Since the dawn of social media, the option to speak and be spoken to anonymously has always been in place, if only so you can share the responses you get for all your followers to see.
From Formspring to Ask.Fm, from the anon ask on Tumblr to the current day CuriousCat, finding out what others think of us behind closed doors has captivated internet users for many years.
Not only do we love asking anonymous questions, we love receiving them.
Whether it’s a banal ‘do you prefer cats to dogs’ or an invasive ‘who do you fancy right now’, announcing our thoughts on various topics – legitimised by someone else asking us about them – has been and remains a popular part of being online.
Am Golhar, a trained coach in human behaviour, thinks that opening ourselves up to these questions could be a sign of isolation.
‘There could be several reasons that someone signs up to an anonymous questions website,’ Golhar tells Metro.co.uk. ‘Loneliness definitely being one, especially if you have isolated yourself away from people close to you for various reasons.’
While loneliness might be a factor, so might the desire to fit in.
Ellisar, a 22 year old who used these sites in high school, says: ‘Everyone at my school was on those websites, it was about wanting to join the bandwagon by signing up to these sites.’
After signing up, however, having an account wasn’t enough on its own. She continues: ‘It felt like a measure of popularity to be asked questions and a way to get validation.’
Elissar knows that seeking validation is a normal part of human nature, but she also saw these sites get out of hand – with damaging results.
‘People want to know what others think of us, even when it’s negative,’ she explains. ‘It’s almost as if you want to stay on these websites to defend yourself and stand up for yourself, even if that isn’t great for your mental health.
‘I don’t think we’re meant to be exposed to all of these unfiltered opinions, especially during times when we’re vulnerable and easily influenced.’
With most sites not having a filter for their offensive messages, it’s easy to find yourself the victim of abuse to anonymous accounts.
‘When I got Formspring about 10 years ago I started to get insults telling me how shit my hair looked, how much of a faggot I was and even messages telling me to kill myself,’ recounts Will, a 28-year-old stylist living in London.
‘I had a feeling I knew who the person was and that they were just trying to wind me up, so it didn’t hurt me too much. That isn’t always the case though for a lot of people, if it happened to someone with less thick skin it could’ve been quite devastating.’
Hannah, who also used anonymous question sites as a teenager, said she received similar abuse and while she knew it was damaging, she couldn’t pull herself away from the screen.
‘About 90% of my anonymous messages were abusive,’ she says. ‘Jabs about my looks, my weight, my personality. People would ask me to kill myself, threaten to kill me, etc. You’d wonder why I didn’t delete it sooner but some kind of morbid curiosity just kept me coming back.’
Golhar comments that it should be the responsibility of these sites to filter and block hateful messages being sent to its users: ‘If the individual is in a vulnerable state, sites should be safeguarding them from bullies and spam comments.’
While simply avoiding these sites, or deleting your account after encountering abuse, seems like a more solid solution to not receiving anonymous hate, the temptation to see into other people’s points of view makes experiencing hate ‘worth it’ to some.
As Hannah points out, ‘everyone wants to know what people really think of them, or what people wanted to know about them at some time or another’.
She adds: ‘”Reading minds” is a common answer when people are asked what super power they’d like. That desire to know people’s true thoughts lives in all of us, even if its deep down and very small.’
Whether you have the thick skin to take troll comments on the chin, or just see them as part and parcel of being online, Golhar advises remembering the comments aren’t about you, but the person making them.
‘When someone is being [abusive online] to others who they know and don’t know, then there is a deeper issue, not with the other people, but the individuals themselves,’ she explains. ‘It comes from anger in the individual that they have been suppressing, and they are using anonymous abuse as an outlet for it, but this will not resolve their issues.’
Anonymous question sites are an outlet for us all – whether that is making us feel special, giving us a platform to share stories that wouldn’t otherwise come up in conversation or, worryingly, to expel anger onto another person.
But it’s important to take a step back and reflect on how use of these platforms – which often miss the mark when it comes to protecting people from abuse – is actually making us feel, and to step back when it’s all becoming too much.
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