I recently gave a talk about Messy Practices, and in it, I was focused on the physical and digital practices of academics, and how and why they are unbounded by Institutions (however much Institutions might like that not to be the case). It occurs to me (not for the first time, and yeah, I am Not The Only One) that identity is also messy. And I’ve been thinking about that this week for a very particular reason.
It will come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with my, my work or my ubiquitous presence on Twitter that I think a lot in the presence of other people. I believe I think more effectively in the company of others. Alone I can only get so far. Workshops provide me with additional opportunities to do this kind of thinking–I always show up with a very similiar powerpoint, and with a set of points I would like to arrive at, but the people in the room and the interactions we have around the ideas I am presenting, make each workshop different.
I really enjoy it.
So this past Monday I had the pleasure of working at USC Upstate, at the invitation of Cindy Jennings. Their Quality Enhancement Program (QEP) group wanted to spend some time thinking about digital practices, both as individuals and as members of an institution. We did individual V and R mapping and then also using institutional maps (debuted in October in Bristol, with the Jisc Digital Leadership course).
In the process of discussing the nature of presence, and working our way towards the possibilities of Residency in academic life, one participant started wondering aloud about the role of anonymous web presence. She began from her experience with online newspaper commentariat–so many of the anonymous comments she encountered were negative and not-productive, they ended up driving her away from participating visibly in the comments section (an experience not at all unique to this person of course). She wondered first about whether anonymous web presence could be “Resident” because we have been defining such presences as findable in some way–either highly visible by Googling, or visible in bounded communities to those who are also members.
But if who you are is not linked to the content of what you are putting online, what then?
If Identities are performances, requiring an audience of at least one, where do we put Anonymous web presences on the Visitor-Resident continuum?
I think it’s possible that it doesn’t matter.
Because the mapping process has never really been about typologies or absolute taxonomies of practice. It is a tool to facilitate discussions about motivation.
So rather than ask “What is Anonymous Web Presence?” it is more useful to ask about Why. Why anonymous? What are the motivations to anonymity?
And if we think in terms of pseudonyms, we can begin to see some of the reasons why. Let’s set aside for the moment the “So they can Troll and Bully and generally be Unaccountable for their Bad Behavior on the Web.” Because: the internet is made of people, and we can stipulate that some of them are indeed assholes.
Pseudonymous presence on the web still allows for identity to accrue. This has been true for noms de plumes, stage names, alter egos, supervillain aliases. Groups of people who are collectively anonymous to the outside, but known to each other within their group, likewise accrue the “stuff” of identity, being attributed character, values, and responsibility for actions.
These anonymous individuals, however, may not accrue that identity stuff. Their actions may not be recognizably linked to who they are. This lack of accrual can be the point. What if you are black and want to see what happens to your voice when not filtered through structural and individual racism? What if you are an artist who wants to find another part of your voice without being hampered by what people think you are already capable of? What if you are anyone who would like to see what it’s like to be unbounded by the categories people have already put you into?
So, this is why people have multiple Twitter accounts, why they join online communities under different names, why Facebook’s insistence that you use your “real name” is such a problem. We see the tension between Being Yourself Online and Finding Your Voice. Holistic, “authentic” web presence isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.
Students, novices, anyone trying things out and wanting to see what happens might well value the freedom that comes from anonymity, the ability to try something on and discard it without it scuffing the identity that everyone already knows them by. Anonymity can facilitate creativity, risk-taking, a feeling of safety.
Safety is not just relevant in situations where people are trying out ideas, creating art, taking academic risks, but of course in political and social activism, where there are risks to people’s physical and legal well-being if they are easily identifiable.
This is not news. But in the context of talking about behavior online, the notion of “anonymous trolls” comes up often enough, I think it’s worth interrogating, and also making visible the variety of non-toxic anonymous and pseudonymous presences that people cultivate on the web. I am not interested in unmasking people, but I am interested in having more public conversations about the motivations to be hidden while making work and words visible.