Student Perceptions: Interviews
While the survey results help to provide context for the project, the participant interviews go beyond numbers by providing an avenue for exploring participants' articulation of their own views on the platforms.
The survey began to answer the question of why students are using anonymous applications. The survey results showed that though users seemed to enjoy the anonymous aspect, they mostly chose to use these applications because of the community aspects.
I was still left with questions about how students think about anonymity more generally, and with my survey results in hand, I was able to structure participant interviews to more thoroughly explore this aspect. The interview responses go further in answering the question of why students use these platforms and, importantly, how anonymity practices factor into that use.
Reflective Audio: Interview Participants
TRANSCRIPT: My initial research project, in which I collected posts from the local Yik Yak feed, enabled me to get an idea about how this local online community functioned. But as a researcher of this space, even though I was also a user, I could never be truly integrated—I could never know exactly what was going on, as I was viewing content as data. Though I will never be able to offset my role as researcher, I was able to use the information from my previous research to reach out to student-users. My experience with the platforms allowed me to talk with and understand the student-users, but as this section shows, they had a lot more to tell me about their use of (and their refusal to use) these platforms. The interview participants offered so much information: from anonymous platforms I'd never heard of like TalkLife, to ways of looking at the platforms that I've studied in ways that never occurred to me. And I was lucky, too, to have a range of perspectives: avid anonymous application users Isaac and Christopher; Katrina, who had been burned by an anonymous application and never wanted to participate again; and Trevor, who had never even used an anonymous application! Their perceptions have added a great deal of depth to my understanding of these spaces, and I am truly grateful for their insight.
Though I want to reiterate that there is no single “representative” user of these platforms, I was lucky in my interview participants to have four participants that represent very different types of users. The four interview participants are as follows:
- Isaac, an optimistic user of anonymous platforms, who had used Yik Yak; another application, TalkLife, which allows for anonymous posting for support of issues related to mental health; and the online anonymous chat system Omegle.
- Christopher, a self-professed “troll,” who had used Yik Yak, as well as Imgur and Reddit, and participated in these forums without disclosing his real identity.
- Katrina, a short-term user of anonymous platforms after having had negative experiences with an anonymous chat application. She no longer used applications of this type.
- Trevor, a nonuser of anonymous applications who used some social media platforms but did not have experience with anonymous applications.
Throughout my interviews, participants' initial ideas relating to anonymous platforms ranged from full acceptance to total distrust. As I note throughout this section, there seems to be a divide between the two participants that use anonymous platforms regularly, Isaac and Christopher, and the two who do not, Katrina and Trevor. Though the participants often discussed the same general topics, they did so in very different ways, frequently bringing up both positive and negative aspects of anonymity.
As I've already discussed, defining anonymity is a tricky thing, and that difficulty is reflected in the participants' responses. For the purposes of these interviews, the main anonymous platforms that were discussed were those that either had no associated username or handle or those that allowed users to use a username that was not related to their identity (and this was the community norm, in the case of places like reddit).
This section discusses three trends of student perceptions of anonymity that emerged in the interviews: the idea that anonymity allows users more freedom, the idea that anonymity can protect users' privacy, and the idea that anonymity can contribute to a larger community identity.
In each of my interviews, participants seemed to hold an idea that anonymity allowed users more freedom in online platforms. For some participants, this type of freedom meant freedom from the restrictions of static identity. For others, this meant freedom from consequence.
For Isaac and Christopher, anonymity was an inherently positive aspect of online interactions. Isaac was the most vocal about his perception of freedom in anonymous applications. He noted that anonymity was good for users, saying, “It's pretty good 'cause they can just do as they please, and they're more free.” Throughout his interview, he mentioned “free” in conjunction with anonymity five times.
Isaac thought that anonymous applications may be beneficial because they provide users both an outlet for their feelings and a platform of less restricted communication:
For most people it's beneficial to be able to vent out feelings or frustrations that's really bothering you. Something that you might want advice on or might want more input on but you can't really just say it to whoever, like your friends or your family or anything. And you want to get more of a variety, you want to step out of your comfort zone of your circle of friends, you want to see what's outside of this and what others think. So it's nice, in a way, that you don't have to go up to random people and ask them. Because even then they're going to be defensive, so it's better to find people that are not defensive: people that are online, anonymous.
In Isaac's estimation, anonymity provided freedom for both parties in this hypothetical situation: the user who wants to vent and the people who might reply. For the initial user, anonymity allows them the freedom to vent or ask for advice without feeling like they are being judged. Other users, who presumably don't know each other personally (or at least don't know for sure if they do), feel they can respond without needing to be defensive about their advice. Later, Isaac noted, “I feel like people are more truthful when they don't have to have their identity tied to who they are.” Isaac seemed to believe that anonymity allows users to voice their concerns and opinions and to respond truthfully to others. Isaac's thoughts seemed to mirror that of early compositionists, especially those like Cooper and Selfe (1990) who noted that instructors could use pseudonyms in online discussions both to diminish their status and to make the conversations more about ideas than personality. In those cases, instructors were using this anonymity practice to create a presumably freer space where people could share their thoughts without worry that they would be judged for it.
Christopher had some concerns about anonymity, but he subscribed to the idea that Internet communication in general, not just anonymous communication, often led users to operate as if they would face no consequences for their words or actions. Despite his concerns, however, he identified as an avid Internet user who decided not to share his real name in most of the Internet forums where he participated.
Christopher noted that in his own use of anonymous applications, he operated under and appreciated the idea that he was free from consequences. He identified that his primary use of Yik Yak was “to shit-post” and complain. He said, “I'd just get on and I'd say stuff, just to—I mean, I'd use it to complain a lot. I'd use it to anonymously complain about something that was bothering me.” Although he used negative language to identify the content he posted, Christopher's comments relate back to Isaac's mention of freedom “to be able to vent out feelings or frustrations that's really bothering you.”
Later, Christopher commented about how being anonymous allowed a more accurate representation of himself:
I feel like it's still…I feel like it's a truer, a truer aspect of me, even in all of the ugly parts. Like when I play games, I say things and I get mad, and after I'm done with all that, I think to myself, I didn't used to be like that, what happened? I'm not sure why I'm getting so angry at this. I didn't used to. But, yeah, I feel like people on the internet is like a more—well, it's closer to who I am, what I truly am.
In this case, Christopher shared that his online persona was likely a true depiction of himself, but he shared his frustration, as sometimes he did not like what he saw. The anonymous aspects of the Internet in general, though, provided him with the freedom to express emotions—anger, in this case—that he may not have felt comfortable confronting in other contexts.
Katrina and Trevor, however, felt that this kind of freedom was negative: if users were free from consequences, these users might act irresponsibly. Katrina, who primarily viewed anonymous applications as “inappropriate” because of a previous poor experience, noted that anonymous users did not have to worry about the same consequences as users in more traditional social media platforms:
If it's anonymous they get to hide behind that name, they don't have to face criticism or scrutiny. They can just do whatever they want without consequences, because if you were to do something like that on Facebook, they'd know your name, you could get messages, you could get banned, blocked. If it's anonymous, you can get away with it.
While Isaac, and perhaps even Christopher, may see the lack of criticism or scrutiny as a positive aspect, Katrina saw it as a negative aspect because it gave users the confidence to “do whatever they want without consequences.”
In her limited experience with an anonymous messaging application, Katrina mentioned that despite her desire to use the application to make friends, other users subverted her ability to do so. She said, “I didn't want to use it as a dating site, but people—it was too much perversion, there was too much nudity, and I didn't like that.” Users, in this case, have too much freedom, and that freedom makes them a liability to other users. It unfortunately comes as little surprise that Katrina, as the one woman who participated in the interview, was the participant who had experienced unwanted advances online. As Sparby (2017) noted, the way a platform functions is usually a reflection of dominant social groups. The freedom that anonymity affords allowed those users who wanted to use the site “as a dating site” to use it as such, then driving out users like Katrina who didn't want to see that content, and thus becoming the dominant group in the application.
Trevor also saw anonymous communication as potentially negative to other users. When considering possible advantages to anonymity, he said, “Well, you can say what you want and no one can hold you to it.” I asked him to describe why that was an advantage, and he responded, "Well, I mean, I guess it's good for the person saying it. But I don't know how that's good for anyone else." Like Katrina, he viewed anonymity as a freedom from consequence, and he saw that as a disadvantage to other users. In stark contrast to Isaac and Christopher, who felt that anonymity allows people to be even more themselves, Trevor worried that people who are anonymous are not who they say they are. He expressed this fear by saying, "You don't really know who it is, what kind of like person it is, and I guess they could be like a stalker or something."
Trevor's comments are interesting, especially when looking back on early utopian views of anonymity that argue the lack of a name or the use of a pseudonym might actually encourage conversation in the space (Cooper & Selfe, 1990; Jordan-Henley & Maid, 1995). For someone like Trevor, the idea that he might not know who the person is makes him less likely to communicate. This also further cements that idea that if instructors do decide to bring in new technologies or platforms into their classes, they will need to make sure students receive a proper introduction (Selfe, 1999; Daer & Potts, 2014). In these interviews, users with more experience with the platforms (Christopher and Isaac) were more adept at navigating (and talking about) them than users with more limited experiences.
Because Trevor was not a user of anonymous applications, he seemed to divide anonymous users into two types: users with agendas who will hide their true identity and others who will be deceived by these users. Though deception was not Katrina's primary concern, this dichotomizing of users as either perpetrators or victims was also something that Katrina showed in her responses. Meanwhile, Isaac and Christopher, both of whom participated in anonymous spaces quite often, did not seem to separate users in this way. While both mentioned potential disadvantages of anonymity, they focused on describing how they felt as users of these spaces. They did not separate themselves from users of these spaces, as Trevor and Katrina did. Their insight into these spaces seems to point to a more varied understanding of users and uses in these spaces.
Extending their ideas of anonymity as freedom, the interview participants often shared that anonymity provides some degree of protection for users. This idea seems consistent with earlier discussions that anonymous platforms might be a response to platforms like Facebook that require real names. As danah boyd (2012) noted, the ability to use pseudonyms, at the very least, can lend safety to some users.
Participants discussed the protections that anonymity offered using different terms—some used the idea of privacy, claiming that anonymity provides users more privacy than profile-based social media applications. Others saw anonymity as a way to protect users against criticism for taboo topics or controversial ideas.
Even Katrina and Trevor saw some value in this protection aspect. In particular, Katrina noted early in her interview that she could see privacy as a benefit to anonymity, saying “with anonymous apps, you don't have to be open to the public. It's a matter of privacy.” Still, Katrina primarily identified the negative aspects as outweighing the positive aspects.
During the interviews, I showed each participant posts from two anonymous applications, Yik Yak and Whisper. One Yik Yak post discussed the initial poster's struggles with depression and showed replies from other users who offered advice and empathy for this situation. Upon seeing this post, Katrina was surprised, having not considered that posts on anonymous applications may contain this kind of content since this wasn't the type of content that was widely shared on the application she had used before. When I asked her to talk through her reaction to the post, she said:
Something that's personal, something that's hurting someone. Something that's health related should never probably be posted on a public social media site. I think by doing this anonymously, they're protecting their privacy and they're also getting help from other people. And I really like that.
Here, Katrina again compared applications with anonymity practices to “public” social media sites. Whereas she had previously mentioned the public applications as safer for users, because users who violated the terms of the site could be reported or banned, she now pointed to the idea that some types of content “should never probably be posted on a public social media site.” She noted that anonymity within these platforms allows some users to receive feedback from others without having to publicly acknowledge their personal issues.
Trevor had also voiced some hesitance toward anonymous applications and, throughout the interview, he continued to point out that users may be using anonymity to hide some part of their identity. After showing a political meme posted on Yik Yak, I asked why something like this may be posted to the anonymous application. Trevor responded that he had seen political memes being posted on a variety of platforms, but that this particular meme, showing a clear political preference, may be better shared anonymously “because a lot of people may know them to be one way, but they may have different opinions in secret.” Sharing the meme anonymously, then, might allow the user to engage in political discourse outside of their normal realm. In fact, according to Trevor, sharing the meme anonymously might allow the user to explore or disclose a political preference opposing the one they endorse with their friends or family.
Later in the interview, Trevor again pointed out that a user may be hiding part of their identity. While discussing a Whisper post that asked for advice on adoption as lesbian couple, Trevor mentioned that the user may have chosen an anonymous space because “they might have not told one of their relatives yet that they, or she, is a lesbian. Or maybe they hadn't told their boss yet. And they didn't want to come out in front of everyone on social media.” Again, Trevor tended to believe that users came to anonymous spaces because they have something to hide but did acknowledge that these spaces protect that identity in some way.
Both Isaac and Christopher saw the protection that these anonymous spaces provided a necessary and positive aspect of the platforms. Isaac explained why users enjoyed anonymous spaces, saying, “So, [on other social media applications] a lot of people like to withhold sexuality, sexual orientation,[...]religion—things that are kind of controversial. That they don't want to be pointed out and discriminated against.” This, too, was an idea from early utopian views of the platforms, but as Beth Kolko, Lisa Nakamura, and Gilbert B. Rodman (2000) argued, though it's possible to hide some of these things while online, users still bring their own ideas into the conversation, and discrimination can and does happen in anonymous spaces (Ross, 2015; Nelson, 2015; Howard, 2022).
Still, Isaac believed that anonymous spaces allow users to avoid discrimination and speak about topics that may be deemed taboo in public spaces. Erich Pitcher (2016) saw this as well when studying discussions of sexuality on the anonymous application Whisper, arguing that users could express their past and future sexual desires in a “safe space.” Isaac mentioned this again idea when viewing the Yik Yak post about depression:
So, I think it's kind of something that is out of public, like it's not really talked about much like around the surface of things, how people feel and like how to treat that. It's something kind of taboo, speaking on directly, it's something that's personally affecting them. So when they're talking about this, they're noticing how they're feeling and it's just not something they'd really want to bring up to certain people or even a public source of people.
His comments again pointed to the protection that anonymity allows: a user can share their experience without disclosing their identity. And, because depression is frequently viewed as taboo, this space allows the anonymous user to reach out for help without worrying about negative perceptions about them personally. Also interesting is how Isaac, like Katrina, saw anonymous applications as outside the realm of the public.
Christopher viewed this protection from a more personal perspective. Because he was a self-admitted shit-poster on Yik Yak, he enjoyed the protection that he received from this space, calling it his “stress release platform.” But he also viewed these spaces as protection from actual physical/mental harm. In particular, he discussed doxing, a form of Internet harassment that, though he had not personally experienced, he had seen frequently:
I've seen a lot of stories of people online who are careless about their usage of these [platforms] and people found them. The Internet actually has a term for that, it's called doxing, getting doxed. People get on the Internet, they look you up, they get your name, your address, your phone number, your social media accounts, and then they post them on the Internet for all to see. It's, um, it's a harassment tactic and I try not to, I'm mindful of that. […] I know that if you're not careful, people can find you and if you say the wrong things then people will want to find you.
Of anonymous platforms, Christopher also said, “[For] the most part I feel like if you're posting anonymously, you can be more truthful. You can tell it how it is without being concerned about your opinion, or without being as concerned about your opinion getting back to you.” His idea of something “getting back to you” was more extreme than the other participants. Because of the online spaces with which he was familiar, he took measures to protect this identity, and remain anonymous, even in spaces that ask for usernames, was one of the ways he did this. Anonymity allowed him to “complain” and “shit-post” with less of a concern about what might offend or anger others in the community.
My survey results seemed to place an emphasis on relationships and community rather than the characteristic of anonymity. I saw references to relationships and community throughout the interviews as well. Participants seemed to indicate that anonymity may, in some ways, increase connectivity; however, it's worth noting that the hyperlocality of many of these apps may also contribute to this feeling of connection (Wang et al., 2014). This idea likely reflects some of the perceptions that the participants had about anonymity in general, especially those participants who felt that anonymous applications allowed users to be more open and honest.
Isaac spoke about community in relation to TalkLife, the anonymous application he was using most at the time. He mentioned that he had made several friends on the application and was involved in a long-distance romantic relationship with a partner he met via the application. I asked him why the application helped him to form these relationships, to which he responded, “You're still coming there, so you can feel a connection of people—like coming together on one app or something for a certain cause. […] But you can see that after talking to someone for a while, if you can talk to them for a while, you can sort of flesh out who they are as a person.” Again, Isaac reached back to the notion that anonymous applications allow a user to show their true selves. This ability helps relationships and communities form, and reflects, again, why anonymity can be so hard to define. Isaac considered that anonymity has helped him learn more about the person's identity rather than eschewing the idea of identity.
Christopher also believed that anonymity allowed users to be more open and honest about their ideas, opinions, and lifestyles. But his ideas about community formation and maintenance were less with this expression of “true selves” and more with the establishment of community norms, which were often heightened by the anonymous nature of the platforms. Without a username or post history, users need to use other methods to establish themselves as part of the community. Christopher mentioned he tended to respond to posts when he could participate in running jokes on the platform. Because the platforms he frequented had established norms, users could either communicate within those norms, identifying themselves as seasoned veterans of the platform, or communicate outside of the norms, likely identifying themselves as either trolls or new community members. Regardless, Christopher's mention of running jokes invoked this idea of community dialogue: without an individual identity connecting users to the group, this shared dialogue provides a communal identity for members.
Similarly, this connected to the idea of genre and the norms that are associated with different forms. This is just one of the ways that these informal composing spaces—and the idea of “composing in contemporary society”—allow student-users to practice skills that are emphasized in composition and TPC (Werner, 2015; Yancey, 2009). Christopher has already been practicing some of these skills by adhering to posting norms and communicating in the ways his readers expect.
Speaking specifically about Yik Yak, Christopher noted that the geolocation feature aided in making him feel like he could connect with other users on the platform. Again, he invoked the idea of shared language/shared experience, saying that users in other locations “wouldn't quite understand” the posts in the campus's local feed “because they wouldn't have had any personal experience with it.” Because the Yik Yak feed operated in a limited radius, Christopher could identify not only his audience but also content with which they would be familiar. When he complained about something that bothered him, he assumed that his sentiment would be shared by the local community of college students.
Katrina mentioned that anonymous applications often put users in touch with “groups&rduo; of other users, rather than one-on-one conversation. Katrina's ideas about anonymous applications seemed to change throughout her interview. While she was fast to condemn these types of applications as “inappropriate,” her perceptions changed as she viewed posts (like the Yik Yak post about depression) that were unlike those she had seen during her brief use of another anonymous application. She saw the ability to reach out to others, while protecting one's own identity, as a positive attribute for these applications. Near the end of the interview while we were discussing how different groups tend to form on traditional social media sites, she said, “That's what people use a lot of that anonymous apps for too, to just connect with people who are more and more like them. Who feel like they're not connected to these other groups.”
While I would not, at first, think of using anonymous applications as way to find people who were “more and more like” the user, I see through analysis of the other participants that Katrina forwarded a valid point. In fact, Pitcher (2016) came to a similar conclusion when he determined that Whisper allowed users to find like-minded others without fear of judgment.
It's also possible that anonymous applications, because they do not offer individual identities, make it easier for users to believe that the communities that emerge think and act like them. Christopher made this point, in assuming that just because Yik Yak users were in the same geofenced area, they would share his experiences and understand his references. The application afforded Christopher the ability to see, in the anonymous user base, a reflection of his individual experiences. The communal norms—the way that users interact and identify as in-group members—reinforce this idea as well. Again, this shared communal identity, even as it minimizes users' individual experiences, is not in itself a bad thing. These spaces, for many users, provide an alternative to the traditional social media platforms which emphasize the individual, urging users to portray themselves in such a way to get likes or follows.
Trevor, without any experience with anonymous applications, had much more experience with traditional social media applications—platforms that allowed him to curate his friends and followers to suit his expectations of the application. His primary social media platforms allowed him to friend or follow other users and because of this, his ideas of community beyond his own curated friend group were limited. He expressed that anonymous, geolocated applications might be interesting only if he knew people on there—something he wouldn't be able to know for sure. But certainly, the survey findings suggested that his feelings about this type of application might have been shared.
Because of Trevor's lack of experience with anonymous applications, he did not know about shared norms and expectations that might make him feel connected to a community of users whose identities he could not know. His use of social media was not intended to make him feel connected to any larger community of users. Trevor's friends were chosen based on certain characteristics, while Isaac's connections on TalkLife were formed by chance and matured through conversation, and Christopher's online communities were formed and learned norms together, rather than selecting members based on certain criteria. Trevor's experience displayed the different ways of operating for users that rely primarily on applications that allow them to curate their audience.
Participant interviews helped me to begin answering questions that the survey left me with. When given more time to think through and elaborate on their perceptions of these applications, participants had much to share about both these characteristics and the applications that emphasized them.
Together, both the survey and the interviews demonstrated the multifaceted landscape of anonymous applications. The survey established the context and provided a snapshot of student use at the time, while the interviews help illuminate some of the questions left behind from the survey. Ideas about these applications differ by group, by user, and by situation. But one thing is made clear: a monolithic reading of these spaces discounts the complexity of this rich composing space.