This past fall quarter I completed one of the first courses in SPU’s MEd in Digital Education Leadership. The course, Values, Ethics, and Foundations in Digital Education, required weekly reflections on readings and class discussions. Eric Stoller’s recent Inside Higher Ed piece, Don’t Ban Yik Yak, inspired me to adapt my reflection–regarding anonymity and digital wellness–into a blog post about my personal experience using Yik Yak during a recent lockdown.
Redeeming Anonymous Spaces
The Case for Anonymity
Stryker (2012), in Hacking the Future: Privacy, Identity, and Anonymity on the Web, discusses originations of the internet, communications, privacy and anonymity. Stryker mentions the dark web and the actions of international group Anonymous that recently dominated headlines. Stryker argues that anonymity, privacy, and ability for encryption are key attributes making the internet function at its best–allowing people to be themselves, “Yes, anonymity lets you be a different person, but it also allows you to be who you really are. That’s precious. Let’s not give it up without a fight” (p. 239). As I reflected on the course readings and Strykers work, I struggled between the tension of how we can be our best self online–being authentic to our physical face-to-face self and our digital representation–or whether we should operate with anonymity. Put differently, do we interact with others anonymously or do we interact with our managed and self-created identity represented through our own domain, Twitter, Google+, or About.me site linking to all of our mediated digital spaces (e.g., our WordPress blog)? Stryker, argues for anonymity, saying that our very identity is at stake when we are our true selves on the internet because someone else ends up owning us.
As greater portions of our waking lives migrate to the Web, and as our “real-word” lives and our online lives continue to blur, the conversation becomes increasingly crucial. We are not simply fighting for freedom vs. security, we are fighting for the ownership of our selves. Those bits of data that Mark Zuckerberg wants to sell to advertisers are just as much a part of who you are as your flesh and blood. (p. 230).
Personally, as an advocate against anonymity I started to shift my position to a more nuanced balance. In particular, Common Sense Media’s recommendation to not use your real name as a screen name, prompted me further to ponder the usefulness and benefits of anonymity. The balance between being your authentic self online requires a diligent understanding of the terms and privacy policies, mixed with appropriate steps to protect your identity from theft or misuse, and authentically representing yourself. I am starting to believe privacy and a healthy dose of anonymity are ingredients to a well-balanced digital representation of oneself. Maybe Facebook doesn’t need my real birthday–after all many companies provide services for free because, as Stryker powerfully reminds us, your very blood is for sale to advertisers.
Redeeming Anonymous: A Penitent Troll and Finding Comfort in Yik Yak
One concern that I hear about anonymity–and often express myself–is the prevalence of cyberbullying and the resulting negative impacts on community. Truthfully, these concerns are present in both anonymous digital interactions and in physical face-to-face interactions where one’s identity is known. Recently, in an episode of This American Life, writer West (2015) shares about how one horrendous anonymous bully, a troll, deeply impacted her by resurrecting her recently passed father via Twitter to shame his daughter. The bully eventually removed his mask of anonymity and apologized (listen to the podcast!), but his apologies didn’t assuage her pain as tears still flowed from West’s eyes as she spoke with him. Anonymity and cyberbullying are not always hand-in-hand; sometimes beauty, hope, and redemption can exist with anonymity.
In a recent op-ed piece for SPU’s student newspaper, The Falcon, Stewart (2014) writes, “Yik Yak is truly a platform for cyberbullying that humiliates, degrades and hurts others, allowing careless abuse from peers and friends hiding behind the mask of anonymity. It creates distrust amongst us and prevents authentic community” (para. 10). A very bold statement that represents probably the concerns of most people, yet I saw something very different on a Friday afternoon in October, when SPU went into a lockdown for gun threats made to a student and the campus. Here are some of the posts that I captured right after lockdown ended:
“And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” 1 Thessalonians 5:14 Much love to this amazing community. #SPUStrong
Shoutout to the guy on the elevator for not giving me a weird look when I started crying after he asked how I was.
The looks being exchanged on campus right now of “I’m there for you” make me so thankful to be a part of SPU community
The posts on here [Yik Yak geolocation at SPU] for the last half hour remind me why I came to this school. Love goes out to all you guys stay safe and enjoy the rest of your day.
Even a Yik Yaker from UW, “Sending love to SPU from UW #SPUStrong
Let’s stay strong everyone, we’ll get through this together
And one with inspiration, encouragement, prayer, but with authentic emotions expressed through profanity:
Fellow SPU brothers and sisters. Despite what gas [sic] happened today, yesterday, or even June 5th. We are strong together. We aren’t taking shit anymore. Pray with me for our school and staff #SPUStrong.
A week or so before the lockdown I discussed Yik Yak in a session about technology and power at the annual Day of Common Learning. I argued that when we express ourselves in anonymous spaces such as Yik Yak, we should still implement Andy Crouch’s call to be image bearers (from his keynote earlier that day). As Christians learning how to navigate life and bring forth Christ’s presences love, we should enter Yik Yak as image bearers. Borgmann (2012) says that we live our lives in a fog of distraction, yet in this seemingly distraction producing place of Yik Yak, we can find community where God dwells as others bear His image for others–especially in scary and traumatic times (p. 8).
Digital Wellness: Becoming Image Bearers
Life, to navigate effectively, fruitfully, and to the fullest, requires a myriad of skills taught through experiences, educational programs, and the mentorship of those more experienced and wiser. We need healthy digital citizens to make wise and educated decisions as they interact in life whether in digital mediated communities or face-to-face encounters. If we frame our encounters with balance and nutritious action we produce a lifestyle of wellness that provides real world experience to be in the real world–digitally and face-to-face–as healthy, mindful, educated, and prepared citizens. Most of us cannot live at a camp without internet connected devices for the rest of our life. Life, as we know it today, doesn’t work that way. Nor can we live in digital spaces mediated by a device 24/7 without face-to-face human interaction. We need to live balanced. We need to know when to put our devices down to interact with the person sitting across from us. We need to know how to walk through a forest while following a trail and seeing God’s beautiful majestic creation while knowing how to capture it with a complicated DSLR camera–or easily with our Instagram-enabled iPhone. We must know how to navigate our identity in the physical world–such as shredding important documents and not saying our social security number too loudly at the doctor’s office. We must know how to manage our digital footprint to keep our identity ours–it is our flesh and blood after all, and know what we share with companies. We must navigate and make wise decisions when we need to be anonymous online to protect ourselves or to be a light in the darkness. We must know when it is time to stand up, taking a break from our device, and go for a walk because we know our bodies need exercise to stay healthy and to think better. The key in all of this is not just how to be image bearers, but how to be healthy image bearers, prepared image bearers, educated image bearers, and wise image bearers.
Borgmann, A. 2012. Contemplation in a technological era: learning from Thomas Merton Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 64(1). Retrieved from: http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2012/PSCF3-12Borgmann.pdf
Stewart, K. (2014, October 14). Yik Yak hinders community. The Falcon. Retrieved from http://www.thefalcononline.com/2014/10/yik-yak-hinders-community/
Stryker, C. 2012. Hacking the future: privacy, identity, and anonymity on the web. New York: Overlook.
West, L. (2015, January 25). Ask not for whom the bell trolls; it trolls for thee. 545: if you don’t have anything nice to say, say it in all caps. This American Life. Podcast retrieved from http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/545/if-you-dont-have-anything-nice-to-say-say-it-in-all-caps?act=1