Internet: Knowledge and Community

at The Evergreen State College

How does the “anonymity” of the internet foster or hinder the development of community?

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originally posted to Flickr as Anonymous at Scientology in Los Angeles.



At first glance anonymity seems to be antithetical to the social nature of a community, and yet the internet has seemingly been a place for anonymous communities to flourish and even thrive. One can question the health of these communities as they can inevitably devolve into trolling and combative arguments.

My question is one of exploration, what potential benefits does the guise of anonymity provide to a community? Can a truly anonymous community ever really thrive?


Historically anonymity has played an important role in political expression and dissent. Communities have sprung up in the relative safety of anonymous association.

  • underground movements-
  1. The underground railroad
originally posted to Flickr as Underground RailRoad Sculpture - Battle Creek
  1. resistance movements IE- French resistance
  • secret police- a negative force stifles open political expression. Like the Schutzstaffel

Present day

Negative attributes

  • anonymity is illusory
  • ability to do harm without consequences -
  • loss of verifiability- viral advertisement, paid bloggers
  • socially isolating
  • higher threshold for building trust based relationships

Positive attributes

  • Open communication
  • free flow of information
  • alternative identity- violence without harm (video games)
  • anti-censorship
  • political freedom

[How one man tracked down Anonymous and paid a heavy price.]


I would guess that there is some link between anonymity and the speed and volume of information. The digitization of data enables it to be reproduced and sent at incredible speeds and frequencies. Copyright laws can not be enforced because the data can not be contained. Doug's lecture on Saturday suggest this anonymity of data is embedded in the very structure of the internet. Since we can only ever be approximations of ourselves as represented by digital bits of data, we will always have an anonymous quality on the internet.

Certainly Facebook, Google, and the NSA all have vast databases of our personal data and purchasing history (not to mention our banks and credit card companies). But, the sheer volume of this data makes it highly impersonal and non-descript. A collection of your search terms can feed into algorithms which trigger more personalized advertisement. But, the same information would not reveal anything specific about your personal history or personality.

A certain amount of anonymity may have some very positive affects in that it allows people to interact without facing so many social stereotypes and by relieving some of the normal inhibitions many people face in trying to interact on a social level in our complicated and intolerant world. This certainly can be beneficial to those who are unable to get out socially or who are otherwise afraid to get directly involved in social and political settings.

Facebook, My Space, and a myriad of other Internet sites have opened a new world for many people that do not normally have the opportunity to stay in touch or to make new acquaintances. There are wholesome sites for children, the disabled, and people from every walk of life to connect and feel connected. Many sites are specifically designed to provide information and helpful contacts for those who have limited social and monetary means. Whether this is sufficient social connectedness, and whether these same people are missing too much without face to face interaction is still up in the air, but certainly there are many people who have benefited and limited social contact is better than no social contacts at all.

The down side to this is that many of these same people are also vulnerable to being taken advantage of in the anonymous world of the Internet. Surely most people are not hiding their true identities on the Internet with evil intent. However our societies most vulnerable people; children, the elderly, and the economically disadvantaged are often among those who are lured in by Internet social predators. To often children are lured into believing they have found a new best friend only to discover they have been duped by a sexual predator who wants to exploit their youth. Elderly people are convinced by financial con artists that all their dreams have come true only to realize they have lost everything they worked a lifetime to accumulate; and other vulnerable peoples are misled and manipulated into purchases they don't need and that lead them into poverty and despair. In part all this occurs because the anonymity of the Internet creates a wild west opportunity for those who want to use it to cross jurisdictional boundaries and take advantage of the limited resources available to patrol the Internet and prosecute those who misuse its positive traits. Just as the old west created wonderful opportunities for many hard working people, the internet has created opportunities for social predators, a new kind of hole in the wall gang who sneak out into our lives and take what we hold dear to us.

Can we ever really have a real and secure “anonymous” community on the Internet? I seriously doubt it when the Internet is open not only to those who wish to use it for good, but for those who would exploit and plunder as well. We have thousands of years of human experience that enables us to pick up non-verbal clues to whether someone we can see is trustworthy, I don’t think we can overcome this in a virtual world where we cannot use any of our natural senses to detect danger.

Anonymity on the internet may hinder the formation of solid, long-term communities in the way that traditional familial, geographical, religious, etc., because of the lack of trust. Long term relationships in which high levels of trust are built seem less common in the highly transient world of internet communications, with its barrage of possibilities. The deep trust built over years of experience and interaction would be necessary for many communal tasks that broach on taboo, dangerous, or highly personal subjects. The trust built through the internet seems more of an isolated, highly guarded trust. Long term trust is definitely possible via the internet between individuals and even groups, but the unknown factors on the internet inherent in technology, from system integrity to intrusion to simply not knowing what someone looks like, could be a hindrance to deep, instinctual trust that forms from years of direct interaction in multiple settings. Personal trust would seem much more likely for a group of friends you share a dinner with weekly than a group of friends whom you've never met in person but spend many hours with working on a shared task.

Jerome's Response:

Think about the couple who "tweeted" about their vacation, but only to find out when they returned home from that vacation, they found their house was robbed. Using Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, etc. should be used with discretion and common sense which some people seem to lack when it comes to these social networks. You can have the most secure firewall and security suite, but with exposures of IP addresses, there really is no anonymous internet use.

Merilyn's Response

Anonymity seems to only thrive within online communities, because theres only interaction within cyberspace and not in real life where there could be harm done. Anonymity could hinder the development of community, because these days people are already unsettled as it is by talking or associating with people they are not familiar with. In Doug Schuler's, New Community Networksarticle, he writes “People have become increasingly wary of each other. The next-door neighbor may turn out to be a devil worshipper, the driver in the next lane, a psychopath” (chapter 1). With anonymity this will cause more people to hide away in the safety of their homes affraid of interacting with anyone within their communities.


National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace?

Article on Cyber-bullying