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.