Is being anonymous on the Internet really liberating?

In 2023, it’s very likely that much of your life will be spent living anonymously on the internet. Whether it’s hiding in subreddits, scrolling on Instagram, or posting to a favorite Discord with a random username, most people’s digital diet is to browse and interact with the web without their identity attached.

But for as long as people spend reading and sharing their lives behind an avatar or perhaps a fake doorknob, one question remains: Is it really that liberating to be anonymous online? It’s a complicated idea that has been a part of internet discourse since the inception of the internet.

Anonymous internet spaces have been around since the inception of the World Wide Web, but they really took off when computers went mainstream in the 1990s. At first, this was achieved through what was called Usenet newsgroups and remailers, which were essentially the first message boards that allowed users to post from different locations and forward correspondence without having it traced back to the sender. Like many early computer programs, they could be cumbersome to use and required a little more technical know-how; it wasn’t as simple as clicking on a site and immediately posting.

Thirty years later, online anonymity and secret-telling is much simpler and can take an infinite number of forms. There are, of course, better known social media sites, as well as all forms of Q&A helplines (ranging from one-on-one advice columns to knowledge sharing sites like Quora), hyper-niche Discord, anonymous gossip channels (hello DeuxMoi), and more. Active online users of the late 2000s and early 2010s might as well remember all the anonymous secrets that have been exposed largely thanks to newcomers like Post Secret, the blog that digitized the postcards people wrote anonymously with their darkest private thoughts and feelings. So if you want to say something on the web without people knowing it’s you, there are many ways to do it.

With more people claiming each year than the internet it’s not good for societyIt’s easy to forget that there’s a lot to love about its anonymity: People can ask questions, find community, and explore their identities in ways they might not be able to in real life.

Laura*, who asked to remain anonymous, helped moderate a long-running popular dating reality show subreddit which, due to its rabid and sometimes aggressive fan base, also asked to remain anonymous for several years, where went through the group’s countless threads and comments to make sure conversations remained appropriate, respond to user questions and complaints, and help make overall decisions about subreddit rules and guidelines. She loved the community she helped build. Many of my bridesmaids were actually people I met for the first time online in various places, one of which was on this subreddit when I first joined, she explains. The foundation of our friendship was rooted in this show, but of course as I learned more about her over the years, that grew into us talking about many other things. Laura says that while the TV show remained a focus of group discussions, people were able to anonymously relate it to their own lives and circumstances, whether it was romantic entanglements, family issues or other topics. She created a space where many readily opened up in ways they simply couldn’t offline.

Mallory*, a mental health counselor who has participated in numerous anonymous fanfiction forums over the past 15 years, says that writing her work, sharing it with others, and reading what people have created has been critical to her well-being. being. While I work primarily with young people, so many people of different ages have anonymous Internet acquaintances they rely on for emotional support, she notes. It helps that I too am someone who has benefited greatly from expressing myself online without everyone knowing anything about my true identity other than what I choose to tell them.

Despite Laura and Mallory’s mostly positive experiences with anonymity, the researchers found that many Internet users have increasing difficulty deciphering between their true offline selves and their digital personas, and this messes with their self-discrepancy. or the difference between who we really are as people. versus how we see idealized versions of ourselves. Those scientists discovered that our different selves can do this become even more fractured through the internet, where we can build avatars who look and act and speak nothing like us; it’s equally disorienting to realize that other people we interact with are potentially doing the same thing, and there’s no way for us to know the difference.

When people hear about the repercussions of these private digital spaces and this strained sense of self, they often think of the most extreme, violent and devastating examples. These include incel otherwise known as misogynistic men who are unintentionally celibate, which they often claim is the fault of women who are not attracted to them and mass shooterswhich are not infrequently radicalized first anonymous spaces like 4chan or even just in the darkest corners of sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, where moderation can be easy to avoid.

man typing at his laptop at night

Sometimes people don’t realize that things can get really sinister on sites and message boards that look really normal on the surface. Anonymity is not always a blessing.

Westend61//Getty Images

Digital participation is a spectrum, however, and while there are a number of fearsome people who take part in forums with dark roots like white supremacy, Mallory says she has also had clients who have found their way into harmful beliefs through spaces Relatively mundane internet. Sometimes people don’t realize that things can get really sinister on sites and message boards that look really normal on the surface, she says. Anonymity is not always a blessing.

Laura knows this firsthand from her work. She recalls that a month after becoming a mod (the popular Reddit parlance for a subreddit moderator), a series of misogynistic comments on a single thread nearly escalated into full-blown drama among the entire group. The ordeal couldn’t come at a worse time for her in real life than hers, as she was in the middle of a business trip spending 14-hour days with her team. She distinctly remember being on the phone trying to help other subreddit mods fix this huge problem while standing in a bathroom at this expensive Chicago restaurant. And then, of course, I worried about being gone too long since it was an important dinner for a client, she says. I think I stayed up until 1am helping my team with a deck and then I was up until 4 with that subreddit situation. At the end of the day, there was no way to hold those users accountable; we could block them, but they were just avatars on a screen.

When asked if she believes anonymity in this subreddit has really led to more freedom, Laura believes it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I know from experience how liberating it can be to find community outside of your real life, she says. It’s honestly been a lifesaver for me to have these people and these friendships that are different than what I have in person.

However, her tenure overseeing a popular digital space has also helped her see the downside in real time. There was definitely low stress no matter what was going on that day, she explains. People are boldest when they don’t have an identity online. At best, they will ignore social norms or simply not understand boundaries. At worst, they promote dangerous ideas and bully other people.

Mallory adds that, based on her experiences anonymously posting online over the years, it can also be jarring when a community breaks up or you become an outcast in the group. Previously, she had to leave a separate fan fiction group after she and several other members disagreed with a big decision made by the leadership.

People are boldest when they don’t have an identity online. At best, they will ignore social norms or simply not understand boundaries. At worst, they promote dangerous ideas and bully other people.

There is something really disorienting about leaving or being kicked out of an online community because at the end of the day, it was a huge part of my day, yet once I actually walked away and logged out, I realized that there is no it was real life in a sense. These people knew me, yet they didn’t know it Myself, explains. I think that incident was a wake-up call for me in terms of making sure I have an off-screen life where people really know who I am.

Of course, just because someone has parts of their real identity online doesn’t mean it’s accurate or followers actually are Know that person. The rise of the industrial complex of influencers in the last decade has led to the formation of numerous shareholder relationships, where users have a one-sided emotional attachment to a person they don’t actually know socially in any form. It’s like how people might feel like friends with a member of their favorite band or a fashion Instagrammer they’ve been following for years despite never having spoken to them.

That said, as long as the internet exists, there will always be a lot of people that are far more anonymous than the average influencer. So, can there be a happier middle ground?

Mallory says yes, and used her own experiences as examples when talking to her clients about when Internet anonymity can be helpful and when it can be a hindrance. Internet communities can be a wonderful complement to real life, and it’s okay if you rely on them a little more from time to time for support, she notes. But they shouldn’t take the place of being out in the physical world and seeing what the people out there have to offer.

On the other hand, both she and Laura believe it’s important to know when to log off if those online spaces are no longer serving someone, as difficult as that may be. There is that saying that we all have to get out and about touch the grassLaura says. It’s true: some people really need to turn off their phones and touch that weed.

Above all, both women believe that sometimes the best way to cure digital fatigue is some time away from the world of the internet. The internet is great, concludes Laura, but these days I aim to make real life even better.

* Names changed to protect identities.

Lily Herman is a New York-based writer and editor. Find her on Instagram.

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