February 4, 2014

Amnesty for anonymity

Benefits of anonymity are often overlooked.

We seek anonymity when we choose the cubicles of the Reg over the tables of the A-Level, or sit in the back of a lecture hall instead of the front. But we also criticize its presence in radical online forums, in falsified surveys, in discussions that devolve into derogatory epithets. And because of its oft-detrimental effects, we too often overlook those moments when anonymity, instead of enabling cruelty, brings out the best in people.

College is often cast as a chance to start over and create yourself anew, regardless of who you were back home. To be honest, that never made much sense to me. Sure, people here don’t know all the stupid things you did in high school, and they will largely accept as truth the identity you present. But in the words of Neil Gaiman, “Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.” College is not a blank slate, no matter how hard you try. You bring yourself with you—your background, your learning style, your conception of the world—and you subject yourself to a new array of judgments. It’s easy to talk about a welcoming and open-minded campus, so we ignore the reality of things like the cliques that form during O-Week based on merely fleeting impressions. Still, we divide ourselves into groups based on perceived similarities, and judge others by their assimilation to those quasi-norms.

Anonymity, however, erases all of that. When you’re nothing but a line of text on a computer screen or a stencil scrawled on a bathroom stall, there is no outside information. There is no snap judgment based on race, gender, height, weight, voice, clothing style, body language, bearing, facial expression—your identity is only the words you choose to write.

We are well-acquainted with the negative side of this, the multitude of atrocities (and no, I don’t think that’s an exaggeration) that anonymity brings. Though certain online forums (like 4chan’s /b/) are prominent examples, there are countless pettier instances of cruelty: the offensive graffiti in the corner of one classroom at my high school, or the the infamous Politically Incorrect UChicago (now Maroon) Confessions page on Facebook.

But in the majority of cases of anonymous expression—the ones that don’t drive teenagers to suicide or compromise diversity at our college—people are often funny, open, and kind. The girl’s bathroom stalls at Harper are covered in a constantly-expanding network of comments, everything from “Life is a bitch, but she is totally doable” (and the attendant remark criticizing its sexism) to “Chin up, lovely! You’ll be fine!” to the thoughtful and supportive paragraphs on eating disorders recently referenced in Annie Hao’s wonderful “Behind Closed Doors” (12/3/13). Or there’s UChicago Crushes (despite its occasional creepiness) where amongst the posts seeking the name of that cute, tall, bespectacled barista or appreciating dat ass in Ratner, there are tributes to single mothers, best friends, and supportive RAs. And while UChicago Crushes may be the most frequented page of this format, others, like UChicago Safety Net, tap still further into the positive benefits of anonymity.

The difference between supportive and destructive anonymity lies in the community itself, achieved by establishing a space from the very beginning that is dedicated to support. Politically Incorrect Maroon Confessions was never going to be an open and encouraging community—it set out with an aim that necessarily included offending and harming certain students. But at the same time, the Harper bathroom stalls were never fated to be the surprisingly encouraging group forum they are now. This began slowly, with a few thought-provoking comments, and grew organically into what it is now.

Anonymity enables people to distance themselves from their words, to separate their identity from their opinions. But assuming this erasure of identity causes people to say horrible and offensive things assumes that most people are secretly horrible and offensive. In actuality, anonymity often enables people to seek help and  offer encouragement in a way they normally would never attempt. Deep in the throes of winter-quarter cynicism, it’s refreshing to see that separating words from judgment leads not to petty cruelty, but to honesty and support.

Ellen Wiese is a first-year in the College.