In theory, and theory alone, anonymity is one of the greatest capabilities available to individuals. Authors have used pseudonyms to publish successful works that otherwise would not have been as successful if readers knew the author’s race, sexuality or gender. Journalists rely on the ability to talk to sources “off the record” in order to collect vital information while still protecting an individual’s anonymity. Individuals who have suffered any type of abuse are encouraged and empowered to come forward backed by the safety of remaining anonymous.
In short, anonymity allows for populations that are often dismissed, overlooked or ignored to make their voices heard. But again, that is the goal of anonymity in theory. In practice, the concept is easily warped.
The increasing trend of online anonymity, specifically through apps and social media accounts, has normalized giving power to cyberbullying and insensitive gossip.
Several anonymous Instagram accounts indirectly affiliated with Berry College have emerged, most with the intention of entertaining students and bringing the Berry community together through shared experiences and light-hearted humor. There are also unaffiliated accounts geared towards disclosing the grievances and unpleasantries, and apps, like YikYak, that allow for both the entertainment and expression.
However with anonymity comes the lack of restriction, to an extent, and behind a screen, under the guise of a fake name or no name at all, there is also a lack of responsibility. When there is no restriction on the content of posts and no accountability after the fact, the situation becomes potentially harmful for different communities and individuals, even if that wasn’t the intention.
In situations where people can evade the influence of social norms, we tend to leave empathy behind as well. That’s not to say that issues brought to the table through anonymous accounts do not deserve or warrant a voice in bigger conversations, it’s just important to remember that more times than not, individuals who may not be at the forefront of the story can be just as impacted by the conversations as anyone else involved.
Anonymity is essential to ensure free speech. But using that privilege and that right to create disruption rather than productive and influential conversation defeats the purpose and intention of free speech; it does more harm than good.
Most of the stories or information reported anonymously deserve to be addressed. Arguably all of them deserve some type of discussion because they detail the experience of at least one individual on Berry’s campus, and no one’s experience should go unrecognized.
But right now, there is a lack of respect for anonymity, which is discrediting the very valid and imperative reasons people would need to use it. If anonymity creates dialogue and change, it is more than welcomed, but if that dialogue implies that certain people should remain silent or invalidates their insight, anonymity no longer serves as a safety blanket but rather a means of creating fear or shame.
When there is a power dynamic at play in any institutional structure, groups will naturally suspect that the party incharge isn’t sharing all of the information possible. That’s the reason we have cases like the Pentagon Papers and Watergate; even our government isn’t powerful enough to escape this reality.
There are stories, experiences and information under the administration’s jurisdiction that could be brought to light for students, and there is information that other students could even share with their peers. Anonymity can be a useful way to jump start that dialogue, but there needs to be follow through.
The conversations need to go beyond the screen. The efforts to eradicate the hurt and trauma people have experienced need to make it past the comment section and direct messages. They need to make it into everyday life.
There’s power in support and validation. There’s power in allowing people the space to share their stories and opinions safely. There’s power in starting a conversation that can lead to change.
But there is no power in shaming people for their decisions (whether those be decisions that affect their health, mental or physical, or decisions to share, or not share, personal experiences). There is no power in “spilling tea” just for the sake of it when additional voices showing support for issues where harm has been inflicted to individuals’ well-being could be monumentally influential.
So before posting anonymously online, remember that your input could be the comment that changes the direction of the conversation. That power is in your hands.
If you’re not out to get a laugh or two, remember to preserve anonymity as a tool to nurture productive conversation, and use discretion as to when identifying yourself could be more influential.