The Spectrum of Identity in Social Media: The Effects of Anonymity

Retrieved from:

Defining Oneself in the Social Realm

What’s your name? Where are you from?” These are the questions a new friend asks you at a party when meeting each other for the first time. Small talk carries the conversation on for a while and the interaction is going great. You don’t know this person very well however when your new friend has to leave, they shout “follow me” in which they end up giving you their username to some type of social network. You proceed to look up the account and follow your new friend. An abundant amount of information is at your fingertips: where she lives, where she went to high school, what she did last summer, and even her favorite type of ice cream. Despite all of the personal identification, you still do not completely know this girl. Elements of social media such as profile pictures, personal blogs, profile bios, status updates, lineage and relationship status, demographic info, and much more all contribute to help forming a social network identity, however is it even possible to become completely identified? On the other end, there is anonymity, in which people choose to abandon the elements that create identity. Being anonymous, like being identified, has a range of possibilities. There are certain degrees of being anonymous which can vary due to elements of hiding one’s name or creating a fake name, choosing no profile picture or a false representation, having an icon as one’s whole user such as in Yik Yak, and much more. Rather than a “pick one or the other” type of ordeal, there are levels of anonymity and identity that fall onto a spectrum in the realm of social media.

Identification Levels

Even when looking at somebody’s Facebook profile, their whole identity can not be completely displayed. While some people choose to remain more private, others choose to spice up their profile to let everybody know what they are doing, who they are with, what they look like, and so on. Jessica Winter, Slate Magazine’s feature editor, is a social media enthusiast who has profound experience in Facebook and Instagram. In her article Selfie-Loathing, she states the three main reasons for social networking: “loitering around others’ photos, perfunctory like-ing, and “broadcasting” to a relatively amorphous group.” At the near end of one side of the spectrum, which involves a lot of profile identification, social media users love to show off and “broadcast” what they’re doing to their followers, show their liking towards others, and to “stalk” others profiles. Stalking, in terms of social media, is not necessarily a bad thing, rather it just has a contemporary meaning of excessive viewing of statuses and pictures of a profile according to, a site known for defining the latest lingo. Levels of identification can also vary depending on the type of social network one is using.  For example, LinkedIn has less of the personal identification and more of a professional identification than twitter. Snapchat, which allows users to view photos for only ten seconds, provides much less information on a profile than Instagram for example, which permanently displays photos until the user deletes them. Below, by looking at my personal Instagram, a viewer can find out where I live, where I went to high school and currently attend college, and many pictures that illustrate what I was doing or who I was with.

Screenshot by Sean McLaughlin 11/26/15

Identification Usage

With known profiles, people can identify messages, pictures, and statuses to a particular person. This causes users to recognize who is viewing their profile and to be more conscious of their own words and pictures posted. People may be more inclined to tweet their political opinion on twitter after a debate because they want the social realm to know how they feel. Others may keep their political opinion to themselves after watching a debate because they don’t want people to discriminate based on a political standing. Profile identification also fosters an atmosphere for effective communication. In the blog, The Positives of Social Media: Spread of Information, the team, which is comprised of various scholars who study faith, family interaction,and social media, argues that “Social media is a powerful tool for spreading information. It reaches faster and farther than any communication method to date.” Social media is one of the best ways to share news and information with people across the global in a matter of seconds. For instance, Adam Constantine, Elon University’s social media manager, illustrated an excellent example. Mr. Constantine held an open event that discussed his life while he was overseas in Israel playing basketball. He felt lonely without friends and family and also felt scared when bombing attacks occurred. However despite this, he utilized his Facebook profile to communicate with everybody back home, especially one of his favorite teachers at Elon that provided much needed inspiration. Lo and behold, that same teacher helped him get a job at Elon, when Mr. Constantine injured his knee and could no longer play ball. Profile identification helps to create clear, effective communication with identifiable individuals.

Levels of Anonymity

As we veer away from the identification end of the social media spectrum, elements such as altered names, unidentifiable profiles, hidden images, and much more become prevalent. The middle of the social media spectrum tends to involve minor anonymous elements. For example, name changes are a big way to hide identity in the social realm. A large trend in high school upperclassmen is to change their last name on Facebook to their middle name or alter their whole name completely so that college recruiters cannot search their name to view their profile. However, profile pictures are usually still existing on the user’s page which still involves an element of identification. As we move further down the spectrum, profile names and pictures vanish. On the app, Yik Yak, users do not have a name or a picture which provides a strong element of anonymity. However they are identified within a certain area so that when they “yak” a status, only the people within that certain radius can view it. Their “yak” is also identified by a colored symbol. So even though there is no name or picture on a Yik Yak, a profile still can be identified by their relative area and their little logo.

Screenshot by Sean McLaughlin 11/26/15

Effects and Usage of Anonymity

To be anonymous in the social media realm can be used to one’s benefit or can be used in a negative way. For those who are ridiculed for their opinions in the real world, one can utilize anonymity to post on the social web without people directly linking the opinion  back to any person. For instance, there are many anonymous political forums throughout the internet that people may anonymously enter a conversation about our world and debate back and forth. This anonymous debate allows people to not be personally criticized for their beliefs. Another excellent usage of being anonymous is exercised by those too embarrassed to say or ask something in their full identity. For example, allows for members to engage in anonymous question and answer forums that involve many bodily curiosities such as discussion on what one’s stool might be signaling. Anonymity on the internet can be used in many effective ways however there are very serious drawbacks to these. With anonymity, one can voice their thoughts without any repercussions and identification is very difficult which can lead to discrimination and hurtful posts. Chris Barniuk, an English author who started his own magazine at the age of 14 and who now is presently the technology editor for the New Scientist, describes negatives incentives that anonymity brings about in his article. Barniuk suggests that the negative aspects of anonymity arise due to “the reduction of our psychological barriers to abuse and incite others, including carrying out racist and sexist attacks.” In other words, being anonymous is being without any external influences or threats which causes people to say whatever is on their mind. An example of this negative anonymous harassment took place recently at Kean university in New Jersey. An anonymous account was tweeting awful racist remarks that were unbearable to read.

screenshot by Sean McLaughlin 11/18/15

A coward like the one above tweeted these awful posts due to being anonymous and hiding behind a screen so that nobody will know his true identity. The anonymity prevents people from acting upon and identifying the person who created the cyber harassment above. Anonymous cyber harassment can range from little crude comments to extreme racism. Paul Bojic, a famous English author and professor at the Aston Business School in London, defines cyber harassment   as

“a course of action in which an adult individual or groups of individuals use digital media to cause another individual to suffer emotional distress.”

As illustrated in the screenshot, the digital media caused not just one individual to suffer emotional distress but rather a whole population. The pain caused by cyber harassment is the type of negative anonymous usage that we should strive to discourage in the social media realm.

The Unanswered Question

In his article , Chris Barniuk describes a study conducted by research psychologist, Ed Diener, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.The results of this study showed that kids who wore masks while trick-or-treating stole more candy from house bowls on Halloween, when given the opportunity. Many kids love candy, so does that mean that all kids with masks would steal candy from houses if they had the chance? It seems as though when people have their identity hidden, they act differently. This concept is applied to many people from little trick-or-treaters to racist tweeters. Racism still exists in today’s world so do the tweets exemplified in the photo reveal the true character of the tweeter as he hides his true opinions in reality? Being anonymous makes one feel an extreme sense of freedom to say or do whatever they want for that particular moment which leaves us with the unanswered question: Does anonymity provide a false representation of a person or does being anonymous bring out one’s true character?

Works Cited  




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s