Anonymity and Internet communities

These thoughts are partially inspired by some recent conversations with a few YAR writers, and folknotions’ post on the San Jose YAR meetup.

I’ve been thinking recently about the strange aspect of anonymity that makes this and other online communities distinct from print publications, face-to-face discussions, etc. In the past few years I’ve had on-and-off involvement in a few online Mennonite communities — some more anonymous than others (for instance, Yahoo group “MennoNet” was a frustrating waste of time). Ultimately, one of the aspects that frustrates me when taking part in these groups is the aspect of anonymity and lack of community — where I feel like writers aren’t willing to remain accountable to each other, take responsibility for what they write, and generally maintain a level of respect and decency. I certainly don’t think this is happening here (and I don’t mean to be targeting people with creative usernames here), but in other groups it often reaches a point where people seem to regress to name-calling and attacks, partially because they can hide behind their cryptic usernames. Again, I don’t see that happening here.

That being said, I’ve also found myself wanting to know more about my fellow writers here on YAR, beyond the regular posts on ethics/theology/ecclesiology. This happened briefly during the initial 6-person face-to-face YAR meetings in Goshen that sparked this group, and I assume also during the meeting in San Jose a few days ago. But as someone who wasn’t able to attend convention (mostly because of the outrageous prices — see PeterK’s post), I still feel a bit disconnected from most of the other writers on this blog (although I recognize that I do personally know many of you).

In a way, my initial reaction to folknotions’ post was that I feel left out (and rightly so), because I couldn’t attend the YAR meetup and get to know some of you better. It struck me that the report from that meetup remained entirely anonymous: “One YAR present said…” Who was at the YAR meetup? Who said what? Did anyone take pictures they could post? What was the age range of people there?

So what are the advantages of retaining this anonymity in our online community? Is it a safety concern, or a way to make some people more comfortable speaking up? What if all the writers were listed on a page, with pictures and short bios (perhaps the introductory post most people wrote)? Are these ridiculous ideas? Am I missing something obvious? Carl suggested that perhaps one advantage of anonymity is that posts can be judged more on their own merit, and not on our fixed stereotypes of the writer.

And maybe this is just an issue of personal curiosity and “sticking my nose in other people’s business,” but I crave less anonymity and more open information on who we are as real people, not online personas. I’m sure there are various opinions out there, and I’d love to hear some more thoughts on this.

Comments (10)

  1. folknotions

    J Alan,

    This is a totally valid point to bring up. I erred on the side of caution when not posting names; I didn’t want to “out” anyone, particularly because there was a pastor there who might not want his name shared, as well as a couple other folks who are YAR lurkers, but not authors. I’m really sorry you (and all the other YAR’s) could not be a part of meetup, it wasn’t official or anything I just took notes on the conversation.

    I don’t go under the name folknotions as a “hip” move or anything; I worry more about my real identity becoming known and how that will affect my relationship with my church. Many members of my church are internet savvy and I’m sure have come across the YAR blog. If they were to hear some of the things I was talking about, it might concern them, particularly because I didn’t grow up in the church and they might think that my views are due to a lack of proper Christian teaching. I am trying to reform certain ideas as they come up, so I don’t want to hit the jugular too hard by having them see my thoughts laid out like this.

    I don’t think what you are suggesting is a ridiculous idea; I would say though that if we are to add bios it should be strictly voluntary and not required of authors. Otherwise, I would have to consider whether or not I could keep contributing.

  2. j alan meyer (Post author)

    Folknotions (what a hip name),

    Thanks for your clarification — that was exactly what I was looking for, and the kind of response I didn’t think much about. I have to admit that there’s a part of me that wonders why you’re unwilling to have these open and honest discussions with your church members, as well as with your YAR friends. But then again, I recognize that I’m speaking entirely as a white male Goshen College student — everyone already expects me to be crazy, liberal, irreverent, lgbtq-loving, etc., so it’s easy for me to be openly so. Honestly, I have to admit that I don’t (and probably can’t) understand where you’re coming from. But I should emphasize that I respect your concerns (and my own ignorance of your situation), and your reasoning for not wanting to be more open in this space.

    I would still be in favor of creating a bio page for all the YAR contributors who feel comfortable putting up some information. But I’m sure there are more thoughts out there that I haven’t considered — more responses?

  3. Lora

    I purposely didn’t put my full name or many identifying details about myself on this blog. I’m sure it wouldn’t be all that hard to figure out who I am, but I spent three years working for a Mennonite organization and imagine that when I finish school and return to the working world, it will likely be in a church or church-related organization. I like your idea in theory, but I also like having some degree of anonymity. I’d really hate for someone to one day google me, take my words entirely out of context and have it cost me a job or create conflict. I don’t think I’ve said much here that I wouldn’t say in person, and I’ve also tried to connect in person with other YAR posters, but I also know that what one says on a blog as a personal opinion can have repercussions outside of that sphere.

  4. lukelm

    It does kind of cut down on certain conversations. I’m not sure the “sex outside of marriage” conversation can ever really go too much forward because it would necessitate people sharing too much of their personal lives, and a public blog probably isn’t a good place for that. It’s just a weakness of the medium.

    I find it interesting, though, that the more connected someone is to the church, the more fearful they are of letting themselves be known at all, or of even speaking. What does it say about the church that the pastors are the ones afraid to speak or to have anything known about who they are, those associated with church organizations next in line for fearfulness, while the ones who are pretty much marginalized anyway (like us local queers) don’t really care? It seems that the closer you get to a position of power in the church, the more you have to hide away your real thoughts and not give yourself the luxury of having a mind.

  5. folknotions

    J Alan,

    I am a young newcomer to the church; about 10 years ago, a young newcomer came around with entirely different ideas about worship (he was of the charismatic disposition) and split the congregation as a result, taking half the membership to a new church. It was very devastating for them.

    So, I want to be careful with how I dialogue. When it comes up in conversation with members of my congregation I openly express how I feel, but there are some who may not have addressed this with me and I don’t want to come off as so “radical” right away. There’s a way to be radical without getting in someone’s face about it, as I’m sure you know.

  6. Skylark

    Ordinarily, I’m much more evasive in online communities. People may know I live in Ohio, but I won’t get much more specific than that. My screenname is almost always Skylark–which though it is my middle name, it’s been an online screenname for longer than it’s been part of my legal name–so it wouldn’t be hard for someone on another forum to find me.

    However, the way in which I found YAR was rooted in real time-and-space events in my local community being discussed on YAR. In a way, it was part of my job to be here. I couldn’t NOT identify myself. That just wouldn’t have been fair, as I had a slightly different motivation in being here than most of you. Now, I’m here for fun. It’s got little to do with my job.

  7. lukelm

    Not sure where to ask about this – but what happened to the “floodgates” entry by folknations? I spent a long time yesterday writing an extensive comment on there. The link under “recent posts” returns a 404 error.

  8. j alan meyer (Post author)


    I don’t know what happened to it, but I found it in the system and re-posted it. So it should be back up as before, with all comments still included.

  9. DevanD

    J Alan,

    Yes I don’t know what happened to it either; the site has been doing a few funky things the past couple of days.

    Additionally, these is the guy formerly known as “folknotions”. I have changed my “nickname” after some reflection on what J Alan had to say.

  10. eric

    My personal decision has been that I don’t necessarily want a job (or a church) that expects me to keep quiet about what I believe. Posting under my own name here keeps me accountable to the people I know, and also keeps me from getting into the position of living two lives. I’ve been there before and didn’t like it.

    At the same time, I completely understand people feeling like their church or work connection is important enough to protect despite some censorship, and I’d rather have them using pseudonyms than not talking.

    (Hi Devan. I’m just not sure I can ever get used to a new name for you – it was hard even in person – but I’ll try. Glad you feel comfortable “coming out,” we’ll try not to get you shunned.)

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