Honest face-to-face feedback is a complete myth. Due to an overload of information and rapid means of networking, communication has been stunted in various ways. For example, a person suffering from social anxiety can find a new form of confidence when articulating themselves from behind a keyboard, screen and the promise of anonymity. For various reasons, people abstain from telling you what they think about you with unadulterated honesty: such as not wanting to hurt your feelings, fear of conflict, trouble with finding words and expressing themselves adequately, thinking that you aren’t worth their time and calories, etc. On the other hand, people live their most honest moments when having a veil of anonymity to hide behind. All barriers to communication mysteriously fade away and then anyone and everyone can be a critic.
This brings me to the latest development in the realm of social network – the app Sarahah. A portal which allows people to send anonymous messages to one another with no looming threat of repercussions when communications turn sour. After making a profile for themselves on Sarahah, people can share this link on their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat profiles for others to send them anonymous messages. While observing this trajectory of networking on my Facebook newsfeed, I realised that at face value, Sarahah seems like a breeding ground for one’s narcissism or a much needed form of validation or some lonely person just hoping to receive some kind words and feel like they aren’t alone.
no looming threat of repercussions when communications turn sour
I belong to the second category, whereupon I found myself having nothing to do and feeling listless and bored, I sought some validation on this app. I made a profile for myself and shared it on my Facebook profile. At first, the rush of compliments and love was overwhelming and it did wonders for my self esteem. What further boosted it was the admission of a couple of secret admirers. I also got a few laughs out of it when a few of my closest friends (trying and failing at anonymity here) put a spin on some of our inside jokes. However my goal to seek validation was about to come to an abrupt end.
Somebody who has been very closely observing my life for the past two years and bears a lot of hatred for me decided to tell me how they honestly felt about me.
Again, all barriers of communication promptly came off when this person artfully threw in all sorts of vile abuse, misogyny, disparaging my body, sex life and casting aspersions on my politics and my alleged (so they think) queerness. This person clearly had a lot of time and hatred to spare, as for twenty minutes the barrage of abuse just wouldn’t stop. For a second there my chest turned ice cold, but I soon turned indifferent. I was used to this kind of abuse (seriously, my ‘other’ folder on Facebook can be turned into a full fledged archive on what online misogyny, queerphobia and fat shaming looks like). But what really infuriated me was the moment I flagged the comments, they disappeared, depriving me of my chance to register a formal complaint against this troll.
They can then get away with this kind of behaviour and continue wreaking havoc on the emotional and mental health of other women. Sarahah and a sense of entitlement will protect the likes of such people, who spend significant chunks of their day abusing and demeaning other people. A harsh reminder of how we can really get to know a person after they have a mask on. For cyberbullies, Sarahah is ground for their vileness to thrive.
Anonymity, a double-edged sword
On the other hand, it would be downright unfair of me to condemn anonymity in its entirety. Back to my previous point about those having a hard time expressing themselves for various reasons – for them, internet anonymity is solace and a comfortable medium through which they can express themselves. There are various instances where anonymous articulation can aid people in communication: a survivor of stalking who is struggling to articulate their experience, a person belonging to a vulnerable community whose very identity leaves them exposed to various forms of violence, those working in the field of education, those who worry about or are shamed for not being nuanced enough when it comes to having conversations, among others. On a larger structural level, if state powers are in a position to strip the internet of all anonymity, they can be capable of controlling the methods and mediums of political expression itself.
A harsh reminder of how we can really get to know a person after they have a mask on
One instance that I wish to delve into further is when people are in dire need to talk about and look up information on what they consider to be the deeply intimate aspects of their life: issues and questions about their bodies, sexuality, interpersonal relationships, mental health, gynaecological health, etc. Their social settings are such where such conversations are considered to be immoral, awkward, taboo and met with absolute disapproval and silence. Left to themselves, with no access to talk about what worries them and answers to questions that have been plaguing them for a long time, this lack of communication can induce a deep sense of anxiety, stress and loneliness.
In such situations, Sarahah has been able to work wonders. Certain social organisations such as Women’s Health Line and The Red Elephant Foundation have stepped forward and made the best of anonymity. They created Sarahah handles for their organisations, for women to anonymously ask questions which they were otherwise unable to discuss with their friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances: dealing with domestic abuse, body shaming, menstruation or sexual orientation. Their personal safety will not be compromised. Sarahah users will be able to speak their minds and their queries would not be met with ridicule or attempts to silence them and there is no scope for judgement; and the feedback received was warm, positive and encouraging. They turned anonymity into a platform for solace and empowerment.
To conclude, I do not believe that anonymity is only used as a hatred-spewing ground for trolls and hackers. However, I do not justify online abuse and bigotry which is aided through anonymity. Those who use apps such as Sarahah to harm others have to be stopped. In this context, I will advocate for strict cyber protection laws as well as accessible platforms to launch complaints; adequately functioning grievance redressal mechanisms; personnel such as police officers being cooperative, helpful and giving victim blaming a wide berth. Yes, forums like Sarahah can be dangerous, but various social organisations have also showed us that when it comes to Sarahah, the glass can be half full as well.
Featured Image Credits: Sarahah