Anonymity and Toxic Internet Culture

Confronting the darkness that lies with anonymity as a defining factor of online spaces.

by Cameron G. on June 8th, 2015

A "Hello, My Name Is" nametag with no name filled in.

Photo CC-BY Quinn Dombrowski, filtered.

I preface this piece by stating that Internet culture is one of the best things that has made its way into my life.

Internet culture has this unique ability to connect large, often disparate communities. Never before have these marginalized voices and scattered groups found such a tremendous platform to collaborate and share ideas. And yet… there is always some sort of discourse that comes along to break up this otherwise harmonious union of community and medium.

Platforms such as YikYak and Reddit have made their name (rather, their infamous reputations) with the familiar community-building tactics of other social media platforms, but twisted to breed the antithesis of positive online communities. They started out innocent enough, as all new systems do; however, they made it more than easy for malicious participants to use them for not-so-positive reasons. Built on the basis of user anonymity, Reddit gives users free-range of username creation. And YikYak has no user identification at all – the app itself works on a GPS system where users are active based on location rather than registration to the system. Its lightening-strike of popularity has raised concerns about its effect on Internet culture, and questions about how user anonymity hurts and harms. Universities across the country are asking if YikYak should be banned on their campuses, as complaints of “racial, sexual, and otherwise malicious abuse” are on the rise. And Reddit, despite recent anti-harassment policy changes, remains one of the most infamous sites online.

A few weeks ago, I had my own interaction with Reddit as one of my blog articles was hyperlinked in an Avengers 2 thread. My piece critiqued the treatment of Black Widow, my reactions to the direction of her character. Though the initial Reddit comment was positive, I still retained hesitation (and almost fear) of the platform. The infamous lack of moderation of abuse on the site left me to expect few positive outcomes. Even from friends, advice of “just be careful what threads you’re active on and you’ll be fine” left me with a feeling of uneasiness, still not wanting to become a user myself – in that restriction, I felt slight remorse. Here is a platform with great potential to shape new ways of community building and user intractability. But because of how these interactions have been conducted, I felt like the only safe option I had was to excuse myself as a user altogether.

In confronting my own reservations about Reddit and YikYak, I realized that I was actually confronting the darkness that lies with anonymity as a defining factor of Internet community spaces. Users continue to crave spaces like this, where they can shape their own identity as they see it, while being free to interact with other users in this liberating space. As we’ve seen in other community spaces online (PostSecret, for example) there is a cathartic freedom in being able to positively interact while retaining user anonymity.

It’s important for user-anonymous spaces to exist online. Marginalized and at-risk populations cannot always conjugate and interact with each other openly. Allowing users to safely interact with each other without requiring they disclose their full identities does allow for genuine bonding to occur. But despite our best efforts, accessibility is not always included in the creation of these networks… both the execution and the steps available to regulate them worry me. It is this question that I’m left pondering: is it possible to create these spaces without making efforts to counteract trolling, abuse or other effects of “toxic Internet culture”?

It’s uncertain that this issue can be solved on one platform, or even in just recognizing “toxic Internet culture” as an issue. Rather, a solution can come in Internet culture overhaul. If multiple spaces recognized and responded to the issues that come along with open user anonymity and a lack of regulation, then perhaps there would be more Internet counter-culture. The knee-jerk response is to simply write off toxic Internet culture as a non-issue plaguing our online spaces. Instead, by acknowledging it and making efforts to change it, users will be better equipped to defend themselves and be more confident online, with or without concealing their identities.

The idea of anonymity in Internet spaces to create bonding and community-building is a valid one. As the Internet evolves, so do our ways of interacting with each other. That’s what is great about it – this evolution sates our natural human curiosity, fills us with the excitement of possibility. But in order to give full reign to users to create our best selves and best Internet creations, we must be willing to acknowledge the shortcomings that our online spaces may have, and challenge ourselves to fix them. It isn’t enough to let naivety lead our positioning of the need for anonymous online spaces. This naivety can range from the assumption that safety regulations will sour anonymous spaces, or that every user has the best intentions when using an online space. Instead, we have the opportunity to dispel this myth, and to reaffirm the underlying strengths of these spaces, thus becoming closer to achieving another quiet goal – for these online spaces, anonymous or otherwise, to become the next phase in countering (and ultimately eliminating) toxic Internet culture.