Anonymity is often identified as a key variable for explaining the quality and content of online interaction. I’ve done it myself in this article written with Le Moyne political scientist Dr. Delia Popescu and appearing in Information, Communication & Society. Anonymity is conceived by some as a cause of the well known Internet activity of trolling or flaming, but others see it as the key ingredient of what they view as the revolutionary potential of the Internet. Revolutionaries are thought to be empowered by their ability to hide from authority figures, while Internet bullies are portrayed as those cowering behind unidentifiable screen names and tossing insults they likely wouldn’t in a face to face setting. Of course, these claims need to be considered skeptically. Governments, or the more powerful revolutionary factions, can shut down the Internet if they choose, and the government still has tanks and tear gas. Anonymous trolls, like Reddit’s Violent Acrez, can be tracked down, site administrators can delete accounts, and we hear as much about bullying on the non-anonymous Facebook as we do on other websites.
The offline consequences of Internet anonymity are only part of what is sociologically fascinating about online social life. In terms of web mediated social interaction, if we stop after pointing out that screen names are often not ‘real’ names, I think we miss some of the richest action on the Internet. I spend a lot of time on the web forums of the Syracuse Post Standard reading the threads that appear after most articles, and sometimes commenting. Most posters, me included, use anonymous screen names, but this does not mean I don’t have some sense of who they are, at least in the forum situation. There are certain screen names that appear so frequently, and are so consistent in tone and perspective, that anyone could confidently predict the content of the post before reading it. These posters have a clear ‘Post Standard-forums’ identity. Some are on the forum to get a rise out of other posters by being as offensive as they can be – to troll; they take pride in how often they are deleted. Some of the most recognizable have had their accounts entirely removed by site administration only to come back with a slightly changed, but purposely recognizable name to continue their prior ways. Still others are on the forums to be known as the ‘jester’, the ‘fact checker’, or the ‘professor.’ I would argue that posters are enacting clear roles in what is a relatively stable community, but it should probably be noted that some are probably playing multiple roles with multiple screen names.
What other evidence might I cite to demonstrate that there are stable identities and community on these forums? The Post Standard recently added the ability to ‘like’ posts, and so now there is increased motivation to be noticed by others for making a valuable comment. Notice I didn’t say ‘good’ comment. What is valued by some posters is very different than what others will reward. There are obvious cliques (clicks?) of forum participants who regularly reward each others’ posts for being offensive, or funny, or well-reasoned. This appears most common on the funny and offensive posts. Not only would I hypothesize that certain posters are trying to create and maintain particular forum identities by repeatedly posting similar comments, but others are quite regular ‘likers’ who provide positive feedback to help stabilize the sense of self and promote the community’s values. All of these posters, and all of these kinds of posts, can and do coexist in one thread. This is especially the case since the Post Standard began to allow sub posts to reply to prior entries, and to be clearly identifiable as such with indentation. Threads can now be multiple conversations taking place at once, with posters having the option to be civil about their disinterest in the other conversations that go on. It’s almost as if it’s the community diner with friends sitting at their designated tables, relatively closed off from other tables while all occupying the same general space.
So, yes, this is anonymity in the sense that the average participant isn’t able to identify real names, and most posters probably don’t know each other offline. I’m sure there are those who take advantage of this to be more provocative and aggressive than they would be around the water cooler or at the diner, and there are probably some who feel more willing to share their opinions even if they aren’t popular. Sociologically, however, the more interesting phenomenon is the establishment and performance of identity across time, the development of identifiable social groups, and even the elevation of some posters to forum celebrities or voices of authority.
If you are curious about what one of these threads looks like (I’m sure you’ve seen them elsewhere), here is good example from Syracuse.com.