Anonymity is an increasing fact of community – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing

On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog Twenty years ago this wonderful cartoon appeared in the New Yorker magazine when the internet was new and undiscovered. The cartoonist, Peter Steiner could not have forseen the explosion in today’s anonymous internet forums where in many cases you simply have no idea who you are communicating with.

In the last few years the phrase “we are anonymous” has become infamous as the signature of the hackers group “Anonymous”. They are credited with well-publicised hacks into corporate systems including PayPal, Sony, and MasterCard. Of course they don’t see it like that, they call themselves “hactivists” (yeah right). But is anonymity always damaging? And why has the word increased in usage dramatically in recent years?

Anonymity versus Privacy

To address these questions I recently lead a small discussion group on the topic of anonymity. I asked people what feelings the word evoked. Threatening, cowardly, secretive were some of the answers. “Why do people lurk in the shadows and not say who they are?” said one person.

But then I took another word, “privacy”, and asked how that made them feel, and people were more affirmative and warm. Your privacy, after all is valuable, personal, and must be protected from unwanted incursion.

Some languages … simply don’t have a word for “privacy” since it is not a concept that occurs”

However the two words are not that far apart. What to you is your “privacy” may well appear to me as your “anonymity” (one word is about not revealing, the other is about not knowing). The difference between the two words is just your point of view. Furthermore there are times when we all would like to remain anonymous for example to make a complaint, or perhaps to make a donation to a charity, or we can seek sensitive medical information from medical websites “anonymously”.  Many excellent support groups depend on anonymity for the good of their members, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Gamblers Anonymous being just two examples, (…although I must also mention in passing former colleagues who formed their own rebellious group “Alcoholics Unanimous” with a slogan inspired by John Lewis* …. “never knowingly sober!”). Jokes aside, anonymity plays an important and increasing role in our world and often a positive one.

Anonymity in Community

Communities have become much more anonymous in recent times. In the past, life was lived on the street and each other’s homes. The idea of living alone, privately was not one that people thought about. Anonymity and privacy were not understood concepts. Even today in some parts of the developing world, that is still the case and some languages simply don’t have a word for “privacy” since it is not a concept that occurs. The community is where life is lived out, period.

On Facebook, 273 people know I am a dogToday many people say we have lost our sense of community, but I’m not sure if it is lost or just different. Social networking sites in particular have the strange effect of simultaneously promoting both community and anonymity in the world we now live in. People are communicating like never before (over a billion individuals visiting Facebook every month “can’t be wrong”). These are real communities for a generation who have never known any other kind of community. And yet in another sense all of these new communities are also anonymous in that we only reveal what we want people to know.

Indeed younger people have fewer hang-ups with both anonymity and privacy. I have seen several reports for example from Research firm Coleman Parks that demonstrate a reduced concern about private data particularly among the young and particularly in developing countries.

Lest we forget the negatives, there are of course cases of online bullying performed using the cloak of anonymity including, here in the UK, the tragic cases of two young teenagers committing suicide both of which were traced back to bullying on the site  So the potential for intense damage by those who would exploit anonymity is real and especially harmful among the young.

Conclusions are difficult. My view is that anonymity is simply a fact of our culture and our time. We increasingly need to relate to people in the ways they determine, allowing them to call the shots. I have come across people entering a friendly and very welcoming church but who wanted to sit quietly at the back, without speaking to anyone, and leave at the end,  anonymously. “Believing without belonging” is an increasingly attractive choice for some groups.

Is it generally helpful to society to be able to suppress parts of your life including your identity and only reveal what you want to? What do you think?

*John Lewis, a UK department store with strapline “never knowingly undersold”

If you found this to your liking try When Words Have No Meaning

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7 years ago

While as you note there’s a lot of overlap in the way the terms “anonymity” and “privacy” are used I think that anonymity (at least in an internet context) is generally active — i.e. a deliberate hiding of identity whereas privacy is passive, something I expect to have by default. Perhaps this is the root of the difference in “threateningness”.

Believing without belonging”… is that even a choice?

7 years ago
Reply to  Chris Goswami

It’s nice to have a discussion forum! Privacy: Do you think people understand when they are giving up privacy? I often hear comments like “I’ve got nothing to hide therefore nothing to fear” but the same people think it’s “spooky” when receiving targeted ads, and are the first to draw the curtains! Belonging: Belonging to what? As a Christian, I believe I belong to God — and “Nothing can separate us from the love of God”. Believing but not belonging to a specific church or organisation is perhaps just abdication of responsibility and characteristic of a “take but not give”… Read more »