If you find your name and telephone number followed by “call for a good time” etched into a bathroom stall, at least only those who happen upon that stall will read it.
Today, people do not have the same luxury, however, as anonymous postings once scratched on bathroom walls, carved on park benches and inked on classroom desks have moved online.
Message boards, online forums and blogs are replacing the more rudimentary forms of anonymous communication and creating an appealing way for people to express their thoughts and opinions.
“There is a certain distance between people online, so it is possible to hide your identity,” said Michael Wesch, sociology professor. “On the other hand, it is a very public space, so it allows you to be completely hidden yet in total public.
“It is a unique thing that is hard to do in real life.”
HOSTILITY AND BIGOTRY ONLINE
While online anonymity has allowed people to communicate more candidly, it also has inspired more malicious behavior.
“You get complete hatred — like unabashed hatred — and people saying horrible things,” Wesch said. “The other side is you sometimes see people caring for people and expressing love for people they wouldn’t feel comfortable doing in public.”
JuicyCampus.com, a relatively new Web site, is becoming a popular way for students to express thoughts and opinions without giving up their identities. The site, launched in August 2007, already has forums for 500 campuses.
Students can post whatever information they want on the site completely anonymously.
On K-State’s JuicyCampus forum, like most others colleges’, the topics often single out specific students, greek houses or organizations.
Chris Swope, junior in accounting, said he has seen his name on JuicyCampus several times.
“It’s scary knowing anybody can write whatever they want, whether it’s true or not, and you might never find out who wrote it,” Swope said. “Keeping the site anonymous really brings out the worst in people.”
As the site has grown, so has its opposition as several schools have attempted to ban the site. Tennessee State University became the first public school to ban the site, blocking it on all computers using the school’s Internet services.
Wesch said he thinks people post such comments on sites like JuicyCampus because they are looking for attention.
“There a certain aspect of wanting to be noticed and to confirm your existence in a way,” he said. “That screen is very distancing, and if you can create a reaction from somebody, it makes you feel a connection, even it’s a bad connection.”
Richard Harris, psychology professor, said it is not surprising to see people act maliciously when they can be anonymous.
Stanley Milgram’s “Obedience” series — famous psychological studies from the 1960s — showed people were more willing to hurt a test subject if they had less of a connection with that person, Harris said. He said this same principle explains why people act more maliciously when they have anonymity.
“Anything that makes it more personal is going to make it less likely for someone to behave in a mean sort of way,” Harris said.
DEALING WITH ONLINE POSTINGS
For some, message boards and forums are fun to read until their name appears with a demeaning comment. Students must decide how to respond.
Tom Gould, mass communications professor, said he sees anonymous postings about himself on TEVALS and Web sites like ratemyprofessor.com.
“It seems to me that if you don’t have the wherewithal to actually sign a real name, then it pretty much doesn’t matter,” he said. “Anyone who pays attention to anonymous postings has way too much time on their hands. To me, they are of no particular interest or value.”
Even if students want people to stop writing about them online, Gould said they cannot do much.
“We have the right to free speech, so there is nothing you can do to stop somebody from posting whatever they want online, with some reasonable constraints,” Gould said. “Obviously if someone says something really rotten about you, it feels bad, but if they haven’t signed their name to it, who really cares?”
Harris also said he thinks people should ignore anonymous postings about themselves.
“You can’t respond to everything that is out there about you, and sometimes when you do respond it increases attention to it, and that is the opposite of what you want,” he said.
HOW ANONYMOUS IS ANONYMOUS?
While sites like JuicyCampus advertise 100-percent anonymity, it is hard to be completely anonymous on the Internet.
“If you say something about someone online, and you think that you’re anonymous and you can’t be tracked, that is just not true,” Gould said. “You can be tracked down; your IP address can be tracked down.”
“In the end, most of what we do is trackable,” Wesch said. “There’s a constant race for people to be anonymous.”
IMPORTANCE OF ANONYMITY
While online anonymity has created a medium for malicious gossip, it also plays an important role in our society.
“Even since the days of our founding fathers, there have been people talking about the importance of being anonymous,” Wesch said. “Revolutionary acts, sometimes, require anonymity.”
Wesch is studying an online movement called “Anonymous” in which people meet anonymously online and participate in activities like planning protests.
The group gained notoriety when it launched a mass protest against the church of Scientology, demonstrating in the Guy Fawkes masks made famous by the movie “V for Vendetta.”
Wesch said “Anonymous” shows how important the ability to stay anonymous can be.
“It’s important to mention the importance of anonymity to a functioning government,” Wesch said. “It’s possible to imagine a situation when people are afraid to speak out, and at that point, I think, we need to have the option to be anonymous.”