Internet Anonymity: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Since its inception little more than one month ago, the Facebook page “Emory Secrets” — dedicated to collecting and sharing secrets submitted by Emory students and faculty — has grown immensely in popularity. More than 900 contributions have already been posted, which averages to about 30 posts per day. These posts range from the banal to the daunting, covering topics as diverse as grades, relationships, family difficulties, opinions on Emory and sexual assault.

The allure of anonymity makes Emory Secrets appealing to posters and readers alike. Posters can rest assured that their identities will not be compromised by their potentially inflammatory opinions or secrets, while readers can gain insight to some mysterious person’s closely-guarded thoughts.

Of course, the concept of anonymity is a double-edged sword, making forums such as Emory Secrets at once beneficial and dangerous. Without the potential for a damaged reputation, one is free to say whatever he or she wishes without ramification. This experience can be cathartic, as in the case of a victim of abuse who has never had a chance to tell his or her story for fear of negative consequences. Conversely, one can abuse the privilege of anonymity by using it as an outlet for repressed depravity or malicious thoughts.

Emory students may remember an example of this latter instance in the form of College Anonymous Confession Board, or CollegeACB.com. Now defunct, this site gained popularity both at Emory and nationwide before being met with controversy ranging from general opposition to the (largely belligerent) content of the boards to accusations of defamation.

Users on CollegeACB.com could choose to remain anonymous, thus avoiding the accountability associated with, say, posting the same opinions on Facebook or voicing them in public.

Accountability is important when looking at virtual mediums such as CollegeACB.com or Emory Secrets: it is relatively nonexistent. Considering the unique popularity of these anonymous boards among college-aged young adults, it seems that we are drawn to forums in which we can avoid taking responsibility when it comes to what we say. That college kids can be irresponsible is nothing new, but there is a profound difference between going to class hungover three days out of the week and anonymously posting on Emory Secrets. The latter allows students to experiment with their own ideas in a safe space while gauging the public reaction to them.

Proponents of existentialism will say that refusing to be held responsible for your actions or beliefs is inauthentic, and this may be true. Putting on a Guy Fawkes mask and parading down Wall Street with a sign reading “We are the 99 percent” strips you of your individuality; a true individual would take pride in his or her stance and remove the mask.

However, there are undeniably instances in which a mask is necessary. Batman and Spiderman wear masks to protect their true identities in order to continue working for the cause of good. A donor may choose to remain anonymous when contributing to a political campaign in order to avoid backlash. Similarly, a student with a sensitive story to share may submit it to Emory Secrets if for no other reason than to get it off his or her chest.

To be sure, the anonymity afforded by Emory Secrets is no nobler than it is insidious — it is ultimately up to the individual. Such power does bear some responsibility, even while donning the mask of unaccountability. If the medium is used for ill purposes, at the very least it can be used as a learning tool to figure out the extent of this responsibility. At its best, however, a forum such as Emory Secrets can help people vent and discuss ideas and foster a sense of community which is unfortunately lacking at Emory.

Anonymity can take many forms. It can be the anonymous donation to a charity, or the anonymous bomb threat at an elementary school. It is both Batman in its heroism and Scarecrow in its villainy — a veil behind which hide saints and sinners alike. With Emory Secrets, as in all aspects of life, we must take the good with the evil and hope that the former prevails.

William Hupp is a College sophomore from Little Rock, Ark.