man in hoody removing mask

Online anonymity is a thing of the past

'People feel entitled to know who you are.'

 

Sarah Hennis

IRL

Posted on Jan 18, 2024

Online anonymity, the practice of concealing one’s true identity while engaging on the internet, is a complicated phenomenon. It has positive and negative implications, which can vary greatly depending on the platform and the context. 

On one hand, anonymity can empower individuals to speak their minds freely, without fear of repercussions. It can protect vulnerable populations, allowing them to access information and communicate without revealing their identities. However, anonymity can also foster a culture of trolling, cyberbullying, and harassment, as individuals may exploit their hidden identities to harm others.

In the digital age, the debate over online anonymity has reached new heights, with platforms like TikTok and Twitter embodying contrasting approaches. TikTok, a primarily visual-based platform, discourages anonymity, while Twitter, known for its text-centric nature, allows, and almost encourages users to engage without revealing their faces. 

The concept of anonymity plays a pivotal role in this digital landscape, raising questions about privacy, freedom of expression, and the responsibility of online platforms.

Elon University senior and journalism major Palmer Boothe believes that while anonymity can be hard to maintain on the internet, it needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.

“I think it’s tough to be anonymous on the internet because when you get to a certain level of a following people feel entitled to know who you are. If you aren’t at the level of following, people don’t care who you are,” Boothe said. “However, in saying that, it’s also crucial to recognize that not all users are in identical positions. Some individuals may require the protection of anonymity to express their opinions, share personal experiences, or seek support. I think this is why certain individuals gravitate towards platforms like TikTok, while others gravitate towards platforms like Twitter, their two different approaches to anonymity attract different types of users.”

TikTok embodies a distinct approach to anonymity. The platform’s design encourages users to showcase their identities, talents, and creativity through short videos. Most TikTok content heavily relies on video, with users prominently featuring their faces, voices, and personalities. While TikTok does not explicitly prohibit anonymous accounts, its format and culture make it difficult—though not impossible—to use without revealing one’s identity.

The platform’s anti-anonymous stance has both positive and negative consequences. On the positive side, it encourages creativity, self-expression, and authenticity. Users can engage openly and build personal brands, leading to opportunities for fame and success. However, the pressure to reveal one’s identity can be detrimental, particularly for those who are sensitive to appearance-related criticism and cyberbullying.

“When thinking about anonymous users on TikTok, one came to my mind immediately. Briana Armbruster, also known as ‘Ski Mask Girl,’ went viral on TikTok for solely creating content in a ski mask. She created anonymous content for over a year, but eventually gave it up and revealed her identity,” Boothe said. “I remember Armbruster being ridiculed for months about her possible identity. TikTok is honestly such a feral place. No matter how much you plead for your privacy, the comments will still be flooded with theories on who you are or people begging for a reveal.”

There have been other creators who have been forced to give up their identities. Take Marshmello, or Christopher Comstock, for example. His identity was kept top-secret for a few years, but was given up by Skrillex in an interview back in 2015 after he casually referred to him as “Chris.” This revelation raises compelling questions about the dynamics of identity and privacy in creativity. Was Comstock mentally prepared for such a significant hint regarding his concealed identity?

University of Virginia alum Rachel Maxwell, who has a degree in sociology, believes that if you’re an anonymous creator who all of a sudden is not anonymous anymore, everything changes.

“It is probably a hard pill to swallow, but if you are making content anonymously, people care about you more. You are attracting more attention to yourself because you are doing something different,” Maxwell said. “Once that goes away, the conversation about who you are or what you look like completely stops. While I’m not saying this totally ends your fame, it definitely has a strong effect.” 

Twitter, on the other hand, offers a more flexible approach to anonymity. While users can share their real identities, they can also create anonymous accounts or use pseudonyms to interact with the platform. Twitter’s text-centric nature allows users to engage in conversations, share opinions, and connect with a wide audience without revealing their faces. 

This anonymity-friendly approach is evident in its profile options and posting features. Users can choose to upload profile pictures, provide limited personal information, or remain entirely anonymous. This flexibility has made Twitter an attractive platform for individuals who value privacy and those who wish to engage in sensitive or controversial discussions.

“Twitter makes it easier because you’re not posting videos, but if you’re posting anything controversial, people will dox you or try to expose you. Cancel culture is huge and there is no escaping it. The pervasive influence of cancel culture casts a heavy shadow over the digital landscape, making it a powerful force that individuals must navigate with caution,” Boothe said. “However, the community of people on Twitter wants to facilitate open discourse more than on other platforms, and therefore people tend to respect each others’ privacy more than on TikTok.”

When talking about anonymity online, it is important to discuss freedom of expression and what that means in these scenarios. Maxwell believes that while anonymity is a complicated issue, we have to keep the First Amendment in mind.

“I often debate my own morals when it comes to anonymity. While the First Amendment protects anonymity online, why should hateful words and bullying be protected?” Maxwell said. “This is something I have struggled with a lot while studying sociology, watching the negative effects that anonymity can have on humans. My studies have prompted reflection on the ethical responsibilities that accompany the privilege of free expression, but I have to continue to remind myself that we can’t pick and choose what the First Amendment applies to. When it comes down to it, it’s all or nothing.”

With the digital world expanding day by day, and new social media platforms being created, anonymity, and the debate surrounding it, are not going anywhere. 

One of the most iconic New Yorker cartoons, featuring two dogs seated at a computer screen with one remarking to the other, “On the Internet, no one knows you are a dog,” is a visual metaphor for anonymity that has become symbolic of the internet age. It serves as an amusing, but real, lens through which to view the complexities of online anonymity. The cartoon is a fitting allegory for the nuanced issues surrounding anonymity in the digital age.

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*First Published: Jan 18, 2024, 12:48 pm CST