When I was growing up, I would often hear about the dangers of the internet. AIM was supposedly a landfill rank with pedophiles, extortionists, and otherwise malicious actors waiting to pounce on the unsuspecting.
By the time I was working with high school students, the warnings had changed. The focus was on reputation, privacy, and the unintended consequences of social media violence.
Now, it’s 2016, and I don’t know what the warnings are. What I do know is that there is a trend among our youth: The rise of anonymous social media.
What is anonymous social media? First and foremost, it’s a term I like to think I came up with. Second, it refers to sites like Whisper, Yik Yak, and Thoughts Around Me. Some have called these “anonymous messaging apps” but I think that is inaccurate. Snapchat is an anonymous messaging app, kind of—the anonymous part is questionable. These are social media sites. They are social in the ways Facebook and Twitter are social. People interact with posts publicly or privately in comment sections, up-vote and down-vote posts, and publish their own material for others to see. That’s social. The key difference is that users are anonymous.
The majority of users range from middle-schoolers to college students. Parents are already being warned about the perils of anonymous social media and some educational institutions have taken steps to ban the sites. Middle-schoolers and college students alike have used them as platforms for complaints about teachers, homework, programs, companies, the government and so on. In some cases, these complaints have resulted in damage to everyday people who are not impervious to large-scale public attacks. One university professor came close to resigning after students tore her apart on Yik Yak.
This is not the only kind of discourse that takes place on the sites, however. In fact, I would argue that injurious discourse is marginal compared with the compassionate and positive discourse. Spend some time on any of the sites that I mentioned and you will see that there is a high degree of sensitivity that dictates how users treat each other, how they rate posts, and what they allow and disallow.
The question then arises: Are anonymous social media sites really worrisome enough to warrant severe action against them or to limit their presence at all levels of education? Some experts have argued that anonymity and anonymous social media sites help people get access to services and overcome social barriers. In my view (as Bernie Sanders would say), there is a desirable culture growing in these sites that we may want to nurture rather than weed out.
Let’s start with the most salient feature of anonymous social media sites, the anonymity. Anonymity grants impressive freedoms. In practice, the sites are testing grounds and support networks. They are places where people can reveal their deepest, darkest secrets and receive all kinds of feedback. Some users just want to interact with those ideas, emotions, beliefs and experiences, whether it be positively or negatively.
This is an example from Thoughts Around Me:
These are trending posts. Some have received upwards of 43 comments and a number of up-votes and down-votes. You may have noticed a shield inside each text block. Those are badges that indicate how active a poster is. The company is probably using an achievement-based marketing tactic to increase post behavior. A number of people have railed against this feature and have asked the company to remove it.
Putting that important aspect aside for now, you can see that the topics are personal, even intimate. People ask for feedback on relationships, psychological troubles, family troubles, etc. Today’s top trending post was about being broken. It received upwards of 40 comments and counting.
In the comment section, the original poster is usually given a distinguishing icon. On Thoughts Around Me, it’s a crown; on Yik Yak, it’s an “OP.”
After a few opening remarks from commenters, the original poster decided to provide some balance and a disclaimer.
This often happens on the site. Those who are genuinely interested in sharing and learning will proclaim their intention of doing so, which reinforces participants to either meet the call to arms, leave, or attack. In many cases, honest and open discourse takes place. The original poster usually acts as a moderator; the commenters give the post traction.
In most cases, heartfelt and human posts such as this one are often met with sensitivity and reciprocity.
And so the exchange continues with some gratitude.
If you develop a connection with someone in particular, you can message them privately and eventually connect with them through another medium. I actually met someone this way. They coincidentally live in New York City. I’ve been to their home, we have gone out, and it’s been wonderful.
What I thought was curious about our interaction was that connecting on a non-anonymous social media site actually seemed like escalating our relationship in a way I hadn’t expected. Revealing my identity and letting someone into my cyber-world felt intimate. It meant more than simply accepting a friend request. I’m a bit of a romantic and I tend to over-think things, but it’s just a personal observation. I am curious to learn the experience of others.
My point is that the anonymity allows for unprejudiced communication, to a greater degree than conventional social media sites, whether it be positive or negative. Notice that the person who posted saying, “Why do girlfriends just winge all day” didn’t receive much positive feedback. Even the trending posts that were heavily commented on didn’t receive 15 up-votes, but this one received 15 down-votes. That notifies the community at large that those kinds of posts are intolerable or frowned upon. It may also inform people’s behavior on a moral level by communicating what language and worldview is either permissible or impermissible. In this context, this reinforcement is particularly powerful because you know close to nothing about the original poster, except what their words made you feel. This brings me to another crucial aspect of anonymous social media sites: the site design.
This policing is important for liability purposes. It is also important because the site design itself imposes standards of conduct that the community then amplifies and upholds. To some extent, the moderator’s job is slightly superfluous. The community tends takes care of offenders efficiently and publicly.
On Yik Yak and Thoughts Around Me, posts disappear after a certain amount of down-votes. If the post isn’t removed quickly enough, people can report them to speed up the process.
Some have described this as digital citizenship, harkening to the dream of a democratic citizenry that demands an open forum, free of insidious prejudices, where freedom of expression and healthy debate are strict mandates. A forum where the refrain, “Attack the idea, not the person,” can truly live out its moral call (Kant is giggling in his grave).
These sites aren’t quite that, but they are certainly a step in that direction. For all the shortfalls, I see worthwhile benefits that will hopefully have positive impacts on digital citizenship and cyber ethics.