Anonymity and the Online Safe Space

It’s a funny thing, blogging. On the one hand, people write intensely personal things. On the other, it’s out there for the world to see.

Writing is cathartic. I doubt many people would argue this one; for centuries people have written notes, letters and diaries as a way of expressing themselves, often more eloquently than they would be able to out loud. I had many diaries growing up, into which I poured my heart, my pain and my fears. The diaries would listen; they never talked back. They never argued. They never had a contrary opinion.

But writing in a diary is a one-way dialogue. It absolutely helped to get much of my angst and misery out and onto paper, but it didn’t help me communicate; it didn’t help me tell the people closest to me what I needed from them. I remained closed off, and my depression only deepened with no one around who could help.

Of course, had there been blogging back then (I suppose there was some sort of proto-blogs out there, but I didn’t know much about them), things might have worked out differently. You see, it becomes comfortable to blog; it becomes natural to write those same things that went into the diary, but in a format that is not only able to be viewed by millions of people, but intended to.

Why is this? Why do we feel comfortable writing such intimate and personal details for the world to see?

Anonymity plays into this greatly, I believe. It’s possible, to an extent, to be entirely anonymous online. You can create a fake email, a fake account, give yourself a fake username, and write away to your heart’s content about how your husband or your mother is an awful human being … without them ever being the wiser. There’s a great safety in anonymity, a feeling that no one in the ‘real’ world can reproach you for your opinions, because they don’t know they’re yours in the first place.

Yet this same anonymity can become a fully-fledged nightmare, too; how easy is it to criticize, degrade and destroy people when there’s a solid chance you don’t know them, and will never meet them in person? The same psychology that fuels road rage applies here: you can say anything you want online, because of course no one can punish you, no one can tell you you’re being inhumane.

The internet is full of examples of human beings saying things to other human beings that they would never say to their faces; Twitter, Reddit, and countless blog sites offer this opportunity. Of course, there are often policies in place to try and prevent blatant bigotry, but it’s all-too-easy to skirt around these through careful wording and subtlety.

This is difficult enough, but it takes on a new light when that anonymity is lost, or becomes redundant. Children in particular are greatly susceptible to this, in that they haven’t entirely learned how to interact with people in person, and don’t always understand the implications of publicizing personal details. It’s so easy to hastily post a thought, opinion or photo without thought of the consequences, and the same denigration that comes of online anonymity is cast upon the offending person … only with much further-reaching consequences. If an unknown entity attacks you online, you can—to an extent—ignore them. But if the people you spend every day with—your classmates, for example—now ostracize you for your innermost thoughts, it hurts. It cuts deep. And for some, it can be too much to bear.

Blogging and social media has changed the way we communicate, and I would argue that on the whole, it’s for the better. If an anonymous blog means I can communicate my fears and anxieties to people who will listen, then I’m all for it. But the danger that comes with it needs to be understood: the further your reach, the more likely you are to be criticized, and not lightly. This is something that, perhaps, should be taught to our children, both at home and in school; privacy is an increasingly sparse commodity, and careful consideration should be taken when posting anything—even a photo of your cat.

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