We live in a time of extreme transparency. Smile at the CCTV camera. It’s absurd really. Everything we do is recorded; and more often than not, we’re the very ones doing the recording. From Facebook posts to tweets, the majority of our private lives have suddenly become public. Most of our culture reflects this state of over-sharing: once a week the Kardashian family opens their doors for all of us to voyeuristically peek in; Channel 4’s successful program GoggleBox lets viewers watch—get this—other people watching television; and, for decades now, every second of a celebrity’s daily life is published between the covers of gossip magazines. And yet there is one phenomenon that runs contrary to all of this; and that is, the cloak of anonymity.
For centuries, there have been artists and political activists and others who have hidden behind false names or no names at all. An air of mystery presently revolves around the Italian writer pseudonymously named Elena Ferrante. Currently long-listed for the Man Booker International Prize, the author’s identity (everything from her name to her gender) remains unknown. Similarly, J.K. Rowling, who when publishing Harry Potter concealed her first name so that young boys wouldn’t be turned off her books, has now published a crime novel under the name Robert Galbraith—the author’s real identity only being revealed by her gossipy lawyer. In our current age of YouTube celebrities and Instagram idols—where anyone and everyone can and wants to be famous—what drives people to claim anonymity within the public eye?
If you want one reason why anonymity might be a good thing, have a look at Britney Spears’ mental breakdown almost a decade ago (remember when she shaved her head and had a quickie wedding in a Las Vegas chapel?) Despite some of its obvious benefits, the pressure of fame can be excruciating. Staying anonymous offers privacy.
But more than privacy, anonymity offers empowerment to many disenfranchised people. During Victorian times, when novel writing was a male dominated field, Charlotte Brontë published as Currer Bell. So did Mary Ann Evans, better known as George Eliot. By concealing their gender with pseudonyms, both authors were able to receive the critical attention and respect for their work, which may have otherwise been dismissed had their actual genders been known. See J. K. Rowling above. But anonymity can empower in different ways as well. Consider the street artist Banksy, whose artwork is technically illegal. Without a pseudonym, Banksy wouldn’t be able to practice his art without being even more susceptible to police arrest than he already is.
Clearly anonymity offers a certain kind of freedom, but that’s not necessarily always a good thing. For one, it can dilute notions of individuality. The hacktivist collective known as Anonymous is a prime example of this. The network of cyber vigilantes or, depending on who you talk to –terrorists- are difficult to prosecute individually because they work as an unknown mass. And while, of course, empowering minority groups is progressive and forward-thinking, what about empowering assholes? The Internet has granted everyone the power of anonymity, allowing those who wish to, to hide behind fake screen names. One only has to read the comments on a YouTube page to read the vitriolic things people can come up with. In fact, some of these comments have been so bad that many newspapers, TV shows and others have closed their comments sections altogether.
There’s something disinhibiting about being able to speak without your name attached to your words. A Reddit user named Violentacrez became infamous for creating and moderating forums called “JailBait” (where users posted pictures of girls under the age of eighteen) and “Creepshot” (where users took pictures of women without consent). The same user also moderated forums called “Hitler,” “Jewmerica,” and “Incest.” Back in 2012, Violentacrez was exposed in a Gawker article as a middle-aged Texan man named Michael Brutsch. A few days later, Brutsch was unsurprisingly fired from his job and much of his life fell instantly into shambles. Brutsch’s behaviour could not be tolerated without the protection of being anonymous.
Lastly, anonymity can offer an individual the very thing it seems antithetical towards; Fame. Think about it: anonymous people are like spectres or mischievous rebels, tickling our culture that so gleefully feeds on privacy for entertainment. What better way to grab people’s attention than by starving them of what is typically so readily available. In March of this year, scientists at Queen Mary were able to link Banksy’s art with the movement of a middle-aged Englishman named Robin Gunningham. Kind of a disappointment, huh? Nothing would ever satisfy the mysterious, revolutionary character that was Banksy. He had become an idea more than a person. By being anonymous, he could be anyone (anywhere at anytime). By being no one, he became ubiquitous. It’s a lesson that anyone out there eager for fame should take note. If you want people to notice that you exist, perhaps pretend that you don’t.
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