Anonymous storytelling can be liberating and increase sharing, but it can also enable trolling and propaganda.
The World Wide Web offers unprecedented opportunities for anyone with a computer and internet connection to share ideas and information. Much of what gets shared seems to be helpful, or at least interesting. But the ability to be anonymous online can also encourage bad behavior. At The Doe, we are convinced the benefits of sharing anonymous stories far outweigh the disadvantages, but it is important to acknowledge both the pros and the cons.
The Bright Side of Anonymity
Most of us have something to say that we’d be nervous about sharing if we had to identify ourselves. The things that we are afraid to share openly may cover a wide range of topics, but expressing opinions, experiences or reflections on those topics could still be valuable to someone. Going anonymous makes it possible to share with minimal risk.
We know from extensive experience with surveys and interviews that people hesitate to share sensitive information or unpopular opinions, at least with survey researchers. This reluctance goes beyond the sort of sensitive topics or information that most of us could name. Promises of confidentiality or anonymity might help though. What’s the takeaway for online discourse? Anonymity can confer several benefits.
Some people might not share their struggles openly, but they may be willing to write about them anonymously. It could be a cheap form of therapy and perhaps a source of inspiration for people facing a similar challenge.
Improved Information Sharing
The stories that people share under the cover of anonymity can also be informative. Perhaps someone struggling with a similar dilemma (“Do I come out to my religious family as an atheist?”) will find a practical idea they can use to make the experience easier or manage any negative reactions from their families.
Reduced Psychological Stress
Do not underestimate the power of being freed from worries about judgement and conflict. Many people have opinions or ideas that may cause serious conflict within a family, with a romantic partner or at work. Who wants to risk being fired for their personal beliefs? Having a place to share these experiences anonymously can help lower the associated mental burden.
By sharing your experiences anonymously online, your positive message can reach more people with less effort on your part. The ubiquitous nature of social media is a boon for people with stories and ideas to share in that sense. It doesn’t matter if you are a good writer or a polished public speaker. It doesn’t matter if you are comfortable sharing your story or not because no one knows who you are.
Anonymity is valuable in so many ways, but being able to hide behind an online identity also enables some socially undesirable behaviors.
The Dark Side of Anonymity
Anything that has benefits will have risks or costs as well—anonymous posting is no different. Being able to share anonymously also has a dark side to be aware of.
Anonymous writers may be taken less seriously by some. Readers may suspect the stories are made up if they aren’t coming from an identifiable person. If you are anonymous, you don’t face any real consequences for making up a story and passing it off as something real or sharing negative and misleading information.
People can also use anonymous stories to slander others and organizations. Many will dismiss an anonymous story as fake or exaggerated—but many will not. This is a universal problem with the human mind and the biases that everyone has. Fake stories about unpleasant encounters with men, women or minorities fall into this category.
Online anonymity can provide cover for trolls. These are two overlapping groups. You have people who hide behind fake online identities to attack any group for pretty much any reason. Other anonymous people might share fake or misleading stories about things that happened to them. Anonymity also gives you cover to attack popular ideas or people (i.e., become the troll yourself).
Misinformation might spread more easily when the writer can remain anonymous. How many people will openly share their unpopular opinions face-to-face? Some people may feel comfortable doing this sort of thing, but it’s much easier to post these thoughts online and let them spread. They can reach more people with less effort and avoid any social consequences. Spreading hateful rhetoric or false information at work is a good way to get fired. If you can hide behind an avatar and a made-up username online, nothing much can happen. Banned from a platform? Create a new account and try again.
Anonymity Is Worth It
Being able to share anonymous stories, while indeed having drawbacks, offers writers a comfort level with sharing sensitive information or controversial ideas that they otherwise might not share. The information and the inspirational values of those anonymous narratives could be lost if the writers had to identify themselves. It is true that anonymity may invite behaviors like trolling, but anonymity is a crucial part of rebuilding discourse and engaging with new ideas. If you enjoyed this post, please share it with friends and subscribe so you don’t miss out on new content.