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Friday, September 24, 2021

The Internet Explorer: Are we really anonymous online?

garcia_opDespite never having lived it, we tend to look back on history in a very nostalgic way. When we contemplate the ‘70s, we think of disco and hair metal bands. When we reminisce about the ‘80s, we remember its huge perms and brat-pack movies. The current era we live in, the Millennial Age, is largely defined by technological advancements and the seeming domination of social media. We now chuckle when we watch older movies in which characters have to turn a knob to change TV channels. Nowadays, you don’t even have to sit on your living room sofa to watch TV.

And yes, with the passing of time there comes inevitable change. But unlike the once-prevalent neon scrunchies and acid-washed denim, the Internet is here to stay. In other words, the Internet and social media use are not fads.

A 2015 study revealed that Internet use among adults in the United States increased from about 14 percent to 87 percent, in the relatively short timespan of 20 years. This depicts a 73 percent overall increase and a 3.65 percent average increase every year since 1995. A related study found that 65 percent of American adults use at least one social networking site. The data ultimately inspires the question of why membership on these sites keeps growing. It at least makes me wonder about the underlying intrigue of social media. Is there a pressure to conform to a new social norm? With the ubiquity of smartphones, is it just a case of easy access? While both possibilities are credible, there may be a more psychologically sound reason for increasing social media use: the possibility of anonymity.

Facebook was the first major social networking site to garner mainstream popularity among adults. With roughly 1.5 billion members, Facebook illustrates the allure of social networking’s ability to foster and maintain relationships. Another recent study reveals social tendencies particular to Facebook users. On average, people who frequent the site are more trusting than others, are much more politically engaged than most people, have more close relationships and are half as likely to be socially isolated. In short, these behaviors indicate online socializing and its positive outcomes in the offline world. Social media sites create a space for people to express themselves in ways that they otherwise wouldn’t. Maybe they are only able to contact certain people online, or they want the option to link pictures, videos and other resources to opinions that they may have. But most important, the Internet fundamentally allows users a certain degree of anonymity.

While our ‘about me’ section provides personal information like our name and occupation, it also keeps us accountable for the things we post online. There is something about digital space that compels people to share their lives and communicate their thoughts to an audience. There is something to be said about the First Amendment right to anonymous speech and social media’s own faculty for projecting an online pseudonym. For instance, many other sites like Twitter, Tumblr and YouTube popularized the concept of usernames, which one carefully fashions when registering for these accounts. It’s as if these social media sites require the invention of an online persona immediately upon registration. While coming up with a username can invite creativity and some fabrication, this process does not strike users as strange.

A 2013 Stanford dissertation cited the suggestion that the Internet may be the “greatest innovation in speech since the invention of the printing press.” It explains that “[t]he rapid growth of Internet communication and Internet commerce has raised novel and complex legal issues and has challenged existing legal doctrine in many areas.”

In other words, near-universal use of online pseudonyms has promoted a culture in which users are free to say and do things they never would in face-to-face interactions. Online interactions have encouraged necessary political conversations relating to civil rights and the fate of our society at the hands of government and corporate greed. As the Facebook data suggest, having a documented online persona encourages political participation, an absolutely essential condition of a properly functioning democracy.

Then how does the perception of online anonymity relate to the growth social media has seen through recent years? While social media facilitates communication between nonlocal people, it has many more features that transcend this immediate need. There are photo filters on Instagram and Snapchat, security settings on Facebook and hashtags on Twitter. There are also websites geared toward anonymous posting, such as Whisper and Yik Yak. These features are extraneous if the principal purpose of social media is to maintain relationships with people we know. They allow us to either embellish aspects of our lives or allow us to express ourselves on our own terms, unabashedly and with no seeming consequences. Somehow, sitting behind a screen gives an illusory sense of confidence for us to publically express convictions.

The Internet is perceived as  an outlet for sharing private thoughts without much accountability, but there is no real anonymity online. While the logistics are unknown and imperceptible to us, we know from media hearsay that nothing is ever removed from the Internet and that there is always a way to trace online posts. Despite acknowledging the cryptic nature of the Internet, we are still compelled to upload our photos and express contentious beliefs.

There are two answers to the underlying question, “are we really anonymous online?” On one hand, we know that the Internet is this black hole of mystery where our identities are not safe. On the other hand, usernames invite people to participate in political conversations in ways that they otherwise wouldn’t, which compels promotion of democratic ideals. In this sense, social media is granting us some security.

Social media is not a fad. It is a fountain of communication that will continue to foster legitimate conversations and diverse means through which we can express ourselves.

You can reach JAZMIN GARCIA at msjgarcia@ucdavis.edu.

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