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The two sides of anonymity

| Friday, February 13, 2015

As humans, we experience a universal desire for connection, and in the age of social media this desire has only become more obvious. Various social networking sites that help us associate with others digitally allow us to be in contact with anyone, anywhere and at any time. However, one of the most vital human interactions is conversation: the act of saying our thoughts and having someone willing to listen and respond.

It is crucial that we have opportunities for constructive dialogue, particularly within a college campus community. It is necessary that students feel their voices can be heard in a respectful forum. The student body’s obvious desire for campus-wide conversation is demonstrated by participation in various events, lectures and panels, but also is latent in more controversial forums like Yik Yak.

What makes Yik Yak unique is its anonymity, a feature of the app that has the potential to destroy constructive conversation as much as it provides a place for candid confessions. Having access to an anonymous voice gives the app’s users the courage to say things they might not admit otherwise, but it also lends itself to the ignorance and cowardice that comes from hiding behind a social media mask.

There are two extremes that come with anonymity: the positive and negative. Yik Yak has often shown us the negative side of this coin, with users sharing discriminatory and hurtful messages with no accountability. But the positive results of anonymous speech can be found on campus as well. Forums like Loyal Daughters and Sons and Show Some Skin are constructive and empowering, giving voices to people who have been hurt or victimized and allowing them to use this verbalization to help in their healing.

By its nature, anonymity magnifies the impact of what is said. In forums such as Loyal Daughters and Sons or Show Some Skin, presenting stories through anonymous voices provides a sense of universality to the accounts shared, allowing others to better understand these incidents that they did not personally experience. When anecdotes about campus life are shared through Show Some Skin and Loyal Daughters and Sons, we gather to listen, empathize, reflect and discuss, and anonymity helps us do so more productively.

On the other hand, when users on Yik Yak capitalize on the app’s anonymity, often it is the ignorant and hateful voices that are heard the loudest and given the most weight. These voices might not represent the Notre Dame community at large, but behind a mask of anonymity and upvotes, we are bombarded with as many hurtful messages as helpful, and one voice can seem to represent many.

What’s more, Yik Yak’s medium doesn’t allow for contemplation. As quickly as something is posted — whether poignant and interesting or hurtful and ignorant — the post disappears, and opportunities for further discussion are gone.

The popularity of Yik Yak may speak to a campus-wide desire for conversation, but we must ask ourselves whether the lack of accountability damages the potential for meaningful and productive conversation.

We all want to feel comfortable sharing our thoughts, opinions and experiences, and while anonymity can be a useful way to start a conversation, it can’t simply end there. Only by speaking to each other — having that essential human conversation — will our anonymous comments begin to take shape into productive dialogue.


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