There is no shortage of anonymous online communities on a university campus, whether it be the updates of ‘spotted’ individuals engaging in out-of-the-ordinary behaviour, the online personas or usernames that mask real names on forums and discussion groups, or mobile applications like Yik Yak, an anonymous feed of posts from other students on campus. While students have used email to communicate on campus for several years, there has been a shift in the way the internet settles into its role as not just a medium, but an influence on campus.
Stefan Sinclair, associate professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, teaches a course called Understanding Digital and Social Media, and focuses on the concept of ‘Digital Humanities.’ He explained how the internet started as a place of anonymity, and how it has evolved from there.
“In the earliest days of the web, anonymity was extremely important,” Sinclair said. “This was what was celebrated, [and] you could create a community where everyone was anonymous [….] There was this perception that what was virtual was […] ephemeral and didn’t matter [….] There [was] this pride of this non-regimented, non-regulated community.”
Although the days of internet anonymity are far from over, Sinclair pointed out that there has been a definite change over time.
“[With things like] Facebook and Google Plus, it was a shift where you use your real identity,” Sinclair said. “You’re not allowed to be anonymous; you have to use your real name [….] That’s a real switch, and it’s for justifiable reasons from their perspective because [these companies] want people to [form] into networks and to be invested in that.”
Yet regardless of whether people immerse themselves more often in the profile-based aspect or the anonymous behind-the-username side of social media, the internet today is continuing to foster a very different type of community.
“I call these communities of affirmation,” said Ronald Niezen, professor in the Faculty of Law, referencing an article he wrote in 2013 on online communities. “That’s a term for online communities and identities that form around something that would, without the internet, not be widely accepted by people of society, for people who feel lonely and isolated.”
Scott Kushner, new media studies scholar and graduate program director at the McGill Writing Centre, also noted that these online communities haveplayed their part in campus discourse.
“There were some [discussions online] that were really active in 2012 during the student strikes [and] the occupation of the James [Administration] Building, and a lot of that was anonymous,” Kushner said. “Maybe [those people] didn’t have access to a place to express an opinion in the first place [….] This was a way to potentially come together and talk to other people and find a way to take some sort of action that might have more of an impact on the state of affairs.”
Often, the concept of these communities lies in the situation—or perhaps, opportunities—that anonymity affords. Yet who’s to say what this lack of face-to-face communication may result in? Furthermore, how are online personas different, if at all, from ‘real life’ ones?
Kushner pointed out that having a different persona is not necessarily a new concept, despite the novelty of the internet.
“There [are] centuries […] of stories of people lying or misrepresenting themselves or their backgrounds in order to fool someone else,” Kushner said. “There’s a whole branch in the humanities studies called ‘performance studies,’ which is rooted in the idea that everything we do socially is in some sense a performance.”
“It’s a strange thing, the online sense of self,” Niezen noted. “Because people find it easier to make attachments, because you can find people instantly […] and it prevents you in some sense from feeling alone. But then there isn’t—as in most communities—senses of position and obligation and reciprocity that […] are much deeper in ‘lived communities.’ So it’s also easier for people to detach and move on, and that is something that anonymity facilitates.”
Dr. Darin Barney, associate professor in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies and author of the book The Network Society, explained how the dual characteristics of anonymous interactions reflect the dual nature of the world as a whole.
“Anonymity in the networked environment is liberating and therefore threatening to established conventions—sometimes for better, sometimes for worse,” Barney said. “Digital settings are things in and of the world so, like the world, they are awful and wonderful at the same time.”
Perhaps one of the most common examples of online detachment and a lost sense of obligation is online harassment, where anonymity can play a less-than-favourable role.
“They’re not thinking about the impact,” said Dr. Shaheen Shariff, associate professor in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education, who has focused on cyberbullying in her work and research. “They’re only thinking about the entertainment value to their peers, and they’re forgetting about the person at the other end [….] Where is that line between joking and fun and posting that could involve criminal harassment [and] defamation that could ruin somebody’s reputation? [...] The more people who are involved in an incident of bullying, the longer it lasts. Online, it spreads quickly. It can involve an infinite amount of people. The mob psychology online takes over.”
Niezen noted that these types of negative voices can lead to other changes within these internet communities as well—changes that seek to add structure to an otherwise free-for-all arena.
“Some people take malicious pleasure in acting in anonymity,” Niezen said. “But what that does, too, is that […] it leads communities to create protections against it. So I think that it makes the online communities seek a greater cohort effect [….] It creates boundaries that might not have otherwise existed […] so that too has an effect in encouraging or creating online communities to be .more resistant.”
“There’s still sort of a social behaviour that [is] governed by social norms and internet etiquette—‘netiquette’—that we sort of implicitly developed, that are constantly being negotiated as well,” Sinclair said.
Gabriella Coleman, who holds the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill and focuses on hackers and digital activism, noted that anonymous communities are not exclusively vicious.
“I think that way too often there’s just this idea that anonymity brings out the worst in people,” Coleman said. “I actually just think that it really depends on the context under which anonymous speech occurs. When you have trolling websites […] anonymity [can bring] out the worst in people [….] Whereas in something like patient forums or advice boards that are very topic-specific, they’re often very anonymous but the kind of atmosphere and etiquette is very civil and very giving, and the production of anonymity allows people to be very honest.”
Shariff, however, explained that there will be much to be improved upon in the online world.
“There’s a lot of potential use for those forums if communities can come together in a positive way,” Shariff said. “If that is encouraged more among young people, if there’s some kind of [role] modelling that can be done through those online communities, then hopefully it can turn things around.”
Sean Beatty, a moderator for the McGill ‘subreddit,’ one of the anonymous online platforms on Reddit that is used to discuss many aspects of the university and campus life, explained that though the subreddit hosts a community, there is room for it to grow and be used in a positive way.
“It’s definitely an under-utilized resource,” Beatty said. “It would be good to have more campus engagement, because it’s somewhere that people can talk and connect [….] We’ve been looking to bring in people from health and wellness at McGill. There [are] people [who] are isolated and may only reach out in that environment [on subReddit.]”
Despite these differences that have become more apparent between the online and offline worlds, there seems to be an onset of a sense of convergence between the two. According to Kushner, there are differences, but not necessarily divisions, between what is seen on-screen and on campus.
“I don’t buy the division,” Kushner said. “Facebook is real life […] because we experience it in our real lives [....] It’s not like we take out our phones and log into Facebook and suddenly we’re not real anymore. We’re still real people, we still have real relationships, we still have real complicated lives. It’s just another way of […] experiencing those relationships.”
On campus, it can feel as though much of the day-to-day conversations happen on Facebook or via email. Though many students undoubtedly interact with others online, Kushner noted that it might be misleading to say that the way they use the internet is a disparate experience from in-person interactions.
“The university experience—the experience of just living in 2014—involves an enormous amount of social activity that happens through different types of network computing platforms,” Kushner said. “And that’s real. It has real social impacts and real social consequences.”