Introduction

The summary that Jim (inclinemedia) provided about “fractured culture” and the comments regarding the power of anonymity to democratize conversation sparked an interest for further exploration. While I have never (outside of a class assignment) personally commented on a story of any kind online, I will occasionally review some of the anonymous posts that are associated with them. Often, I am amazed by the viciousness of many of the comments that are openly shared.

Issues

Scott (2004) defined anonymity as “the condition in which a message source is absent or largely unknown to a message recipient” (p. 128). He added a distinction for communication scholars, altering the definition to “the degree to which a communicator perceives the message source is unknown and unspecified” (p. 129). This is an important difference as it is possible in many cases to discern identity online through verbal cues, references or other factors. Some software programs and specific technologies have built-in ability to track and record information and could also be used to identify individuals if needed or desired (Rains & Scott, 2007; Scott, 2004).

The question of whether technology and anonymity leads to democratized conversation is of interest. While the ability to bypass traditional gatekeepers provides power to the common individual, the lack of accountability often provides challenges. Cybersmearing through the sharing online of derogatory untruths about others and flaming, online arguments between participants, are not uncommon. These practices are less about social equalization than they are about questionable judgment and broaches of free speech etiquette. Indeed, defamation does not fall into the category of protected speech, though it seems to occur more frequently through the anonymous nature of online responses than in face-to-face interactions. The perceived lack of accountability by online communicators seems to ignite a willingness to express ideas more commonly kept to oneself. The first amendment preserves the right of free and anonymous expression and in many instances (as with marginalized social groups or personal safety concerns), is beneficial (Scott, 2004). Yet anonymous communication also presents numerous challenges.

Stein (as referenced in Scott, 2004) claimed that anonymity actually “undermines rather than improves public debate on important issues.” Determining how much credibility is warranted for an anonymous source is often an issue. The receiver of a message has to decide how much value to give to the communicator and to the comments (Rains & Scott, 2004). Often, information that is shared anonymously diminishes in value or may be perceived negatively for that reason alone by the receiver. Who to trust or not trust is difficult to discern without an understanding of identity and intent.

Examples

In the health field, anonymous posts are a reason for concern to many medical professionals. Americans today commonly seek out health information from online sources. As with other sites, individual postings are often made anonymously. One study of 255 participants utilized a website designed specifically to acquire information about how individuals respond to information on a health-oriented online site. The results were striking. Anonymous sources were granted the same status by users as clearly identified sources. One suggested reason for this acceptance of anonymous information was the format in which it was provided. Comments were registered through personal narratives, accounts of experiences with similar medical conditions or products, which may have created a connection with readers. Engagement in the story may have led to an acceptance of the credibility of the source. If these results are typical, medical professionals have reason to be concerned. Even well-meaning individuals could post misinformation that would be detrimental to the overall health of many in society if it is accepted as true and valuable. It was suggested that medical practitioners develop methods to educate clients on how best to acquire effective and safe health-related information (Rains, 2007).

In a related way, public schools in much of America are using anonymous communication to provide counseling for students. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a school system contracted with AnComm’s “Talk About It” program to encourage 11 and 12-year olds to “access an online system that includes a cell phone for texting.” This enables students to express concerns and link-up anonymously (electronically) with counselors that can respond in the same way or set-up personal meetings. Officials suggest that the anonymity provided by the system is beneficial as it allows students to relate in a way they are comfortable with, using technology to introduce private concerns (Tuttle, 2010).

Summary

Balancing the power of anonymous communication with issues of credibility and accountability will remain a challenge for some time. Perceptions of anonymity (whether accurate or not) seem to encourage visceral responses. How receivers interpret those is a subject of ongoing research. While arenas such as the health care environment consider educating consumers to make well-informed (from their perspective, at least) decisions, schools and workplaces are among the organizations providing opportunities for anonymous feedback. Anonymity in communication has always occurred, but the technologies of today provide for rapid dissemination and widespread potential influence. There is undoubtedly power in anonymity but it provides many challenges as well. This will certainly be a focal point of additional research as technologies and consumer behavior continues to evolve.

Rains, S. (2007). The anonymity effect: The influence of anonymity on perceptions of sources and information on health websites. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 35(2), 197-214. DOI: 10.1080/00909880701262666

Rains, S., & Scott, C. (2007). Receiver responses to anonymous communication. Communication Theory, 17(1), 61-91. DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.2007.00288.x

Scott, C. (2004). Benefits and drawbacks of anonymous online communication: Legal challenges and communicative recommendations. Free Speech Yearbook, 41, 127-141.

Tuttle, D. (2010, August 16). Text counseling: Tulsa schools introduce anonymous electronic communications. The Journal Record.

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