The power and possibility in facelessness

“Cyclops, you asked my noble name, and I will tell it; but do you give the stranger’s gift, just as you promised. My name is Nobody. Nobody I am called by mother, father, and by all my comrades.” — Odysseus, The Odyssey

A few weeks ago, my professor, who shall remain nameless, sent a blast email sporting a foreboding subject line. Accompanied by a cheerful ping, the notification read: “DISCLOSURE.” The email in question let the class know that instructors can view when and how much time you spend on Quercus. As my professor aptly noted, it was “a little Big Brother-ish.” And so, in the interest of full disclosure, he decided to let us know, and reassured us that our participation marks would not be affected. He did point out, though, that if we didn’t log into Quercus in a month, he would start worrying that we were not doing our readings.

A few weeks later, I realized that this knowledge did not at all change how I interacted with Quercus. I still obsessively refreshed my course page to see if my midterm mark had finally come out, and I still logged on at the wee hours of the morning to complete the readings that I should have finished earlier. I did not feel like the fact that my professors (and TAs) could view a log of my activity was a big deal. Should I worry about the absence of privacy? Of anonymity?

Let’s back up a little bit.

In order to understand why some people revere anonymity, we need to understand what anonymity actually is. After all, anonymity has many different meanings and uses. It could be a description for a general group, like anonymous sources or authors. It could refer to properties of objects, such as anonymous tips, message boards, or networks. It could even be an action; phrases like ‘anonymous posting’ and ‘incognito browsing’ are thrown around all the time.

Even though the word ‘anonymous’ may invoke a certain image of a hackerman type, sporting a mask and a robe, anonymity is certainly not a new concept. Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet), Mary Shelley, Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), and even Alexander Hamilton all published under pseudonyms or anonymously. There must be some intrinsic value to anonymity for it to have such an impact.

‘Anonymity’ is often used interchangeably with ‘privacy,’ and there is an undeniable connection there. It is, however, imperative to distinguish between the two. Privacy is the ability to keep some things, well, private, regardless of their impact to society. For example, I close the door of the bathroom when I am showering, not because I am planning a massive art heist or a communist revolution, but because I don’t want to expose the world to my off-key shower concerts.

Anonymity, however, is used when you want people to pay attention to what you do, while hiding that it’s you who is doing it. When Edward Snowden leaked the 41 explosive NSA PowerPoint slides, he wanted the findings to be shouted from the rooftops — his name, less so. In fact, he also used a pseudonym, leaking the documents under the name Verax, Latin for truth teller.

So why would so many people choose to embrace anonymity? Well, first, it provides a measure of security. Whistleblowers throughout history have used anonymity as a way to protect themselves, while allowing their messages to spread. Snowden is among the most famous (or infamous, depending on your view), but Mark Felt, also known as Deep Throat, was crucial to revealing the details of the Watergate controversy. Obviously whistleblowers have good reason to maintain anonymity, since the information they want to reveal is often in direct contradiction to the government’s wishes. Anonymity can encourage and protect whistleblowers when they come forward, and the information gained is invaluable. 

Revolutionaries often hide their names as well. Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, arguably some of the twentieth century’s most subversive thinkers, both sported pseudonyms: their real names are Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov and Lev Davidovich Bronstein, respectively.

“Common Sense,” a pamphlet published in 1776, which encouraged Americans to revolt against British tyranny, was penned “by an Englishman.” We now, of course, know that the writer was Thomas Paine.

During the Arab Spring, and now in Iran and China, political activists continue to speak out against human rights abuses without fearing for their lives thanks to anonymous, encrypted communication.

Introducing radical new ideas to the public can be dangerous business, but it is vital to a thriving, free society. It’s also worth remembering that well-run democracies hinge on the ability to have anonymous ballots. Thus, anonymity can serve an invaluable social function.

Anonymity is not only important in groundbreaking events. In the medical field, anonymity can be crucial for getting people to accept the help they need. A promise of anonymity when seeking tests for sexually transmitted infections, mental health assistance, or addiction counselling can be the difference between life and death.

Online, anonymity is an often-sought boon. On blogs, message boards, and social media, people straddle the line between complete frankness and absolute privacy. You can find no shortage of weird confessions and fringe communities whose members reveal no identifiable details. Oh, sure, you can read all about oprah_wind_fury’s relationship with their estranged sister, but it’s unlikely that they will disclose their country, gender, or name. This can be a weirdly freeing experience, as people find communities all around the world without fear of repercussions in their everyday life.

For instance, technology has often been dubbed the LGBTQ+ community’s ‘unsung hero’ for its ability to connect people who would otherwise be ostracized by their physical community. The main benefits of anonymity, then, are the protection of privacy and enhancements for liberty and autonomy, which furthers the existence of a free, democratic society and provides alternative communities.

Thing is, though, anonymity has gotten a bad rep lately.

There is a seemingly never-ending slew of threats sent to celebrities and politicians alike on Twitter. Trolls infiltrate communities and sow discord with their messages, some of which is blatantly paid for by foreign governments. Doxxing, or the release of personal information to the public, has been undertaken by hacktivists to target individuals from the Ku Klux Klan to abortion providers, law enforcement, and even the mistakenly identified Boston bomber. 

Social psychologists have described phenomena related to the effects of anonymity within group settings, including group polarization, bystander apathy, and social loafing. There is no better place to see the detrimental effects of online anonymity than 4chan.

4chan is an image-based message platform consisting of various boards, ranging from ones focused on video games (/v/), to the paranormal (/x/), to the infamous “politically incorrect” (/pol/). These are the people responsible for innocent internet trends such as rickrolling and LOLcats, as well as the multiple suicide attempts of an 11-year-old girl and countless fake bomb threats. It has been, perhaps not unjustly, described as “the Wild West of the internet,” “lunatic, juvenile… brilliant, ridiculous and alarming” and “a perpetually angry frothing mob.” This site, which boasts close to 28 million monthly users, has occupied the spotlight in debates over online anonymity.

What makes 4chan different from other social media sites is the virtually perfect anonymity it offers. Users do not need to create an account or pick out a username. Instead, they engage in sometimes innocent (and sometimes not) conversation under a sweeping ‘Anonymous’ nameplate. As opposed to traditional social media, there are no permanent profiles to record user activity — every new post and every new comment stands on its own. This removes any semblance of systemic or social accountability that may exist on other sites, since even the reputation tied to a pseudonym is gone. It also means that you cannot directly establish a relationship with anyone, since there are no permanent identifiers of different users. Thus, 4chan is a decentralized echo chamber, a free marketplace of ideas.

4chan, then, considers personal identity meaningless but collective identity sacred. This is an invitation to create extremely toxic communities over time. The site is a known breeding ground for white supremacists, incels, and literal Nazis.

Look, 4chan is not inherently evil. What it is, though, is a perfect petri-dish example of the hazardous side effects of anonymity online. Perfect anonymity comes with no accountability, but relying on people’s conscience to guide their actions in place of tangible repercussions can be problematic, to say the least.

Now, the anonymity I described so far is all done with the anonymous party’s explicit consent. Using a pseudonym as an author or whistleblower, when seeking medical help, or turning to complete anonymity online are all undertaken directly by the individual. In some instances, however, you may have anonymity thrust upon you unwittingly.

In small communities, anonymity is frankly impossible — everyone knows your name, face, and habits. It is only in large, urban sprawls that you can feel like you are nobody, like just another face in the crowd. In 1903, German philosopher Georg Simmel remarked that “one nowhere feels as lonely and lost as in the metropolitan crowd.” Given that half of the world lives in an urban setting, this loneliness is a growing epidemic.

Students are particularly vulnerable. A study conducted with more than 20,000 urban subjects found that 18–22-year-olds (that’s us, folks!) are the loneliest generation. This sort of detachment is uncomfortably familiar at U of T — many students lament how their first-year courses are as big as their high schools or how difficult it is to find a common space as a commuter.

This, infused with internet anonymity, where plenty of students spend hours scrolling through and drowning in social media, can be greatly detrimental. Feeling anonymous in a crowd, online or otherwise, can make you feel hopeless, scared, or just plain sad.

This loneliness is also a major health problem. It shortens our lives, weakens our immune system, and makes us more susceptible to mental illness. Maybe taking a closer look at feelings of loneliness and anonymity in U of T’s community can be a good first step, where at least 70 per cent of students report feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, or very sad.

From Odysseus’ clever ruse to the latest post on 4chan, anonymity has always been a constant companion — and it’s not going away anytime soon. It is a double-edged sword, but one that can be honed if we are attentive, reflective, and mindful of it. So, no, don’t freak out about your anonymity being stripped away by Quercus, but do if the government ever asks you to put your name on a ballot. If you need to vent anonymously once a month to U of T Confessions, then indulge, but if you start feeling overwhelmed by just how isolating everything is, take a moment to introspect. Anonymity is a tool like any other, and it’s up to us to determine what it will do.