The Spoke / Online, nobody knows you’re a dog Subscribe

Terrier wearing glasses and working at laptop
In this reflection, Catherine talks through the perils and advantages of online anonymity, and raises the question of whether such anonymity is ever truly possible.

Over the last five years, a flurry of anonymous social media apps have shot to the top of download charts, and fallen just as quickly. To name the most famous, Whisper (2012-present), Yik Yak (2013-2017), Secret (2014-2015), and Sarahah (2016-present) have defined this trend. They have taken high schools and college campuses by storm. As much as they have fascinated teenagers, they have caused worry for parents, confusion for teachers, and panic amongst administrators. Heralded as the saviors of free speech, they are equally condemned as enablers of cyberbullying. The trend of anonymity may seem momentary: perhaps a reaction of today’s teenagers against the pervasive ‘true identity’ platforms like Facebook or Snapchat; perhaps a subculture within a shifting political climate; perhaps simply a quirk of the time. In fact, there is nothing new about online anonymity. Anonymity has, and always will be, at the heart the Internet.

The Internet, created in the early 1970’s, started as a military-funded initiative to connect research institutions across the United States and bolster collaboration. The philosophy of the Internet pioneers, ironically following the anti-war movement, was to create a global network unbound by geo-political barriers and open to all. Soon, Internet users could join online forums and interact via pseudonyms (or usernames). For the first time, they were interacting with others based solely on the content of their thoughts. There appeared to be no first impressions to navigate, no unspoken social cues to follow, no physical standards to meet. The Internet lived up to its philosophy of an ‘open platform’ in many ways. Even more than shedding the biases of in-person interactions, spending time in online groups was a way to explore one’s own identity, to seek emotional support, to ask embarrassing questions, to escape. The anonymity afforded by pseudonyms meant than none of this activity could be linked to an offline person, at a physical address, with a real job, and with a reputation at stake. As the famous 1993 New Yorker cartoon illustrates: “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”.

Today, anonymity is often associated with cyberbullying. Certainly, the benefits of anonymity from the early Internet still exist today. Arguably they have become even more important: finding support and seeking help in a generation battling a load of mental health challenges, testing new jokes, and other social experimentation can be easier when done anonymously. In contrast to identity-based platforms, which come with the hope of getting hundreds of ‘likes,’ reaching out, anonymously, to talk to someone on social media when everyone else is too busy can be extremely valuable. Yet, anonymity contributes to online harassment. When no names are attached, what is stopping someone from hurting, threatening, targeting, or harassing someone else? How do we trace such behavior back to perpetrators? How do we punish them? These questions cannot be answered with a one-size-fits-all approach because anonymity presents itself in different ways.

Commonly, when we talk about anonymity online we refer to the fact that messages posted anonymously cannot be linked back to the offline identity of the sender. In reality, different entities have different abilities to create this link. A key identifier that follows us as we navigate online is our IP address, a unique number assigned to each Internet-enabled device that ties it back to a geographic location. Websites can correlate IP addresses with physical addresses to know who accesses them. Only a few platforms, such as Tor, cannot make that correlation. For this point alone, calling anonymous apps ‘anonymous’ is misleading. On this point, there are two main questions to think about.

First, the question should not be: ‘can a link between my IP and my identity be created?’ but rather: ‘who can create that link?’ In the app Sarahah, anonymous messages are sent within a friend circle: you know a friend said something but you don’t know which friend. On Yik Yak, anonymous messages were posted within a college campus. On Secret, messages were shared within employees of a company. Which friends could unmask your posts? Which colleagues? Which classmates? What if they did? What if a teacher joined the platform? What about a parent? Or a boss? Our level of anonymity can change: it can increase or decrease depending on the number of participants, and it can instantly disappear.

Second, one must ask: ‘how is reputation constructed and used in this app?’ On platforms where user actions are completely independent (for example, messages are posted without pseudonyms) there is no incentive for building a positive reputation. In these services, there is no form of accountability. On other platforms, like Reddit, users build reputations, and these are publicly viewable. This reputation can be a source of pride and accomplishment, and can provide a reasonable level of accountability, even if pseudonymous.

When the New Yorker cartoon proclaimed that “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” they were illustrating a newfound freedom. Today, twenty five years later, it is more timely than ever: it underlines the paradox of our digital identities. On the one hand, anonymity is a growing concern since issues of trust online pervade our society and question our democracy. The people we interact with online might as well be anyone, perhaps even a very evolved dog! Understanding audiences, incentives, and reputation construction are critical tools for protection. On the other hand, many may argue that, through the pervasiveness of the Internet in our lives, the tech giants (the Facebooks, Googles, Amazons…) know far too well whether you are in fact a dog, in addition to knowing your gender, sexual orientation, pregnancy status, and… likely your favorite treats. In this sense, “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” might as well be the irony of the century. Will we ever reconcile this paradox? Will our loss of privacy ever come at the gain of more trust? What will “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” mean in twenty five years from today? I do not have answers to these at this time, but I can say that anonymity will always be a complex, evolving, intrinsic quality of the Internet.


Photo Credit: Adam Frank, "Terrier wearing glasses and working at laptop," via Shutterstock, 26 February 2018.