Anonymity doesn’t make you an asshole, it just makes it easier to be one

By Page Forrest

Managing Editor

Go read the comments on just about any Youtube video. Check out the responses on an article you just read online. Or even better, re-download YikYak. I’m sure you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, right? Probably not. Most of these dark sections of the internet are pretty disgusting, largely due to the cloak of anonymity provided to its users. I used to be firmly under the impression that anonymity could turn anyone into an asshole, but I’ve since realized that anonymity doesn’t change us; it just brings out the worst version of ourselves.

Anonymity as a corrupting concept is hardly new. In 2015, “Secrets,” a website premised on honest, anonymous communication, had to shut down due to the overwhelming epidemic of bullying on the site. YikYak has largely fallen out of use at Sewanee and on other college campuses because the creators decided to shift towards permanent handles and profile pictures. While these handles don’t necessarily reveal someone’s identity, on a campus as small as Sewanee, they can make it fairly easy to narrow down the face behind a username. This might explain the lack of activity on the app, now used almost exclusively to advertise parties or find out what’s happening on a Friday night. Anyone who has used YikYak within the past two years will recognize this as a dramatic change from the spiteful bullying that used to fill the app. That kind of anonymity, the power to criticize classmates you see on a daily basis without retribution, got the best of a lot of us.

The Sewanee Purple website provides a similar option for anonymity in the comments section. You don’t have to put in your real name; you can comment with whatever name you please. You wouldn’t think this would be a problem. How embittered can someone become over a student newspaper? However, when Marion Givhan (C’18) wrote about her and others’ opinions of the new residence hall staff structure in “The dangers of Proctoring solo,” one noble crusader took it upon him or herself to leave six paragraphs of anonymous feedback. While the language itself was not vitriolic, “Proctor 1”’s tone was pedantic and condescending. If he or she wrote the comment with the intent of talking about his or her individual experience with the new system and position as a Proctor, there should be no reason for anonymity. Indeed, one would think that someone genuinely interested in discussing the article and the subject at hand would have no problem attaching a name to a comment.

On the flipside of Givhan’s article, we can see another problem where anonymity is a symptom and not the issue. Several students had comments about the new Residential Life structure but refused to allow their comments to be printed alongside their names, for fear of retaliation from the Residential Life office. We try to avoid printing anonymous quotations in The Sewanee Purple, as we believe people should be held accountable and able to own up to their comments. However, when students are scared that providing a constructive comment will result in losing their jobs as Proctors, or turn the office against them when they do not even work for Residential Life, we must wonder what kind of environment is being cultivated. There is a line between defaming one’s place of employment and having critical opinions and giving a quotation to a student newspaper should not be seen as crossing that line. An open dialogue with students is necessary for Sewanee continuing to grow as a university.

Now, one might argue that “Proctor 1” could have the same fears of retaliation. From whom? Givhan? The Sewanee Purple itself? We have no administrative power and encourage discussion and constructive criticism at all of our editing meetings. But perhaps we should follow through with what I’m arguing here. I propose The Sewanee Purple remove the anonymous option from the comments section on our website and require that all accounts be verified through social media, a step many other newspapers have taken. In turn, The Purple would remove the need for approval on all responses. Comments would be posted in real time, and you will have the ability to say whatever you like. Provided you’re willing to own up to it.