How anonymity’s a safety factor: 1 clear example

By Anne Collier

People sometimes fear or vilify online anonymity, and there are well-lighted places like Facebook where reliance on offline identity is a safety factor, but we seem often to forget that anonymity is a safety factor too, one that long predates the Internet. Well-known examples are political and human-rights activists in many parts of the world now and throughout history. Another example was detailed in this week’s New York Times Magazine, in an article about the new approach to parenting “gender-fluid” children, especially boys.

“Many parents and clinicians now reject corrective therapy, making this the first generation to allow boys to openly play and dress (to varying degrees) in ways previously restricted to girls – to exist in what one psychologist called ‘that middle space’ between traditional boyhood and traditional girlhood. These parents have drawn courage from a burgeoning Internet community of like-minded folk whose sons identify as boys but wear tiaras and tote unicorn backpacks.”

And they demonstrate that courage and share their fears – anonymously – in blogs such as “Pink is for Boys,” described by the North Carolina mom who writes it as “a place to wonder about the boxes we put kids in.”

Reporter Ruth Padawer writes, “As much as these parents want to nurture and defend what makes their children unique and happy, they also fear it will expose their sons to rejection. Some have switched schools, changed churches and even moved to try to shield their children. That tension between yielding to conformity or encouraging self-expression is felt by parents of any child who differs from the norm. But parents of so-called pink boys feel another layer of anxiety: given how central gender is to identity, they fear the wrong parenting decision could devastate their child’s social or emotional well-being.”

Anonymity has always provided a safe “space” for people to test ideas, work through fears, and take stands, but what’s different now, with the Internet, is that ideas and practices can be worked through together with peers and practitioners who share this interest regardless of where they are in the world, in some cases growing attention to an issue very quickly. The only barrier to participating and learning from this or any interest community is language, though that barrier is slowly lessening. Because of the interest, people who have it tend to find the conversation, so – depending on the issue and the timing – its impact can grow fast. There certainly is a lively conversation, reflecting all views on the spectrum, in the comments at the bottom of Padawer’s piece – 707 of them as of this writing! It illustrates very well how anonymity can be protective. Now we just need to see the protective properties of online social norms – e.g., civility and respectful disagreement – replace the need for editors in comments sections! (That will probably take some time.)

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