Anonymity as Personality



Online communications can have a certain way of changing a person’s communicative style, sometimes for the better, but most often for the worse.

Early social media platforms, as well as their precursors, (chat rooms, message boards, etc.) all guaranteed anonymity in a way that today’s platforms do not. Pseudonyms in the form of usernames were not just commonplace in the early days of the internet, they were expected. There are the obvious “trolling” advantages to remaining anonymous, but it also has the advantage of letting people adopt different personalities in different contexts, allowing a certain freedom to pursue whatever identity they desire. These days, the majority of social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Youtube, etc) expect, or even mandate, that you use your real identity.

Facebook was the first widespread platform to mandate a “real name policy,” insisting that if you were going to use their site, you had to do it with your real identity: “Pretending to be anything or anyone isn’t allowed.” This decision led to some interesting side-effects. Communications theorist Erving Goffman theorised that in order to fit in to different social situations, individuals adopt a variety of different personalities (or “faces”) over the course of the day. You tend to act differently around co-workers than you do around your family. But Facebook is a place where you interact with your coworkers, family, close friends, new acquaintances, and total strangers all at the same time. On Facebook, you only have one name, and only one face.
So people make decisions about who they are going to be. Many decide to be their raw, unfiltered self, and use the platform as their own personal soapbox, saying everything that comes to mind, however poorly thought out it is. This most often leads to damaged relationships, as these users end up saying things to people that, in the real world, they would keep to themselves. Some people decide to adopt a professional work tone, acting respectfully to all who engage with them, and carefully curating their photos as to not risk upsetting any contacts. The major issue with this strategy is that the identity feels fake and hard to engage with.

People can fall anywhere along (or outside of) this spectrum, but the end result of gathering all of your contacts into the same space is that users are unable to change between their many faces, and a true, human-like personality range is hard to achieve. Anonymity may be hard to trust on social media, but (following Goffman’s theories at least)  it seems to offer a more accurate online approximation of real-world human behaviour.

-Robert Michon

Facebook’s Name Policy

Murtaza, S., & Hussain, A. (2015, June). Presentation of self among social media users in assam: Appropriating Goffman to Facebook users’ engagement with online communities. Global Media Journal: Indian Edition., 6(1), 1-14.

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