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The value of anonymity (yes, even when it’s terrible)

Recently, I wrote an embarrassingly long response to a recent op-ed in The Daily. The opinion I was reacting to was that anonymity is cowardly and damaging, and I was invested enough in the issue that I’ve modified my reply here to be the best defense I can offer for anonymous forums. (By which I mean Yik Yak, let’s be real.)

The most basic advantage of an anonymous forum is that it forces readers to judge what is being said on the basis of the ideas alone, and not the speaker. This is tremendously important when current campus dialogue often brings in the speaker’s background and identity in judging the validity or context of their opinions. Anonymous forums, misused as they have been, can be a good alternative space for dialogue that complements the campus norm. Because of this, my ultimate claim is that we should be trying to use anonymity in civil, productive ways instead of denouncing it as cowardly or corrupt. This is hard and will happen imperfectly, if at all, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

The second advantage is that it is often difficult to openly dissent with your chosen community without being accused of being part of That Other Community We Don’t Like, and anonymous forums provide a space for people to do this. Dissenting from your group gets harder the more divisive the issues are – and we all know that many of the issues the Stanford community has been grappling with are complex and emotionally charged. The original column I replied to stated, “there wouldn’t be any negative valence associated with attaching yourself to an opinion that is factually backed or one that isn’t controversial,” but this is clearly not true. Being controversial is not and should not be a measure of a statement’s value, or lack thereof. A lot of things that were historically controversial turned out to be pretty good ideas. But more importantly, the level of controversy a statement generates is incredibly dependent on the community it’s made in. Many common or acceptable beliefs in Seoul are outrageous in Palo Alto, and vice versa. A community that truly values diversity should welcome the right kinds of controversy.

Despite being generally exasperated and occasionally really angry with Yik Yak, I’m going to give a shot at defending it specifically. Yik Yak has a system where a comment or post with more than five downvotes disappears. I really like this system: disgusting things that people say tend to vanish quickly, although a persistent spammer can tire even the most vigilant of thumbs. But if they stay around, that means there are enough people agreeing with it (or not enough people disagreeing) that they’re worthy of note even if we think they’re wrong. Anonymity has a great tradition of attracting people with unpopular or dangerous opinions that sometimes turn out to be valuable. In this time and place, we have unusual technological power to block or ignore content or people we dislike, and it becomes important that we make a conscious effort to expose ourselves to dissent if we can.

A final note: Yik Yak is definitely a read-at-your-risk environment. It has often been overrun by toxic people with nothing productive to say. But platforms like Yik Yak need to be improved instead of condemned because they are capable of being so much better. Yik Yak specifically is also generally self-contained – meaning that if a shitty thing gets said there, the only way the shitty thing gets coverage outside of Yik Yak is if someone deliberately shares it on another social platform, for no good reason I can think of. If Yik Yak is widely used for vitriol, the onus falls on those who’d be harmed by it to take the (not very difficult) precaution of not going on the app. In the meantime, people who find it to be a valuable space or an interesting challenge to their faith in humanity can go in and do what they want — hopefully redeeming discussion when they can, canvassing honest opinions and fostering fearless and productive debate.

Sarah Yoon ‘17

Contact Sarah Yoon at yhyemi ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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