An article came out today by J. Nathan Matias (find it here, it’s really interesting) calling for a re-examination of online anonymity, which for so long has been painted as a pantomime villain that automatically leads to abuse and problematic behaviour.
In the article J. Nathan Matias argues in essence for a reversal of the approach to anonymity and abuse, calling for a re-evaluation of online abuse that acknowledges the fact that it is and obviously is not solely an online phenomenon, but that it emerges from pre-existing social structures and resources. This is really interesting, especially in the wake of a re-emergence of anonymous platforms such as Yik Yak (before the update) and ask.fm.
However, whilst this is a much-needed point, I would personally push for a broadening of the approach towards anonymity rather than a strict reversal, an approach that acknowledges the many diverse manifestations of social interaction that emerge through the affordance of anonymity across a broad and diverse array of platforms. By this I mean that anonymity is not a catch-all for all users; it is utilised differently by different users who bring their socio-cultural baggage to bear on the platform. Whilst the platform design will guide how users act and interact, the exact manifestation of social interaction can be seen as a merging of socio-culturally bound user and platform design, intra-acting (in a Baradian fashion) to co-produce a unique platform-and-user-specific identity performance. In essence, a user brings all their accumulated social resources online with them, squeezing this into the specific platform, which mediates and shapes what they can and can’t do. The resulting social actions and interactions emerge from the mingling of user and design. As such, there is a need to pay attention to the specific user and their socio-cultural resources as well the specifics of a given platform. Anonymity will not be used uniformly as users approach the affordance with different resources. Nor will anonymity necessarily manifest itself in a uniform manner, as it may be framed and presented differently across an array of platforms. Therefore, anonymity needs to be considered in a nuanced and situated manner that considers the specific user and the specific platform, rather than be treated as a uniform entity that will always be used in a uniform manner.
This point is addressed in part by the J. Nathan Matias article, which notes that online abuse cannot be divorced from the offline socio-cultural contexts that lead to its manifestation online. As Patricia Lange pointed out in 2007, it is naïve to assume “hostility results from assumed online anonymity rather than from social or culture dynamics which may occur offline as well as online” (Lange, 2007:361) Research suggests that it is not as simple as merely highlighting the particular affordances that are used to elicit abuse (Massanari, 2015; Niedt, 2016), as there is, as always, a need to consider also the user’s ability to exert control over content. I would however add a note of caution with this line of thinking, and highlight the need to hold designers accountable for the abuse that emerges on their platforms. Whilst this abuse emerges due to existing socio-cultural issues, this does not mean that design cannot exacerbate these issues and create new systems through which abuse emerges.
In my recently finished thesis, the subject of anonymity came up with a number of the participants, who had a range of experiences with anonymity online. For some, it resulted in interesting and useful interactions, for others, it was problematic and open to abuse. Indeed, whilst I applaud J. Nathan Matias’ call for nuance when considering anonymity, I’d suggest there is a need for an acknowledgement that anonymity can also create the environment for abuse. Rowe (2015) for example has looked at the comment section of the Washington Post which allows users to post anonymously, and compared the comments to those left on the Washington Post’s Facebook site where users had to use personal Facebook accounts to leave a comment. Rowe found that the Washington Post website had far more incivility and impoliteness as well as a greater likelihood for purposefully directed hurtful comments than the Facebook page. Similar findings have been found by other researchers (Cho & Acquisti, 2013; Hille & Bakker, 2014; Van der Nagel & Frith, 2015). It appears that interactive affordances, such as comment sections, are not used in uniform manners. Context, it seems, matters. The affordance of anonymity can affect how these spaces are utilised.
Nonetheless, it has been noted recently that a sense of community and engagement is apparent and notable in comment sections and platforms that allow anonymity (Coles & West, 2016). This suggests that being social online does not necessarily require a non-anonymous platform, and that social interaction can thrive in anonymous platforms.
This leads to an important point that I continue to make to digital researchers; that we should not prioritize and/or overly focus upon the Facebook model of socialising. There are many interesting communities online, and, at a time when the majority of users are using a diverse array of platforms and are using more than one platform regularly (Greenwood et al., 2016), our approach towards digital research must consider more than one manner of socialising online, and more than one or two platforms.
This also means that certain models and platform designs should not be held up as normal ‘standards’ for social media, with other designs being placed as secondary or as deviations from this norm. Jenny Davis (2016), for example, recently defined social media in the following manner; “social media are interactive, nonanonymous, network-based Internet technologies that allow for the sharing of user-generated content” (Davis, 2016, 137). Similarly, Michael Kent (2010) similarly highlighted that social media affords specific forms of social interaction that offer, amongst other traits “reduced anonymity, a sense of propinquity” (Kent, 2010, 645). Whilst these are generally accurate descriptions of how users interact on certain platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, this certainly cannot be applied or generalised to all social media, and as the J. Nathan Matias article suggests, many anonymous platforms can be social. As such, researchers should be careful to overly prioritise non-anonymity as a defining feature of social media. Not only is there a need to consider an array of platforms when considering social interaction, but there is also a need to pay attention to the particularities of that platform rather than generalising the scope and shape of social interaction online.
I’ll finish this post with some of the data from my thesis that shines a light on a community that thrives on an anonymous online comment section of a feminist blog. The participant discussed the comment section in detail noting that she felt a sense of community in the comment section, despite the users posting under pseudonyms. She noted:
“you don’t really know each other, but because you’re all talking about the same things in the same context, you definitely get a feel of personalities…people will refer back to comment boards from a couple of days ago, like ‘oh yeah, you mentioned last article that your dog was dying, how’s that going?’ or something”.
Indeed, she suggest that the anonymity in these comment sections lead to the users being able to share intimate details and discuss complex topics and facts in their personal lives, so-much-so that the participant noted that she felt she knew more about these users than she did about many people in her real life, despite not knowing their actual names. She noted:
“despite the fact that you have no idea of anything, like, I wanna say personal, but I know some really personal stuff about all of them, apart from the fact that I don’t know their names and I don’t know, umm, anything”.
She highlighted one case in particular of a woman who had been talking in the comment section about living with her partner’s ex-mistress. She said she knew:
“like how she feels about the fact that she has to put up with her husband’s mistress, although they’re not having a thing any more, and it’s stuff like that, except I have no idea what her name is, where she lives, how old she is, anything like that. And it’s just odd”.
These spaces then appear to fulfill different social functions and purposes, and provide different social experiences and understandings. Indeed, another female participant discussed anonymity in online roleplaying games, noting:
“Like games where you play with other people, like online role playing games, you can join groups or teams with their friends or just random people in general and they become friends…You hear of people starting relationships with other people who they’ve met online in video games and stuff. I’ve seen a bunch of discussions on games about literally anything under the sun, from cats and parenting tips and just telling stories”.
This suggests then that social media and social experiences online are broadly different experiences for each user. Each gains different social experiences from the internet, responding to, enacting, and fulfilling different practice, needs, and experiences. Their understandings of social media, and therefore experiences of social media, appear largely variable.
As such, our approach towards social media and anonymity needs to be equally broad. Whilst we should not forget the many cases of abuse in anonymous platforms (Yik Yak’s problematic past alone should serve as a lesson in abuse and anonymity), we should not treat anonymity as a pantomime villain, and acknowledge its usefulness and potential as well as its problems and difficulties. As my data suggests, anonymity can be freeing to certain users and communities, and allow them to openly discuss and deal with complex topics. However, anonymity can also be a smoke-screen that allows the continuation, manifestation, and exacerbation of the worst aspects of offline abuses that all-to-often are aimed at ‘othered’ groups such as women, LGBTQ+ users, Muslims, and non-white users. This should not be forgotten or side-lined, and we should continue to push for social change, online and offline, to change these narratives.
As the J. Nathan Matias article notes “design cannot solve harassment and other social problems on its own”. I would agree with this BUT I would also suggest that we as users should hold designers’ feet to the fire to make sure that they deal with abuse in all forms. They cannot be allowed to ignore the fact that design affects how a user will act and interact, and cannot be allowed to ignore their responsibility to continue to assess the sorts of interactions their platform design creates, a point which the J. Nathan Matias article also makes in its conclusion. As Twitter have found out throughout 2016, there needs to be a robust response to abuse. This response not only includes the designers continually assessing their platforms, but also includes users holding designers accountable for the problems with their platforms that may exacerbate existing social divides, as well as a continual push for challenging offline social Discourses that profligate this abuse. As such, I applaud and join J. Nathan Matias’ call to consider anonymity with more nuance.
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