With fake news a topical discussion and fake social media accounts and tolls seen as feeding this problem there are call in some areas for more transparency online. People using their real names rather than hiding behind usernames and showing who they really are rather than hiding behind avatars. This transparency, so the thesis goes, will lead to people being more honest and less threatening online.
But Day One (and session one) at this year’s SXSW reminded us that to be open and honest online does not necessarily equate to having to be transparent about who you are. Anonymity (or more likely a level of pseudo-anonymity) has always been, and continues to be, one of the ways that people can build bonds and communities online that they couldn’t do offline. And this example came from Imgur.
Imgur is a good example of a strong online community – with its own rules and cultural norms, things that people who are part of the community know and do, in-jokes and language. And just like such online communities it is also a place where people can build strong bonds with each other not for who they are but for what they talk and care about and what they contribute to the community. This is a place where people care about each other because of shared passions and interests, without needing to know what they look like or what their real names are.
And when strong online communities exist like this, these bonds can be made even more powerful thanks to the level of anonymity. The founders of Imgur shared the story of one member of their community who’s child was undergoing brain surgery. The Imgur member shared a photo of their child in hospital with a simple caption:
“This is too personal to share on Facebook”
To personal to share on Facebook? Where you are supposed to be connected to your friends and the people you care about most?
Yes. Too personal to share on Facebook. For some issues and for some discussions a level of anonymity is helpful. It enables you to talk about things that you might not if you had to put your name to them. It means you can share something deeply personal that you might not have the desire or even the bravery to do when you have to put your real name and photo next to it. And when you share with this level of anonymity it can let you have conversations you might normally have, with people you don’t really know, in ways that really help you.
So as we look to tackle the problem of FAKE NEWS and of trolling and of abuse online we need to remember that for many of the reasons anonymity can be dangerous it can also be helpful.
See everything the team got up to on Day One in Austin