Anonymity, which is Greek for “no name,” is a uniquely human psychological experience: it’s the idea that we all have identities to present to the world, but under certain circumstances, can switch the identity off and operate in total secrecy. “We need a public self to navigate the social world of family, friends, peers and co-workers,” says John Suler, professor of psychology at Rider University in New Jersey, and author of The Psychology of Cyberspace. “But we also need a private self – an internal space where we can reflect on our own thoughts and feelings apart from outside influence, where we can just be with our own psyche. Our identity is formed by both. Without one or the other, our wellbeing can easily become disrupted.” Being anonymous allows us to try new things or express ideas without being judged. In 2013, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania published a study in which they conducted in-depth interviews with dozens of internet users on four continents. One interviewee, for instance, created an anonymous online community for English learners to practise their language skills. Anonymity helped them better manage certain spheres of their lives. One participant said that he frequented message boards to help people solve technical problems, but sought to avoid unwanted commitments through the detached nature of the internet. Plus, being anonymous in an environment like the internet can help safeguard personal safety.
“Our results show that people from all walks of life had reason, at one time or another, to seek anonymity,” the researchers wrote of the 44 interviewees.
But according to a 2013 study from the Pew Research Center, while most internet users would like to remain anonymous, most don’t think it’s entirely possible. The study found that 59% of American internet users believe it is impossible to completely hide your identity online.
And while some people are taking basic steps to preserve anonymity, like deleting their browsing history, many users who say they value anonymity aren’t really walking the walk.
Earlier this year, a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Communication explored something called the “privacy paradox”: the idea that, while people value privacy, they do little in practice to preserve it.