In 1946, a man generally referred to as Bill W., or just plain Bill, wrote the following manifesto for anonymity: “The word ‘anonymous’ has for us an immense spiritual significance. Subtly but powerfully, it reminds us that we are always to place principles before personalities; that we have renounced personal glorification in public; that our movement not only preaches but actually practices a true humility.”
Bill W., or William Griffiths Wilson, was one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. The anonymity of AA’s members serves a pragmatic purpose—it allows people to seek help for addiction without fear of harming their reputations. But the spiritual act of stripping off one’s worldly name also signals the entry into a different kind of psychological space, one in which true thoughts and feelings, as distinct from those that conform to the expectations of society, can be shared.
The anonymity of online space carries both the virtues and the pitfalls of this release from one’s fixed real-world identity. The past few weeks have seen both the sentencing of Peter Nunn, a Twitter troll who sent anonymous rape threats to United Kingdom MPs Stella Creasy and Caroline Criado-Perez for supporting the notion of putting Jane Austen on the ten-pound note, and a New York Times story announcing that Facebook is secretly developing a new mobile app that will allow users to sign up under pseudonyms. Facebook’s longstanding policy of requiring users to employ their legal names recently caused controversy—and created room for the rival social network site Ello—after transgender activists protested the policy for discriminating against people whose legal names no longer reflect their identities.
At the dawn of Facebook, the insistence on real names was seen as a stand against the incivility of the web; this new forum would bring virtual reality in line with the social norms that govern how people treat each other face to face. “On Facebook people connect using their real names and identities,” the Facebook Community Standards section admonishes users. “Claiming to be another person, creating a false presence for an organization, or creating multiple accounts undermines community and violates Facebook’s terms.”
The notion that anonymity undermines community assumes that our real names are an essential part of our participation in the public sphere, and that a true exchange of ideas can best take place under conditions of transparency—we want to know who is speaking so we can hold them accountable for what they say. It seems unlikely that most people would send Tweets like “Best way to rape a witch, try and drown her first, then just as she is gagging for air, that is when you enter” under their real names. Anonymity, some argue, allows online space to be dominated by the racist, misogynist, homophobic elements of society and limits the participation of women and minorities in public discussions.
However, there are contexts in which anonymity is a vital protection for minority voices. “I told [my parents] that I had met a gay kid at my school (sort of true) and that I was helping him by serving as an accountability partner (also sort of true). In reality, though, I am that gay kid.” This anonymous post on a website called Red Letter Christians is titled “I’m Gay at a Conservative Christian College.” People blogging about their experiences of racism or sexism also often use pseudonyms so that they can express their frustrations without fear of real-world reprisal.
For Canadian residents, social media is a complement to professional journalism, a platform for sharing alternative perspectives on news stories. But in some countries, social media is the news. In his new book, Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters, Alfred Hermida writes that in Mexico, where journalists are routinely murdered for reporting on drug trade violence, citizens posting anonymously on social media have had to step in to provide vital information about which neighbourhoods are too dangerous to enter. Twitter, which does allow pseudonyms, has become a primary source of up-to-the-minute information for Mexicans living in the most dangerous cities. “People check the service before deciding whether it is safe enough to go to the supermarket or pick up their children from school,” Hermida writes. In this context, anonymity literally saves lives.
In a recent article in the journal Episteme, Karen Frost-Arnold, a philosopher at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York State, questions the notion that real names or real-world accountability for online comments would have positive results for society from a knowledge point of view. Anonymity, she points out, allows women and minorities to contribute to scientific and other discussions without having their contributions overlooked because of either overt or subconscious prejudice. It also allows intellectually riskier ideas to circulate; she cites previous research showing that anonymity in online discussions leads to more novel ideas being shared.
Hermida writes, “Posting to Facebook, YouTube or any of the myriad social platforms…is a way of gifting something in the expectation of gaining something in return.” Social media, in other words, is a gift economy, in which we share information both in the expectation that others will share important information with us and in the hopes of increasing our social capital.
Anonymous gift-giving can be a way to keep us focussed on the social good of our contribution rather than on how good it makes us look. Social media users sometimes complain that rather than authentic sharing, these platforms encourage self-aggrandizement and self-promotion. If Facebook’s question, “What’s on your mind?” were answered anonymously, would some of us answer more earnestly? Could we ask more questions without the fear of looking stupid? Bill W. may have been onto something; in the virtual realm, anonymity’s spiritual value may be in its potential to guard against narcissism.
Every week, Linda Besner reads a new book and writes on a tangentially related topic.