will exclude some people," said Weiss. "By having some anonymity, by keeping us from fixating on some superficial silly characteristics or distracting characteristics, we are able to focus more on the true character of a person."

In addition to allowing those who may not be given an equal platform to have their thoughts and opinions heard, anonymous spaces allow those who are in what Weiss called a "disempowered position" in society — for example, youth who identify as LGBTQIA+, people with severe social anxiety and those without access to adequate sex education — the ability to obtain support and information that could potentially save them from dangerous situations, both physical and emotional. When they are able to ask questions anonymously online, they are able to get serious, thoughtfuland respectful answers in return as opposed to possibly being shunned, dismissed or silenced by those in their physical space.

As with everything, however, there is a dark side to anonymity. Although an anonymous platform can allow those at a disadvantage in physical space to find more equity and opportunity, it can also provide an outlet for those who are looking to avoid the consequences of their actions, or those who have malicious intentions. That is why if you ever try to use Yik Yak near a middle or high school, you'll find the app has been blocked due to bullying concerns. 

According to Weiss, implementing anonymity in a positive way is all about accountability. Not necessarily in the way we ordinarily think about accountability, but in a more abstract sense, like how Reddit keeps track of a particular user account's interactions without actually revealing the user's physical identity. 

Implementing anonymity in a positive way is all about accountability.

"Accountability is about your relationships, what people know about you, how you are presenting yourself, and the consistency and the history of your actions, the way that you do things," said Weiss. "As long as there’s a way to associate a particular behavior with some sort of identity, then eventually you get to have social norms playing out." This accountability helps prevent mudslinging, trolling and other negative behaviors in online communities. 

Anonymity also comes into play in our day-to-day, offline lives. Recently, RIT's Student Government (SG) released its OpenEvals program, which publishes the results of a few questions on students' anonymous ratings of teacher effectiveness as long as the course has a survey response rate above 65 percent. There are sites like RateMyProfessors.com, where students can go to post anonymous reviews of their professors and courses. Weiss had conflicting thoughts about sites such as these.

"When you know that you’re not accountable to what you say, then you see a big polarization. You tend not to see the moderates," said Weiss. This can lead to confirmation bias as well; students who have read poor reviews about a professor tend to look for negative characteristics going into the class. Transparency is definitely important, but it is also important to keep in mind the biases that brought those reviewers to those sites in the first place.

In addition, there tends to be an emotional disconnect when we are writing or typing about a person, rather than talking to them face-to-face. Weiss compared anonymous surveys and other forms of evaluation to road rage: you don't see the person driving, you only see the car, so you have no problem yelling, swearing and flipping the car off. The same reactions can sometimes occur in anonymous evaluations, causing them to turn into gushing or griping rather than fair reflections of teachers' effectiveness.

"I think that if people are reminded that people are on the other end, then we might rein ourselves in."

"I think that if people are reminded that people are on the other end, then we might rein ourselves in," said Weiss. 

Anonymous spaces are integral to the functioning of a free society. They allow for unbiased discourse, sharing of information, the discovery of support networks and human connection between people who may not have otherwise been able to make those connections. They allow us to build communities that we never would have been able to otherwise. However, we have to be careful of the ways in which we encourage these communities to develop, so that they emphasize the benefits of anonymity rather than the dangers.