By Martin Consing
Colloquially, anonymity refers to situations wherein a participating individual’s name is not known: a face in the crowd, a post in an online forum, a man in a mask. These are literal interpretations of what it means to be anonymous. On a deeper level, the central idea of anonymity is that a person is non-identifiable, unreachable, or untraceable: a customer at the grocery, a conversation between strangers, a voter at an election.
Anonymity provides people with opportunities to dissociate themselves from their usual personas, and these opportunities are often gladly accepted. People become anonymous for three major reasons: removal of personal responsibility, relief from cognitive dissonance, and the need to belong. Ultimately, people become anonymous because the only alternative is to be an outcast, to become a victim of necropolitics.
Removal of personal responsibility. In 2005, communication professor Craig Scott of Rutgers University suggested that anonymity may reduce the accountability one perceives to have for their actions, and removes the impact these actions might otherwise have on their reputation. Thus, anonymity can be used to support an activity or belief that one does not or cannot openly support without negative feedback or retaliation of some sort, and one method for achieving the state of anonymity is by being in a crowd.
An individual in a crowd can act in a way that would normally have caused retaliation because in a crowd, the focus of any negative feedback or retaliation is diffused among many individuals rather than set on that one individual. This is what causes a usually rational individual to act erratically, immorally, or unethically, when part of a large, unchecked group.
The diffusion of personal responsibility is the primary cause of the social psychological phenomenon known as the bystander effect: an individual does not offer any help to a victim in the presence of other people under the assumption that someone else will render aid, easing his burden of responsibility. In a group effort, this also implies that to fulfill a given task, an individual’s willingness to contribute diminishes as the group increases in size.
Relief from cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time. This is usually the result of either forced compliance (doing something under threat), decision making (when a decision invokes an unwanted cost), and effort (when a new habit is consciously being developed). Many times, cognitive dissonance comes from the desire to do something which is not socially accepted, or the practice thereof.
Anonymity’s potential to encourage individualistic thought and even unpopular action isn’t restricted to crowd psychology. In conversational settings, anonymity may allow people to reveal personal history and feelings without fear of later embarrassment. In 2001, cyberpsychology professor Adam Joinson of West England University suggested that digital communication in the form of voice calling, text messaging, or through the internet grants a level of anonymity to the correspondents; because they do not need to communicate face-to-face and can thus be considered “faceless”, even when the correspondents know each other, they feel more free to divulge information they may have held back when speaking in person.
This anonymity is due to the correspondents’ reduced ability to receive any negative feedback or the ability to filter it altogether, such as through social networking sites. Thus, this increases the likelihood of an individual doing things which may usually be considered rude because they are dissociated from the consequences of their actions.
The need to belong. While anonymity encourages a level of freedom of thought and free flow of ideas impossible without it, anonymity also has the ability to discourage them, according to the social identity theory of crowd psychology, an idea first introduced in 1966 by American psychologist Joy Paul Guilford. The social identity theory refers to the idea that an individual defines himself by his membership and non-membership in various social groups, all driven by his instinctual need to belong.
It has been proposed that because these groups define themselves by their various moral and behavioral values and norms, the individual’s actions depend on which group membership or non-membership is most personally outstanding at the time of action. This influence is evidenced by findings that, often, when the stated purpose and values of a group changes, the values and motives of its members are shown to also change.
Thus, if a crowd is primarily related to some identifiable group, such as a religious group or political party, then the values of that group will dictate crowd action. In a protest, such a group dynamic is shown through the protesters themselves. A church gathering creates a similar group dynamic, as might a coincidental gathering of students from the same university, or college organization. Two compatriots in another country who know nothing about each other but their shared nationality also experience this effect of the social identity theory. Even nameless and anonymous, they identify themselves at that moment by the movement they have joined, not by their other associations or experiences. Quite literally, the situation is subconsciously interpreted as distinguishing between “us” or “them”.
In other words, they identify themselves through their anonymity.
Ironically, most people partake in these moments of anonymity in order to avoid anonymous ostracization, also known as necropolitics (first coined by French political scientist Achille Mbembe in 2003). Here, an individual is shunned by a social group or circle to the extent of his involvement with that group for failing to comply to its standards: A school expels a student, a father disowns a son, a boss fires a worker, a couple breaks up, and friends drift apart. Ultimately, the threat of separation is exactly what keeps us together, even if it means suppressing certain parts of who we are, even if it sometimes means being someone you are not, doing things that aren’t you.
We can only trade one kind of anonymity for another.
When he’s not pretending to sleep, Martin Consing likes to pretend he’s listening to music so he can eavesdrop on your conversations.