Personalization vs. Anonymity

In chapter 4 of The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser describes Mark Zuckerberg’s push for the personalization and de-anonymization of the internet. “As law and commerce have caught up with technology…the space for anonymity is shrinking” (111). According to Facebook and Google, anonymity must be removed from the internet to better reflect the structure of our society and protect us, but people still push for freedom on the web. So, according to my experience and research, it seems it is the large internet companies versus the people.

Pariser seems convinced that the web is moving away from anonymity, but according to my research, there are still a enough practical uses for anonymous communication. There are still enough people who are excited about the early visions of the web, where anonymity was a communication norm. There is still a desire in our society for outlets where we can express ourselves in unique ways. My research suggests that there are a significant amount of people moving toward anonymous communication by using Twitter more and phasing out Facebook. Twitter’s numbers also show that anonymity might be here to stay:

#tweets

  • 3 years, 2 months and 1 day. The time it took from the first Tweet to the billionth Tweet.
  • 1 week. The time it now takes for users to send a billion Tweets.
  • 50 million. The average number of Tweets people sent per day, one year ago.
  • 140 million. The average number of Tweets people sent per day, in the last month.
  • 177 million. Tweets sent on March 11, 2011.
  • 456. Tweets per second (TPS) when Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009 (a record at that time).
  • 6,939. Current TPS record, set 4 seconds after midnight in Japan on New Year’s Day.

#accounts

  • 572,000. Number of new accounts created on March 12, 2011.
  • 460,000. Average number of new accounts per day over the last month.
  • 182%. Increase in number of mobile users over the past year
From 140-character messages to academic forums and beyond, there are possibilities for constructive anonymity on the internet, but we often notice the nonconstructive because it is easier to define and point out. How does anonymity affect the human experience? To echo Katey’s thoughts, anonymity exacerbates what is already a part of us.

Anonymity in Practice: Group Interview

I conducted my second interview in an informal group setting, hoping to prompt constructive discussion. The three subjects of the interview were all males, ages 19, 20 and 22. One subject was considerable more vocal, whereas the other two only offered their opinions on Twitter, which was the popular topic.

The first subject, a cycling enthusiast, described that he is familiar with anonymity on the internet from his use of Twitter and cycling forums. He also reads Tumblr and Youtube pages. He says that with all the different anonymous venues on the internet, he can try out different personalities that allow him to express himself more than he would in person. When asked about anonymous blogging, he related his experience saying, “I follow some of my friends on tumblr. You see their friends and you don’t know who they are, but they’re posting cool stuff, so you can follow them and it’s not akward.” In a sense, this practice reflects the original romantic hopes for the internet, an access to limitless information. Despite the push for personalization of the internet, it seems that anonymity can preserve that access.

He also has used cycling forums to gain information on bike maintenance and cycling culture. He admits that he has found the answers to questions he would be embarrassed to ask some of his riding friends. However, he points out that anonymity has its downfalls. He says about Youtube, “You can read comments and how intense people get over stupid little things. If you met them in person, they wouldn’t admit to behaving that way. Everyone wants to fight online. Everyone thinks they’re a badass.”

I asked the whole group how the greater degree of anonymity on twitter changes their behavior compared to facebook where their names are displayed. They all seemed to enjoy the freedom of anonymity. “You can joke around, say what’s on your mind. If you offend someone, they won’t know who it is.” “You can follow different people that you wouldn’t be friends with on Facebook or be associated with in real life.” “It’s more socially acceptable to follow people that you’re not necessarily close to. You don’t feel creepy about following a random person.”

When asked how their tweets differ from their Facebook status updates, they all agreed that Twitter is less personal and said they have not updated their Facebook statuses very often since they started tweeting. Adding that Facebook “is more for pictures now.” It seems that many people prefer the anonymity of Twitter despite recognizing the nonconstructive tendencies of communication on other websites like Youtube.

 

Anonymity in Practice: Interview 1

For this study, I chose to interview some of my student peers to explore internet anonymity in practice. I found a few different perspectives and uses for anonymous technologies on the internet.

My first “subject,” a 20-year-old junior, seemed to have very little interest in the topic at first. She does not comment on Youtube videos, use Twitter, or actively participate in any anonymous or pseudonymous communication on the internet. She claims that being anonymous has little value for those with healthy interpersonal relationships since they allow you to be open enough to express anything that needs to be expressed. However, as our discussion progressed, she realized that she had witnessed productive anonymity although she did not feel the need to participate.

In one of her classes, her professor uses Google Moderator to allow students to post questions for the teaching assistant. The questions and answers are displayed for all of the 600-person class to see. I asked her how this experience was different from in-class discussions and she said, “If you raise your hand in class, you have the potential to be embarrassed, so you are more open when you’re anonymous.” She admitted that she does not post questions on the Google Moderator page, but reads it occasionally and notices that students ask many more questions online than they do in class. She also adds, “Questions are more personal online.” This reflects the consequences and social norms that “boomgoesthedynamite” brought up in the comments under my first post. Because of those societal norms, many students choose to ask questions anonymously where they will not feel judged. The above-mentioned “subject” takes comfort in having the option to post questions anonymously. She says, “I don’t like attention being drawn to myself.  I don’t want to participate in an argument in person. When you’re anonymous, personal attacks can’t be made.” Conversely, she claims that in an argument online, people will more likely say what they feel, whereas in person they would be more “reserved.” According to her, “People can be meaner online.  [Anonymity] can also bring out good qualities, depending on the website. In the case of academic websites, anonymity is very productive.” In this example, she shows anonymity in a positive light, but she has another example where it has steered her wrong.

She recently got sick and anonymously sought help on Yahoo! Answers. She had heard from another person that her symptoms sounded like Meningitis, so she looked up anonymous posts about Meningitis and determined that was what she had. When she saw a doctor, she was diagnosed with a completely different illness. She admitted that she trusted too much in anonymous sources and used them to reaffirm her preconceived notions. According to her, “It’s human nature.” She did not believe that being anonymous online changes the tendency to reaffirm. Reflecting Katey’s comment on the first post, the interviewee adds that “It depends more on what kind of person you are.” According to Katey, “Any deficit of character, will be excacerbated with anonymity and it’s inherent freedom from consequences.”

The subject of this interview has experienced some confusion from reading anonymous online communication, but we see that she is still optimistic about the freedom and possibilities of it. With her academic example, she uncovered the essential point that the productivity of the communication still depends on the environment, regardless of whether it is anonymous or not. Anonymity can bring about lots of nonconstructive mindless content, but in the proper setting, it can be constructive.

 

Kierkegaard on Anonymity and Public Opinion

As the internet becomes more powerful and accessible, it increases its dominance as the primary vehicle of public opinion. To understand this trend, we can trace it back to the birth of the press and the idea of public opinion. In Chapter 4 of On the Internet, Hubert Dreyfus describes philosopher Søren Kierkegaard‘s position on the forming of the “public sphere” in the mid-eighteenth century and the expansion of the press.

Kierkegaard cautioned that the press was causing society to form a sense of public opinion, where more and more people could engage in political discourse. The locus of this discourse shifted from that of the ancient poleis and republics into the coffeehouses, where people could discuss issues with relative anonymity. According to Kierkegaard, this widespread political accessibility allowed citizens to practice politics without risk. “The new massive distribution of desituated information was making every sort of information available to anyone, thereby producing a desituated, detached spectator” (75). These detached spectators were able to comment on any issue without any personal experience or responsibility (75). Kierkegaard believed that issued are resolved through “some sort of commited action” (75). The press ruined progress and constructive thought by allowing detached members of a society to form opinions anonymously with no risk or commitment.

Since Kierkegaard’s criticism of the press, the internet has increased anonymity and detachment exponentially. It requires no stretch of the imagination to say that Kierkegaard’s criticism of the internet would be very harsh. Instead of hiding from political power in coffeehouses, we hide behind our computer screens where we can post opinions to millions of people anonymously. Public opinion is now stronger and more accessible than ever.

Centuries ago, a citizen had to publicly put his or her name and reputation at stake to shape public opinion. Today, it is shaped by largely nameless, detached bloggers and commenters. Most people I interviewed regarding their internet practices admitted that writing anonymously on the internet requires less commitment than more transparent communication. There are internet users who contribute to public opinion with little more than a second’s thought.

While the internet may be a door to many thoughtful and credible resources, it is hard to fault Kierkegaard’s opinion that increasingly powerful vehicles of anonymity in the press and public opinion lead to tons of uncommitted and unproductive information. The internet is the most powerful vehicle that this world has known.

Why Blog?

For my study, I have chosen to stray from the traditional essay format and post my work into this blog so that it fits the new cognitive style of the “Digital Native” generation. Marc Prensky coined the term “Digital Native” in his 2001 article, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.” He describes Digital Natives as the generation of young students who have grown up completely immersed in digital technology.

“Digital Natives are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their test rather than the opposite. They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards.”

-Marc Prensky

The blog format will allow me to organize content to suit Digital Natives. I will separate different topics into their own posts, which will be categorized and cataloged in the right sidebar. Hopefully this organization makes topics instantly retrievable, providing content that is more easily scan-able than in the linear organization of a traditional essay. The HTML will allow the reader to access internet sources through links. I hope that these elements provide an engaging, interactive experience that will encourage reader participation through comments, anonymous or not. I will link this blog through different forms of social media in attempt to attract an audience beyond my English 4874 class. I appreciate any and all participation.

Anonymity on the Internet: A Digital Ethnography

Who am I?

The timeless question has been further obscured since the dawn of the internet. We can explore different identities with the click of a mouse. We can voice any thought seemingly without consequence. We can reach millions of people without anyone knowing who is on the other end. We behave differently under the veil of anonymity and that behavior fundamentally, changes who we are. These changes affect our personality beyond the screen. In this study, I intend to explore these changes from a sociological perspective and shed some light on anonymous behavior on the internet.

Follow this blog as I uncover topics from books, interviews and my own experience as a digital native.