The view from the anonymous room.

Question: Why people can’t 1. rationally explain their thoughts in as much detail as necessary for a reader to gain nuanced understanding of the subject and/or opinion, and 2. for the love of god, qualify your sweeping generalizations.  If you’re above college age and writing prolifically, this is something you ought to know.

Recently I read this article in Emily Magazine and was baffled by the sweeping statements it made in light of the narrowness of its scope.  In the article, Emily starts by adding to previous thoughts on Facebook but expands her argument seemingly to the whole Internet, suggesting that the ideal approach to the Internet is not privacy and anonymity but anti-privacy and total, honest self-revelation.  What she fails to mention is that most of the behavior that takes place in anonymous virtual space is often more genuine and self-revealing than interactions that occur in “meatspace.”  Since I teach cyberculture, ranging from Facebook to less traditional exhibits such as 4chan, fan communities, fetish forums, and blogs such as PostSecret, I thought I would dispel my rage by formulating a few thoughts on the subject in response to Emily’s article.

Anonymity on the Internet and Internet handles that differ from one’s real name may have originated in part as a means of preventing identity theft, but its most popular hubs indicate that its primary use is exploration of identity factors such as gender role, sexuality, and development of personality.  According to cyberculture theorists and writers such as Henry Jenkins, Sherry Turkle, and Julian Dibbell, Internet anonymity provides users with more “freedom of movement,” in Jenkins’s words.  Users can experiment with different personas under one or many Internet handles until they figure out which is closest to who they want to be in life.

Often there is overlap between Internet persona and real life (RL) persona, and figuring out the details is almost second-nature to those who live on the world wide web.  A user named “FSMVersion2″ is probably referring to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Internet’s response to creationism, and we can assume s/he believes in evolution and has a healthy sense of sarcastic humor; the handle “TheBurninator” recalls Trogdor of Homestar Runner fame and suggests, for lack of a better term, a dork.  These handles tell us what the users like, what they find funny, or maybe invite us to ask the user for back-story on the name: on the Something Awful forums, which constitute a large nerd community, “goons” (SA slang for users) use names and avatar images in non sequitur conjunctions that invite our curiosity.  For instance: “Toad on a Hat” combined with a blind justice statue; “Medium Style” with a picture of a toad (oddly enough in the same thread); and “Seth Puked On Me,” accompanied by a picture of Carl from Aqua Teen Hunger Force, though even without the picture we’re likely to wonder, who is Seth and why did he puke on you? (Something Awful, GBS).

Thus, anonymity—i.e., the use of Internet handles with specific meaning—create an immediate sense of community and curiosity that networking sites, which operate on fixed RL identity, can only produce through passive-aggressive status updates.  For example, the News Feed on Facebook (or Openbook, to stretch the data beyond a narrow sampling of friends) displays such status updates as “Jane Doe can’t believe that just happened…I’m never leaving my room again” that tell the reader nothing and thereby induce curiosity and user participation.  Comments accumulate fast, ranging from the ubiquitous “Oh no, what happened????” to “I’m here for you” to “I’m so sorry you’re feeling down ” and inevitably include the OP (original poster) explaining what happened.  In real life, many would call this passive-aggressive or at the very least a bid for attention.  To borrow Steven Johnson’s concept of immediate gratification in his book Everything Bad is Good For You, Facebook rewards passive-aggressive users with the appearance of others’ concern and curiosity, and, to the detriment of its users, in this way encourages similar passive-aggressive behaviors in real life because it is so closely linked to RL identity.  While OP’s status change may be judged in RL, most of the comments are the typical, often empty reassurances we respond with in RL.

Now place this status change as an opening post on 4chan, a purely anonymous discussion board that not only is one of the largest but also spawns most Internet memes and viral sensations, and the reactions are totally different.  For instance, responses to a thread beginning with the post “I hate my life” include: “I hate you”; “sure smells like newfag in here” (i.e., OP doesn’t know how to use 4chan or the Internet”; “Dear OP: Do the world a favor and die”; “Why exactly did you think we’d give a shit?”; “if you hate youre [sic] life why are you alive”; and “OP, you seem like a nice person, so I’m going to try to give you advice: pointless points will get you saged [thread taken off the board] and trolled” (4chan, /a/, /cm/, /x/, /y/).  Rather than encourage the passive-aggressive behaviors Facebook practically insists upon, 4chan and other anonymous communities criticize and troll anyone who behaves in this way, driving home the point that this behavior is not acceptable—on the Internet or anywhere else.  This points at the notion that anonymity on the Internet is more useful than Emily Magazine suggests.

However, this is not to overlook the kind of usernames that Emily points to: “SmileyGirl323″ or “BigJimDorito,” though I’d actually argue that the latter invites us to wonder about back-story.  As for “SmileyGirl323,” handles like this imply the user is what Julian Dibbell calls an Internet “transient” (“A Rape in Cyberspace”): someone who is simply passing through, using the Internet as a mode of communication with specific people s/he often knows in RL.  According to Dibbell, a true Internet user is one who approaches online interactions as possessing the same weight as real-life interactions.  In his essay “A Rape in Cyberspace,” he describes a text-based MOO, a community based entirely on writing and self-reinvention and reimagining, and how this community was disrupted by a user named MrBungle who hijacked two female characters, exu and Starsinger, and “forced” them to perform sexual acts, including oral sex and sodomy with a knife.  The users were traumatized by this in RL, though everyone agreed the crime should not be judged in an RL venue.  However, the impact of this incident on exu and Starsinger in real life tells us that Internet handles that don’t match our real names do not necessarily entail a fissure between real and virtual identity.

To speculate on what I’ve observed in my Internet travels, it seems to me that the main difference between “namefagging” and “anonymous” behavior (to borrow 4chan’s terms) lies in the kind of stakes the user faces.  “Anonymous” behavior, as opposed to what most people think, is not synonymous with stakes-free interaction.  While “namefags” on 4chan bear the brunt of most trolling or criticism (such as Pandy on /y/ or Vox on /x/), “anons” are trolled perhaps more frequently, especially OPs.  In fact, it’s even more imperative to watch what you say, as sometimes a single word or phrase—e.g., Pandy’s “Why does /y/ suck”—can cause so much trolling that the “namefag” has to quit his/her name—e.g., the days-long uninterrupted slew of macros and comments like “PANDY SUCKS,” leading to Pandy’s virtual disappearance for several months (4chan, /y/).  Good writing—that is grammatically sound, well-reasoned writing that lacks emoticons—is valued more than the slang and emoting that people have come to expect of Internet speech; if a user uses more than one emoticon, or sometimes just one, in a post, s/he is swiftly branded a “newfag” and told to GTFO (4chan, /h/, /d/, /cm/, /y/, /x/).  For some odd reason, though, Facebook, email, blogging, and most other forms of Internet media that are closely linked to RL identity have openly accepted grammatical incorrectness and emoting.  I emote in my emails to students who particularly need reassurance.  Many people emote on Facebook and use slang like “u,” “ur,” “k,” “abt,” and so on in instant messages.

I’m speaking from personal experience here but perhaps we feel shielded by the notion that the people we’re talking to know we aren’t “like that” in RL, whereas in an anonymous forum there is no such reassurance.  Everything you say makes an impression and will be swiftly judged, and as such you have to vet your words and reasoning and argumentative skills carefully.  Viewing it this way, it almost seems like RL-linked, fixed-identity Internet media is the sphere in which we aren’t being genuine and anonymity is the sphere better training us how to behave in RL.  Similarly, when Internet identity is linked to RL, the immediate stakes of personal confession may actually be lower than when Internet identity is completely anonymous.  (I stress immediate stakes and personal confession here, where the former means the instant response of those receiving the confession as opposed to the long-term effects of the confession, and the latter means the divulging of intimate, personal details on the Internet, as I lack the sources to speak to real-life public interaction without generalizing.)

Since Emily mentions the prevalence of “I’m gay” statuses/comments on the FB phenomenon, let’s use that as our example.  When someone announces “I’m gay” on Facebook, the stakes are similar to real life—the people who see this announcement are friends and family the user knows—whereas when someone announces “I’m gay” on 4chan, an almost purely anonymous image board, the stakes are different.  I stress different because it’s easy for misinformed/uninformed people to misconstrue this as the stakes being gone altogether when the online identity is anonymous, but this is far from true.  On FB, the responses to personal confession from other users mirror responses one might receive in real life, since the responses—like the confession itself—are linked to an RL-based user identity.  At one extreme, homophobes are less likely to voice their feelings; on a milder level, users who are unsettled by the confession may not comment at all, choosing instead to avoid future interaction by ignoring the user, or by defriending him/her (Facebook).

Really, this is in keeping with what Emily terms “Internet abstinence,” saying that “if you’re not comfortable letting the world see what you’re really like, you shouldn’t be online at all” (“Online self vs. real self”).  Of course the logic in this statement is lacking—if you’re not comfortable letting the world see what you’re really like in real life, should you be alive at all?—but more importantly, it demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the value of anonymous online interaction, some of which I’ve discussed above.  Anonymity isn’t simply about (pardon my French) “airing your shit in public.”  While anonymous personal confessions may not directly impinge on real life, it gives the user the opportunity to see what it feels like to come out, and in a setting that’s often just as critical in different life (I wonder if Emily would ask PostSecret submitters to mail in their secrets under their real name).  On 4chan, some of these announcements are followed by statements like, “yay now go kill yourself,” “GTFO,” “not another one of these threads, fucking die,” “I think OP [opening poster] was touched by his daddy in his special place too many times” and, most commonly, “stfu gtfo fucking fag” (4chan, /y/).  Thus, the user is able to read and emotionally respond to insensitive statements and outright verbal attacks in an environment that simulates RL repercussions without actually isolating the user in RL.  As such, this allows the user more time to figure out how to script his/her RL coming out.

Anonymity also allow users to see that that the ramifications of personal confession aren’t as daunting as they might initially seem, and that there are plenty of people in the world who “dont give two shits in hell” (4chan, /y/) about issues that are momentous in RL, such as sexual orientation, race relations, religion, and any number of taboos in relationships.  Hate words such as “fag” and “nigger” are casually slung about on 4chan mostly as an expression of welcome and acceptance rather than of hatred.  While a dissertation could be written on this alone, I wonder if it possibly indicates that anonymity on the Internet does more than just alter RL identity through use of a virtual one: rather, it suggests that anonymity is a counterpart of RL-linked identity, a tool used to figure out RL-interaction, especially for those who have grown up almost entirely on the Internet.  As such, Emily’s assumption that the two are mutually exclusive seems flawed.

I have lesson planning to do, so I’m going to cap this for now.  In short, my concern with the post in Emily Magazine is that she boils down the reason for online anonymity solely to privacy and identity theft.  I myself am guilty of relative anonymity here because my name isn’t obviously attached to this blog for reasons of job security, it being a well-known fact that at most institutions, adjuncts with voices lose their jobs.  But assuming that this alone prevents us from “being ourselves online” (“Online self vs. real self”) is a ridiculous generalization that betrays a lack of knowledge of numerous other factors at work in online identity construction and interaction, both through RL-linked media and anonymous media.  The prevailing stereotype of Internet interaction is that we unveil the most horrible parts of ourselves online to “truly” be ourselves, whether we have an “S&M hobby” or often “comment on Twilight message boards” (“Online self vs. real self”).  However, these examples fail to appropriately illustrate Emily’s point, since both of these interactions can be acceptable in RL in the right communities—S&M with your significant other, and fangirl squeeing with the other Twitards in your book circle, for instance.  The notion of “the right audience” is what’s key in Emily’s argument that by revealing these details we risk exposure to the wrong audience—our boss, our students, our parents.  But we hide these same things in real life from the same wrong audiences and reveal them to the same right ones, namely people who share those interests.  Talking to them in an S&M sex club is analogous to talking to them in an S&M chat room, while debating Team Edward vs. Team Jacob with readers in Barnes & Noble is similar to debating it on MyLifeIsTwilight.

An even more important point is that the username essentially fixes a user’s identity within the community they are in.  The online self and meatspace self aren’t being maintained separately so much as they’re simply named differently.  As the comments on Emily’s post suggest, users with “non-realname” Internet handle—not the same thing as anonymity—may very well be behaving online as they would in real life.  As discussed earlier, Facebook interactions, which occur under “realname” handles, encourage behaviors we don’t actually want spilling over into real life, and completely anonymous interactions—such as on any of the -chans, where all posters automatically post under the name “Anonymous”—actually serve to check this kind of behavior.  Viewing the three together, it seems like the most detrimental is the RL-linked persona, where pretense and false flattery and concern are, more often than not, the rule rather than the exception.

But perhaps Emily is only talking about Internet transients, whose behavior is more in keeping with the kind of split she describes.  The difference is, though, that instead of “personality-halving” this split is actually sociopathic pretense.  According to Dibbell, the transient is an Internet sociopath, one who doesn’t understand that online interactions have RL ramifications, and that the online self and meatspace self are irrevocably linked (“A Rape in Cyberspace”).  These are the trolls, the hackers who rape other avatars online, or who spout vicious slander they would never repeat in real life, RL-linked media, or that they might not even believe in real life.  These people view the Internet as a kind of “un-reality,” where there are no consequences because nothing is real, and they troll users who respond emotionally to online name-calling or other insults.  The fact is that non-realname users who aren’t transient are deeply invested in their Internet forums by virtue of the time they spend their and the relationships they cultivate with other users.  These relationships are cultivated in the same way they would be cultivated in real life but with more “freedom of movement,” and so perhaps these users are not personality-halved but personality-augmented.  While there might be an overarching RL taboo uniting the group—furries, for instance, who are prolific on the Internet but hard to detect in reality—most of the conversation they have is as mundane as the non-taboo, like Yahoo! Answers or comments on a blog.

I’m not discrediting Emily’s observation that some of this desire to not “namefag” stems from fears of identity theft or job security—though these fears should not be dismissed outright, as she does—but I want to stress that this isn’t the only reason.  Society pounds into us from birth what we are “supposed” to be, and as adults (the largest sector of the population of YouTube and Facebook being 35-60 years old (Right Across the Atlantic) and between 25-44 (Softpedia) respectively, the use of non-realname handles allows us to retain an individual identity and role-play ourselves as we want to be.  Role-play does not necessitate personality-halving, false being, or transience and sociopathy.  Rather, by granting us greater freedom to move, it provides us with the opportunity to grow more in touch with our inner selves, which many have been taught to suppress in real life and, by proxy, real-life-linked media.

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This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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3 thoughts on “The view from the anonymous room.

  1. What a thought-provoking post! I envy your students getting to discuss these ideas with you, seriously. Keep up the good work.

    Love, The Burninator

  2. robert says:

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention Topix where users are able to comment anonymously, yet approximate isp locations are displayed. One can never imagine what their neighbors think and believe until they visit that site. It is also a huge flaming site since racist comments and other offensive comments are often tolerated.

    • robert,

      Solid point. I suppose I tend to think of the use of approximate ISP locations a little differently–as the geographic locations can be somewhat broad sometimes, particularly in big cities, it doesn’t seem to impact anonymity so much as speak to the mindset of a particular community. (Then again, I wonder if one or two flaming comments located in the same place bring all the other similarly located flamers out of the woodwork.) Sites such as this seem to be geared toward establishing commonality within a community–both virtually and geographically–as opposed to simply maintaining anonymity, as usernames seem to function in the same way as on other discussion boards. I’m sort of flying by the seat of my pants at the moment, as I ought to be lesson planning, but I can’t think of what else besides communal common ground is established by adding approximate ISP location.

      I agree with you 100% that it’s disconcerting to see how many of our geographic neighbors are willing to air their prejudices online and establish where they live. It’s almost like a subtle classified ad really. “Insert Racial or Other Bias here. Seeking likeminded individuals in or around Insert Place Here.”

      I don’t want to do Topix a disservice by commenting here… maybe I’m going to save this idea for another post.

      V

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