Victoria Nicoll considers what it means to be anonymous on social media, asking what the consequences might be when your name is hidden.
What’s in a name? So much of our society is built around having a strong identity; knowing exactly who you are, what you stand for and where you’re from.
Recently, I’ve been DMing this girl on Instagram. She’s a writer, and she writes about everything that a young person goes through: relationships, devouring books, figuring out what exercise you like to do – the lot. She’s been running her page for a couple of years, and she’s never given out any personal information other than the fact that she lives in the United States. On a platform that’s centred around establishing a personal brand, her account kind of subverts that expectation.
The idea of identity is so closely tied to who we are, to how we present ourselves, that going without a set identity is contrary to the usual rules of how we present ourselves. If you’re not giving yourself a name, do you have an identity? Is it possible to craft a personality to show people without a name, a past or a geographical location?
So much of our identities are crafted around the people we admire, and if we don’t show these key things to the people consuming our online identity, what can we build our impressions from? It’s so easy to hide behind a keyboard – it’s freeing, in a way. Due to the fact we’re not showing our face, it makes it easier for us to say what we think. There’s no judging, not immediately. Consequently, you have complete freedom to be whoever you want, regardless of who you associate with.
Because of that, forums on sites like Reddit can get so convoluted and violent. Without someone monitoring what is being said on these forums, who’s there to stop something genuinely scary & dangerous happening? On these forums, is there no need for a filter on what you say? Where’s the line between free speech & being outwardly destructive? If you’re filtering your opinions to stop people getting hurt, are you being inauthentic?
Similarly, if you’re using an app to cover up your flaws for a post, does that make you inauthentic? Is that necessarily a bad thing? Do we need to be authentic all the time? Are you weaker if you’re inauthentic? If you’re inauthentic, are you not holding yourself to account? The lack of safekeeping on internet forums is one thing, but the active encouragement of unconstructive discourse, on sites like Reddit, only add fuel to the fire that is the political landscape of 2020. While the internet is great to help you form your own opinions, there’s nobody on forums to stop people from acting in ways that could potentially harm someone.
Likewise, with these platforms, it’s really easy to forget how everything is made behind the scenes—take Spotify, for example. Little to no thought from the average streamer goes into whether the songs are B or A sides, because generally, as students, who has the money for a decent turntable? Songs, photos, writing, designs, they’re all mass-produced, and consumed within a week (maximum). As soon as we’re done with one photoset on Instagram, we’re onto the next; the next TikTok, the next “photography” collection from someone with a Canon DSL and no photography training. Where, during all that, is a name important? We’re being shown someone’s art at shutter-speed; we’re not going to have time to look deeply into someone’s background. Not like we’d do with Bowie, Simone, Fitzgerald or Beauvoir.
Now, we’re living in an endless stream of content, consuming everything from 10-second videos of TikTok dances to postcolonial discourses online. When we’re faced with so much of this, we simultaneously want to mimic, to fit in, but we also want to set ourselves apart, make sure people see us as something not just falling under a specific hashtag.
When people spread intolerant opinions online, it’s often really easy to forget who could be hurting from the anonymous comments. Being alone in your room and reposting violent & destructive opinions, doesn’t mean you’re isolated when you post them. You’re not sure how far it’ll go, and how many people will be hurt or angered by it. Do Twitter and Instagram act as highways for this destructive discourse, without an endpoint in sight? If you’re not attributing your posts to yourself, then is it less or more harmful?
If you’re not giving yourself a name, you’re not opening yourself up to scrutiny, unless you do something really, really illegal. If you go without a name, people can’t hold you accountable, and the need for a filter goes out the window. Where’s the line? To present yourself online is to open yourself up to millions – no, billions – of scrutinising eyes. For platforms that capitalise on so many people’s personal brands, why is it possible for someone to blog without having to give themselves a name?