Is anonymous social media the answer to cyberbullying? No

Yesterday I came across this article in Mashable about the anonymous social network whisper, and whether it is the answer to cyberbullying.

I can answer that immediately – no. It is not the answer. I’m going to attempt to explain why using some new found knowledge gleaned from my reading of Aaron Balick’s The Psychodynamics of Social Networking (buy it, it’s really good).

In the book Aaron discusses psychodynamic theory and applies that to our relating on Facebook, Twitter, email and so on. He acknowledges that even though social media may have changed how we relate to each other in some way, our identities do not suffer as a consequence, despite public criticism and empirical research which claims they do.

We’re still ourselves online

Balick argues that despite the architechture of most social media allowing us to ‘reinvent’ ourselves online and take on completely new identities, the majority of us still present ourselves without taking on any ‘fake’ identites – social media is a platform for an extension of the self. Even if we’re not playing an active part in that presentation of the self, Google does it for us by presenting fragments of us online and cobbling them together when someone searches our name online.

So what happens when that identity is completely erased?

Anonymity, transference and projection

With regards to anonymity, Balick comments:

“The more one is obscured, the more easily one can fall into transference, making SNSs amenable to high levels of transference” (p.94)

Transference occurs when a person’s feelings about previous (or current) relationships are transferred on to others. Balick also claims that high levels of projection can also occur in these obscured environments.

So when one’s identity is completely obscured, that paves the way for excessive projection and transference, because there is no tracing back to the existing online identity and no consequence. People on Whisper can say and do what they want and be as aggressive as they want. If you post something on Whisper and get some aggressive comments, you will read them and still feel they are attacking you, as a person, even though they don’t know anything about you. It’s human nature to take it personally.

Could Whisper be different?

Whisper does have a supporting environment and no tolerance for trolls and aggressive comments, but that could always change. Social networks do change and the architecture of Whisper could leave it susceptible to trolls and cyber bullies because the anonymity factor is so appealing to them. We see it all the time on message boards and Twitter.

And even if someone finds solace in Whisper, there is nothing stopping them from being cyber bullied on other platforms. It’s just one of the sad consequences of today’s hyper-connected life which we are all still trying to navigate and make sense of.

So no, Whisper is not the answer to cyberbullying. It could very well be a place of comfort and support as described in the article, but it is just as likely to be another site for trolls to run riot. Social networks are ultimately what the users make of it, and there is only so much moderating that moderators can do.

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About Karen Patel

PhD candidate in social media and cultural work at Birmingham City University.

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