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The anonymity trend & self-presentation fatigue

If you follow either tech news or kids’ digital media preferences, you’ve probably noticed the anonymity trend – including Whisper, Secret, Yik Yak and many others, including a new one especially for teens called FessApp (covered by my ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid here. Anonymity has raised plenty of concerns but it’s likely not going away. It’s part of the connectivity landscape now. Why do I say that? Because it seems to be a solution to the last source of major consternation: a welcome relief from self-presentation in social media and the whole spectrum of concerns surrounding it – e.g., that what’s posted online stays forever and is searchable, that users need to worry about reputations for academic and professional prospects, and even that our children are an unprecedentedly “narcissistic generation” (see this about that last one).

Taking a selfie

Photo by Don Harder (CC licensed)

No wonder we’re seeing self-presentation fatigue! People get tired of worrying about how they’re presenting themselves, tired of others’ self-presentation and tired of everybody worrying out loud about potential harm. It’s like coming down off the stage and melting into the crowd or relaxing into a circle of friends. You feel like…

  • Anonymous or disappearing posts can’t be associated with you by recruiters and prospective employers far into the future
  • You can compliment someone anonymously when it might seem weird to do so openly (see “But there’s a flipside” in this conversation about online anonymity among student leaders), or…
  • You can confess to a secret crush – almost like in the days of paper diaries kept under lock and key, except shared with the crush (secretly by you rather than your best friend).

It’s the lighter side of social media. I’m not saying these things are necessarily true in all cases, but that’s the feeling that people have about anonymity, a bit of hopeful relief.

As FessApp developer Mandeep Dhillon told Larry, it can be exhausting to be under the spotlight, and anonymity allows students to engage honestly and openly – especially if an app “discourages people from shaming or identifying specific individuals in their posts,” as he says FessApp does.

Anonymity not guaranteed

That’s when anonymity can go away – when someone violates terms of service and gets abusive. Young users need to know this. The offensive poster can be traced and face repercussions. Schools can get court orders that get sites and apps to identify abusers. Apps and other services that allow abuse can eventually be seen as bad actors or social cesspools and at least stay small or eventually go away, as JuicyCampus did (Wikipedia has the history).

There is no question that online anonymity has a dark side too, so we all need to be very intentional about creating social norms that reject social cruelty and social media services that allow it – and helping our children develop those norms. As users we are all stakeholders in supporting respectful use and marginalizing abuse.

Anonymity not new

But it’s not like anonymous posting and secret confessions arrived on the planet with apps, as Prof. Sameer Hinduja points out in a recent blog post. He talks about how users have been using Facebook pages, which allow their creators to be anonymous, to display secret confessions (linking to a Reuters report over a year ago. Visitors can “send private messages to the page with specific confessions, and the administrator of the page then posts them publicly to the Wall for all ‘followers’ to see. Another way to keep posts anonymous is to create an email account specifically to receive confessions from others, or set up a form via free online tools such as Google Docs (or SurveyMonkey, or even an Ask.fm page). Then, [users] can clink on a link, open up the form, share their confession without giving any identifying information, and click ‘send.’ The person behind it all then receives these anonymous confessions via email, and then can post them for all to see.”

It’s important to be as open to the light as to the dark side of online anonymity, if only for the sake of better, more candid conversations with our children. It’s rarely all darkside, so if we don’t buy into all the fears and dire predictions, we just more credible when we have legitimate concerns. So it’s good to be informed. To that end, I highly recommend Dr. Hinduja’s blog post and the two audio interviews with Secret co-founder Chrys Bader and FessApp’s co-creator Mandeep Dhillon at the bottom of Larry’s CNET article.

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