Accountability in an Age of Anonymity

When you scroll through lists of comments on YouTube, Reddit, etc., you are likely to find a number of outrageously unkind comments. That the internet causes people to be more apathetic to others’ feelings due to the degree of removal from behind a screen is a phenomenon that unfortunately makes a lot of sense.  ”Commenting without consequences” has led to death threats, destroyed social lives, and suicides – not to mention the reverberating effects on the families and communities of those in the spotlight.  Despite efforts to curb this behavior, including the introduction of new laws to prevent cyberbullying and functionality on some websites that allows users to report inappropriate behavior, some forums are more difficult to control this behavior—specifically anonymous platforms.

The increasing popularity of anonymous platforms is a red flag.  If people intend to be kind on the internet, they should be able to stand by what they post with their identity revealed.  Adding anonymity into the mix seems like a recipe for disaster: decreasing accountability in a medium that already lacks accountability and that has already led to tragic outcomes.  Nevertheless, the demand continues to be met for these anonymous platforms.

As we have discussed in class, platforms like Airbnb, Uber, and Lyft work only because users are held accountable for their actions.  Their rating systems are an integral part of their success because they build trust in users and providers.  If accountability has brought success for these companies and lack of accountability has led to societal dysfunction, why are we producing platforms that mimic the latter? Why are we ignoring the track record?

YikYak

As most of us probably remember, YikYak had a burst of popularity for about a year at BC and on many other campuses.  Many of the posts on YikYak were funny and entertaining.  But people inevitably began to post rude and taunting messages, knowing their identities were protected.  There were even instances of students posting bomb threats during finals in order to get their exams cancelled.  Accountability is key for a functional society, and without it, the community’s sense of security is made vulnerable.

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TBH

A new app called TBH has engineered a way to use anonymity in a positive way.  Rather than using an open text box, TBH gives multiple choice questions with only positive options.  The interface is shown below:

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As the TBH team explains, “our goals for anonymity are much different than most apps [that emphasize] the ability to say things without repercussions.  This is more about the ability to tell people more of the things that make them happy.  One is more targeted toward harassment while ours is more targeted towards making people better off.”  This application of anonymity applies the appropriate constraints in order to remove the need for accountability.

Sarahah

“Sarahah,” the Arabic word for “honesty”, is described in the app store as, “Helping you discover your strengths and areas for improvement by receiving honest feedback from your employees and your friends in a private manner.”  Sarahah is meant to foster improvement in both career and personal life.  However, an anonymous app that explicitly encourages “constructive” criticism can lead to some negative consequences.  The founders claim to have taken precautions against what could be interpreted as brutally honest feedback by filtering out certain negative keywords and including a prompt in the message field saying, “Leave a constructive message J.”  Predictably, these small steps have not entirely prevented abuse of the platform.  Furthermore, in August 2017 the app had over 62 million users with most of the growth coming from teens, a population that is likely more inclined to take advantage of the anonymity afforded to them through the app.

sarahah.jpeg

In a time when face to face confrontation has become so easy to avoid, I am not at all surprised by the popularity of these apps.  But without being forced to confront people face to face, people no longer make an effort to confront as nicely as possible.  A friend of mine was recently feeling guilty about rejecting a job offer when another friend said, “This is why god invented email.”  Of course, email is not anonymous, but it is one degree of separation further than a phone call.

Anonymous apps add infinite more degrees of distance.  When anonymous apps can be implemented in an airtight way so that they cannot be taken advantage of, like TBH, perhaps there is positive side of anonymous commenting (but the question then becomes, is it a viable product that will trend in the same way as other more flexible anonymous apps?).  Otherwise, I think we should reevaluate how much value they add given how much hurt they can cause.

10 comments

  1. Nice post. I was really surprised that Facebook bought TBH. It didn’t really seem to add much that they couldn’t do themselves.

  2. Great post! Yik Yak seemed to disappear overnight due to the problems they faced, maybe a sign that the platform really was not very successful at all in the first place? I wonder how Facebook intends to incorporate TBH into their brand in the future.

  3. Great post, Marielle! As a huge fan of YouTube, it has always made me really angry that people would use the anonymity of a username to post really hurtful messages to people who were just putting themselves out there. I never understand why people go out of their way to post mean stuff. I appreciate that apps like TBH are trying to promote positive anonymity, but I can only imagine that TBH stillll causes problems and bullying. I also am not sure if this shift will fully catch on to all platforms where anonymous commenting or feedback is an option.

  4. Anonymity has honestly driven me away from social media a bit. It shows so much negativity. You made a great point about the separation in your example about email. I always stand by the face to face rule, if I wouldn’t be willing to say it to your face, then I’m not going to say it on social media. I wish more people followed that rule.

  5. Really interesting topic. I definitely remember Yik Yak in its BC heyday, especially when two girls were harassed relentlessly on it. It’s funny, because these anonymous apps and platforms go all the way back to when I was in middle school. During that time, there was Formspring, where people could leave anonymous comments on someones page that the person could then answer publicly. This obviously led to incredible amounts of bullying and Formspring is no longer a thing. Then there was Ask.FM, which was a website that basically did the same exact thing as Formspring. Then there was an iPhone app in high school called SimSimi, a chat robot that would respond to whatever you typed based on what other people typed about the same thing. I think that as long as the internet exists, these types of anonymous platforms will continue to exist. Unfortunately, that means that cyberbullying will likely not be going anywhere either. However, these services usually go in and out of style quite quickly after scandal follows them, so that’s one good thing. I really like how TBH is the only anonymity app I know of that actually promotes positivity and protects users from bullying- we need more anonymity apps like that!

  6. Interesting to think about how much of our society’s ability to function relies on accountability. This is something I kind of always just took for granted and never thought about. Once you introduce anonymity into it, via social media platforms, it definitely allows for people to say more than they would have in person. What will be interesting to see is if this aspect of anonymity is able to penetrate our day to day lives. If there comes a point when AI bots are walking around all over the place, will we be able to have them say rude things to others for us?

  7. The trend in anonymity apps has been that they explode in popularity, but the obvious problems of cyberbullying and inappropriate content start flooding in and the app pretty much dies off. I think this trend has a lot to do with the target audience of teenagers these apps attract and their tendencies to bully others, especially if they perceive that they will get away with it. I think these apps are a beacon to these types of problems and will all follow the same trend of a short-lived existence.

  8. The different cycles of anonymous apps have all come and gone without much disappointment over their departure. Formspring was really the first one I was exposed to which was back in middle school. There were some pretty disastrous things posted on that site and there were several meetings amongst parents and my middle school about how to deal with the site. I can only imagine how those conversations would continue to take place and probably worsen given how young children are when they first get internet access nowadays. Ultimately I do agree with you that the value they create is questionable, which makes me wonder how they will continue to pop up and go away as time goes on.

  9. Anonymity can definitely be a very powerful tool when used for the right reasons and it the right atmosphere. As you mentioned in the post, people are generally uncomfortable with face-to-face confrontation, so having a that extra degree of separation can be beneficial, especially when one is trying to give honest and productive feedback/criticism to another. For course evaluation for example, this has proved to work very well in informing the professor of what the students liked and what would have liked to see changed. Inevitably, there are some inappropriate and unnecessary feedback too – in my class last year, my history professor read out some of the feedback he received, and one of it was “to be honest, I’ve come to your class high as a kite every day”. But the professor chose to take personal insults and comments like these light-heartedly, and he claimed the rest of the feedback was genuinely productive. I think if apps like Sarahah are able to implement an algorithm must like Twitters where unnecessary comments are filtered, and only the productive ones go through, it could be a successful and powerful app.

  10. This is really interesting. I always find anonymous feedback interesting. It makes me wonder why people are so concerned with being identified. I think a lot of it is psychological in that these days everyone is so obsessed with creating the “perfect image” of themselves due to the harsh judgement of peers. I feel like this has been getting worse and worse over the years to the point that now many are uncomfortable with compliments. I feel like this largely has to do with social media. Everyone wants to put out an image of themselves like they are okay, even when they’re not. Imagine if social media never existed, and the only thing people knew of you was when they interacted with you? I think the world would be such a different place. I applaud “Sarahah” for attempting to combat this, however, I can’t imagine this ends well either. Some way, someone will get hurt. What do you think?

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