Conversations about Anonymity
For as long as users have been able to be online, researchers, instructors, and practitioners have been interested in how users navigate, maintain, and compose in these spaces, as well as how they understand their own identities and the identities of others. The fields of both composition and technical and professional communication (TPC) have been active in social media research in the past decade, and both disciplines provide complementary ways of framing my research. Composition studies' emphasis on student composition in digital spaces—particularly in the subfield of computers and writing—encouraged me to look more deeply into student composing practices in my research space, while technical communication's emphasis on users motivated my decision to go directly to the users for the answers to my research questions.
In the subsections of this page, I explore how researchers, practitioners, and instructors—specifically in the fields of composition and technical and professional communications—have shaped the fields' understanding of social media applications. I begin with a review of literature that explores the pedagogical interest in social media spaces, then I move to a discussion of conversations about online anonymity practices, both in the early days of the Internet and now.
In recent years, both compositionists and technical communicators have issued calls for research in digital spaces, informal spaces, and social media communication (and the spaces where these all meet). Kathleen Yancey's (2009) "Writing in the 21st Century," urged composition and communication scholars to research new forms of digital compositions as well as to instruct students in these forms of communication. She noted that students are not only composing and learning to compose within the classroom, but they are also often learning writing skills in less academic contexts through what she calls "social co-apprenticeship" (p. 5).
Social media spaces largely fall under Deborah Brandt's (2001) idea of "self-sponsored" writing spaces, and Yancey has argued for researchers to acknowledge and, within those spaces, to "[a]rticulate the new models of composing developing right in front of our eyes" (p. 7). There's no doubt that anonymous social media spaces are most certainly developing right in front of us; platforms have launched, collapsed, and relaunched within the span of this project.
The field of composition's acknowledgment of non-academic spaces of composition shows an understanding that students develop writing skills both inside and outside the classroom. In Courtney Werner's (2015) study of new media scholarship in the field from 2000-2010, she found that the overwhelming majority of articles fall into the category she called "composing in contemporary society." These articles focused not on classroom composition, but on "the field's relevancy to a larger, non-academic community in the 21st century" (p. 64). Of course, the composing that users do "in contemporary society" often has implications for the classroom, as is true in my project.
Digital literacy continues to be an essential consideration in the composition and TPC fields, especially as so much of our composition and communication happens in digital spaces. So further research into these informal spaces of online composition will no doubt influence the way we view our classrooms and our fields. I want to consider these new models of composition—in my case, anonymous social media spaces—as sites of critical inquiry.
Heeding Yancey's call, composition and TPC have continually explored social media spaces throughout these platforms' relatively short history. In composition, the subfield of computers and writing, according to Charles Moran (2003), operates under an optimistic view of technology and technology's place in the classroom. He cited this optimism as a hallmark of the field, but he mentioned that computers and writing does not "always and uncritically accept these [positive] assumptions" (p. 344). In his review of work in the field, he noted that this optimism in the field's early years may seem naïve, but it paved the way for more critical modes of inquiry.
Early research in computers and writing looked critically at the technologies students used and how (or if) new technologies could be used to assist students in their composing processes (Duffelmeyer, 2000; Hawisher, LeBlac, Moran, & Selfe, 1996; Hawisher & Selfe, 1991; Selfe, 1999). As Moran (2003) noted, the field's early research had moments of envisioning a utopian technological environment: Students' writing concerns were better mediated through technology, the field's professional status was made more apparent through technology, and teachers' status had been improved through technology. Moran argued that this persistent hope continues to drive scholars in the field toward more critical inquiries.
One of the field's most influential scholars, Cynthia Selfe (1999), was among the first to encourage both students and instructors to develop critical technological literacy. For Selfe, there are real dangers in ignoring technologies as they become more widespread. Though her emphasis in this case was the access divide that technology would undoubtedly cause in literacy and literacy education, her words still apply as instructors teach students to consider new media technologies, like social media, in a more critical way. Responding to Selfe's call for compositionists to further consider how technology affects literacy, Stuart Selber (2004) introduced the "ideal multiliterate student." The idea here is that students could only become competent users of technology if they also developed the skills to both question and participate with technology.
When instructors and researchers know more about these platforms and about students' composing practices within these spaces, they can move closer to Selfe's and Selber's ideas of literacy in their own teaching practices. As Daer and Potts (2014) noted in their articulation of best practices for teaching social media, instructors should be familiar with social media platforms, even maintaining their own online presence, in order to teach students about them. Of course, Daer and Potts were not specifically discussing anonymous platforms; however, part of the purpose of this project is to help others get familiar with anonymous platforms and the ways that student-users may participate in them.
Stephanie Vie (2008) extended a call for researchers to look at social media in much the same ways that early compositionists viewed computers and online writing: "What I propose is that compositionists begin looking at online social networking sites through an academic lens to examine the complexities these sites showcase and what ramifications they may hold for our pedagogies and our field" (p. 21). Indeed, I hope to answer this call in my research: to view anonymous spaces through a critical and pedagogical lens, just as many researchers have done with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (Buck, 2015; Maranto & Barton, 2010; Muhlhauser & Campbell, 2012; Shepard, 2015).
Students' abilities (or desires) to transfer rhetorical skills from social media composition to academic composition is not the field's only interest. To say that there is a clear line of distinction between traditional forms of writing and, for example, social media writing undervalues the compositions that students create most frequently. Because of the less distinct boundaries between formal and informal composing spaces, it is increasingly important to participate in critical inquiries of both. As social media becomes more popular—for personal, professional, and academic use—our need for further research grows. Because of the relative newness of social media platforms and because of the difficulties of researching anonymous spaces, there is a lack of research on these spaces when compared to research on traditional profile-based platforms like Facebook and Twitter. My project seeks to fill that gap.
The fields' views of social media platforms have evolved as scholars have continued to engage in critical inquiry in these spaces. Likewise, as we think more about anonymous platforms, our ideas about those platforms will continue to develop—and they already have.
For many early Internet users, platforms with anonymity practices represented a utopian ideal. In the fields of composition and technical communication, the feature of anonymity can most clearly be traced back to early uses of MOOs, MUDs, and online discussion boards. The early reception and conversations about these platforms lauded their ability to provide a more equal space for both students and instructors/tutors, even if this was not necessarily the case (Cooper & Selfe, 1990; Johnson-Eilola & Selber, 1996; Jordan-Henley & Maid, 1995; Schneider & Germann, 1999). Marilyn Cooper and Cynthia Selfe (1990) noted that instructors might choose online conferencing to offset the traditional perceptions of teacher authority in conference situations. Technical and professional communicators also saw the value of these spaces for collaboration and communication in the workplace, as well as the classroom (Schneider and Germann, 1999; Nagelhout, 1999). Scholars and instructors, too, met and collaborated in online spaces apart from their class contexts: In the field of composition studies, "Tuesday Night Café of the Netoric Project" and "Hypertext Hotel" were popular MOOs among computers and writing scholars (Hawisher, LeBlanc, Moran, & Selfe, 1996). Not all users' experiences in these spaces were positive (Dibbell, 1993), but the overwhelming feeling in the field was optimistic.
These early tools allowed some level of reconceptualization of identity, based on the type of platform (González, 2000). Some platforms assigned random screennames or provided users with different types of text styling to set themselves apart. Later, as the platforms became more developed, users were able to choose a screenname or create an avatar. An avatar provided users with the ability to choose from "a common set of identificatory fantasies created by individual whim as well as popular demand" (González, 2000). Unlike Facebook's "Real Name" policy, screennames for these early platforms—and later, for online chatrooms and discussion forums—did not have to be associated with the user's true identity, and some even placed users as "characters" in fictional worlds. These platforms gave users new ways of performing identities. As Sherry Turkle (1995) noted of MUDs, "As players participate, they become authors not only of text but of themselves, constructing new selves through social interaction" (p. 12).
Marilyn Cooper and Cynthia Selfe (1990) were among the first to explore the egalitarian nature that anonymous online spaces could provide. In their article about online conferencing, they noted that anonymity, or at least perceived anonymity, could put students and instructors on the same level:
To further diminish their authoritarian status, teachers can also use pseudonyms in computer conferences; when these contributions to the conversation are relatively unmarked, they will be treated like those of any other participant. In addition, the lack of face-to-face cues in on-line conferences, while it eliminates much useful paralinguistic information, also means that some information about gender, age, and social status disappears unless individuals choose to reveal themselves by bringing specific experiences or cues into their written responses. This relative anonymity not only contributes to the egalitarian nature of the conferences but also shifts the level of competition from that of personality to that of ideas. (p. 853, emphasis mine)
Cooper and Selfe claimed that the relatively anonymous nature of online discussion—in this case, online conferencing—could alleviate some of the traditional appearance- and personality-driven power structures that are often established in the face-to-face classroom and, because of this, could foster more critical discourse.
At the time, the prevailing narrative for compositionists, as articulated by Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart Selber (1996), was that these spaces might "somehow liberate students and teachers (as well as other computer users) to speak freely, outside age, ethnicity, gender, and race constraints, as well as other status and physical appearance markers that can keep individuals' voices from being heard" (p. 269). Johnson-Eilola and Selber questioned this assumption of liberation and equality, but still acknowledged it as a prevailing view in the field.
Continued work with online discussion spaces has also shown that the field's early ideas about these near-utopian online spaces were, as we now understand, probably overly simplistic. Albert Rouzie (2001) noted this contradictory history with MOOs/MUDs in particular:
Early scholarship painted synchronous discourse as egalitarian and dialogic, while later scholarship has questioned these assumptions. Researchers who had at first seen synchronous discourse as free play came to see it as increasingly constrained by established hierarchies, and possible as destruction to effective class community. (p. 253)
While some online spaces still afford strong community dynamics (Dich, 2016; Kelley, 2016; Pavia, 2013), traditional hierarchies and classroom constraints caused instructors to question the presumed egalitarian nature of these online spaces (Fielding, 2016; Johnson-Eilola & Selber, 1996; Rouzie, 2001).
Likewise, anonymous social media platforms, like Yik Yak, that do not rely on profiles or user connections often appear to be or purport themselves to be more egalitarian than other platforms. Indeed, Yik Yak's founders focused on these egalitarian concepts: "For us, being anonymous means that everyone is on an equal playing field. That means that everyone's content is treated the same way, no matter who you are" (Buffington and Droll qtd. in Hines, 2015). Co-founder Brooks Buffington also said that he and Tyler Droll made the app "for the disenfranchised" (qtd. in Mahler, 2015). However, as Derek Sparby (2017) noted in reference to Selfe and Selfe's work on interfaces, "an interface's collective identity will likely be controlled by dominant social groups, giving voice only to those who already have it while continuing to silence others" (p. 88). With Yik Yak's structure, which allows users to upvote and downvote posts from others, it's easy to see how dominant social groups can control the content.
Both when Yik Yak originally launched in 2013 and when it relaunched under new ownership in 2021, the idea of it being a utopia of free discourse was automatically called into question. Users with more experience in online spaces knew that anonymity could harm other users and could disrupt conversation as much as it could foster conversation. Recent articles since its relaunch have defined it as "the anonymous app that tested free speech" (Franklin, 2021), and as an application that "was fertile ground for cyberbullying, harassment, and even threats of bomb and gun violence" (Zahneis, 2021). The new operators promised that their new moderation policies will reduce the instances of abuse on the platform, but this is still yet to be seen as recent controversies with the application have focused on its recent reveal of anonymous users' precise locations (Franceschi-Bicchierai, 2022).
Like the field's early perceptions of anonymity and the shift from the utopian ideal after more critical inquiry, more of that critical inquiry is necessary to better understand the complexity of these platforms and perhaps even to create safer spaces for users. Anonymous platforms pose their own set of issues for critical inquiry (as discussed in my methods section), but my project contributes to developing conversations about these platforms. In particular, I am interested in learning why student-users choose to use these applications: could the appeal of the utopian ideal be a major draw for student-users, just as it was for early Internet users?
While anonymity on modern mobile and social media/messaging applications has been sparsely discussed in either composition studies or technical and professional communication, other related fields have begun to delve into these applications.
When applications profess to be social in nature, anonymity may actually impede meaningful interaction. To an extent, research has backed up this premise: in an empirical study of content posted to the social media application Whisper, Gang Wang et al. (2014) sought to find out if users in this anonymous space formed social ties like those in more traditional social networks. They found that, for the most part, Whisper users did not form strong ties with other users. While users may sometimes share replies under the same thread, they rarely interacted across separate posts.
While Wang et al.'s (2014) research reinforced some negative perceptions of anonymous networks, the researchers also found some interesting attributes of these networks: users who interacted more frequently were in the same geographic area (this made possible by Whisper's "nearby" feature). These users were more likely to see posts by other users the same area and thus were more likely to interact. This idea is particularly interesting when thinking about localized feeds like Yik Yak, Whistly, Jodel, Swiflie, and other, often college-specific, messaging applications.
Contributing to discussions about interaction and community, Erich Pitcher's (2016) study of students' discussions of sexuality on Whisper found that the anonymous nature of the application provided "a safe enough space for people to describe past and future desired [sexual] activities" (p. 722). In addition, Pitcher argued that this anonymity also allows students to make private matters public while cutting down on fear of judgment. Public spaces in which users could express their desires and find like-minded others, Pitcher noted, were "unimaginable before the advent of social media technologies" (p. 722).
Up to this point, most conversations about anonymous social media platforms have focused on public perceptions of these applications' controversial content. In existing work about Yik Yak, the focus has been on the content the applications' anonymous users generate: in particular, content that threatens violence, bullies others, or expresses bigoted opinions (see, for example, Koenig, 2014, Mahler, 2015; Ross, 2015; Schmidt, 2015; Franklin, 2021; Carrasco, 2022). With negative content as a primary public concern, it should come as no surprise that many empirical research studies on Yik Yak also focus on the content generated through the application. Erik Black, Kelsey Mezzina, and Lindsay Thompson (2016) collected posts from several college campuses and, using content analysis, categorized these posts into different content categories. They concluded, however, that Yik Yak posed no great threat to young adults because the instances of negative content were relatively few, contrary to public opinion.
The original iteration of Yik Yak experienced rapid growth, followed by rapid decline, and much of that decline was attributed to Yik Yak's negative content. Kathryn Montalbano (2021) has compared the original iteration of Yik Yak with surviving anonymous platform, Jodel. By comparing the Terms of Service of the two applications, she considered Yik Yak's demise to be because of the lack of "recourse for addressing or preventing users who harassed, targeted, or incited violence against other users with racist, sexist, or otherwise threatening language" (p. 11). She also noted that the relaunched version of Yik Yak seems to be attending to some of the follies of the original by taking a stronger stance against bullying, with users united by both geography and shared values.
Qinglan Li and Ioana Literat (2017) considered the moral dimensions of Yik Yak, noting that "it is the particular combination of three main features — anonymity, hyperlocality and voting aggregation — that can turn the app into fertile ground for vitriol." They argued that moral considerations must factor into technology design; platforms are not neutral. As they concluded their article, they issued a call for future research that this webtext, in part, takes on:
Further empirical research is needed in order to better understand the impacts of anonymous social media like Yik Yak, and the way that participants experience these platforms. Given the negative reputation of apps like Yik Yak, it is particularly important to achieve a more nuanced understanding of the interactions that take place, and to consider the positive effects that participation on these apps might have as well, especially in terms of equalizing participation and strengthening community ties.
Existing research about anonymous applications has covered quite a bit of ground. This range of literature showed that these applications are indeed important to study and can tell researchers much about the systems and the users that choose to use them. So far, though, most research about anonymous applications has considered the content that users produce in those applications rather than the reasons for that use. In this project, I continue both composition studies' and TPC's calls to explore both digital spaces (Yancey, 2009) and social media spaces (Vie, 2008; Maranto & Barton, 2010), and to include users in that research (Salvo, 2001; Spinnuzi, 2005) to better understand why users choose to use these platforms.