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The problem with anonymity and social media

I recently finished watching the movie “Her,” a movie in which a man, played by Joaquin Phoenix, falls in love with his phone’s operating system. The premise seems rather silly when summed up in a sentence, but as the film progressed I found that an uneasiness began to set over me as it became clear how closely the film came to reality. The parallels connecting the plot of this movie to modern day technology, such as Tinder, are undeniable. Even closer to home, one could say the film mimics the way the UMaine Crushes & Missed Connections Facebook page is run.

        For those that aren’t already acquainted with the page, or that simply dropped Facebook after growing tired of Words With Friends, “UMaine Crushes & Missed Connections” is a Facebook community in which students can anonymously make posts to, or about, a person they’re attracted to, be it a close friend or a complete stranger. The posts are then put up anonymously for any member of the group (of which there are about 7,800 members) to like, comment with support, tag their friends, or ruthlessly mock. Due to the anonymous nature of the posts, individuals are able to take on the role of the Joaquin Phoenix character, treating the page like a close friend by revealing those intimate thoughts they wouldn’t ordinarily share with the public.

        Communities like the “UMaine Crushes & Missed Connections” page are far from an original idea. In fact, one could say they are a natural evolution of those cheesy advice columns in newspapers brought to the social media realm. Numerous anonymous social media apps have emerged in recent years and enjoyed reasonable popularity, such as  Yik Yak, Whisper, and Secret. The appeal of these apps are obvious, being that users can have genuine and honest interactions, but they also open a door for rampant cyberbullying with minimal repercussions. In a study published from the International Conference on Web and Social Media (ICWSM), researchers found that posts to anonymous social media sites were often negative in nature and expressed deeply personal wants, needs and wishes.

        The app Secret enjoyed a 16 month run of success, along with $35 million in funding, but its ultimate downfall was exactly that which brought its success. Just as addressed in the ICWSM study, the app suffered from innumerable claims of cyberbullying and an inability to provide adequate review. As a result, the app faltered, and eventually failed, with CEO David Byttow admitting in his announcement of the shutdown that anonymity is “the ultimate double-edged sword, which must be wielded with great respect and care.”

This is not to say that social media is evil, or that those who enjoy updating their Instagram regularly are suffering from some sort of social disorder. In fact, a study conducted by the University of Missouri-Columbia tracked individuals’ social media use from 2009 to 2011 and found that their feelings of social well-being had actually increased with social media use. However, the problem arises for the well-being of subjects when social media is used as a replacement for social interaction.  

While social media and anonymous pages like “UMaine Crushes & Missed Connectionsare not inherently negative forces, it is not in the best interest of anyone to treat an app like a close friend. Joaquin Phoenix is a fantastic actor, but not even he can make being obsessed with your phone look good.


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