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THE LOST ART OF ANONYMITY

It is a tired observation to discuss how in the last decade the internet and social media has diminished our culture’s value for anonymity. We have also become jaded towards how a reality show’s character will put their dignity on sale in exchange for nothing more than just a few minutes of the public’s attention. Since there is little left in terms of originality of what can be said on these matters, it is time to move pass the frustration of what our culture has become, and attempt to preserve what little privacy and sense of anonymity we have left.

Whether we like it or not, self-promotion (for either flattering or unflattering reasons) has become the dominating component of today’s milieu. I know it is difficult to accept a culture shift whose cornerstone is that of shameless self-publicizing (as it can oftentimes be a pretty disgusting display of neediness and skewed perspective), but we are too far along at this point to get the toothpaste back in the tube. Our culture frowns on the less conspicuous and champions notoriety. Rather than genuine merit, success can be quantified by the number of pages a Google search kicks back on a person’s name.

I am aware that this curmudgeonly and cynical approach can be viewed as bordering on the excessive. Most of this is done in the name of simple entertainment and typically nobody gets hurt in the process. I also do not wish to condemn all acts of social media and reality television, as there have been some terrific achievements done in both mediums that have unequivocally improved the world we live in. I do think, though, that we need to be reminded that making our privacy available for public consumption has more potential to complicate our lives than it does to enrich them.

I find the cons to significantly outweigh the pros, particularly in cases of people who decide that they would like to make changes to their lives. Today, a person is handed a Facebook page and Twitter handle and told to run along and construct an identity. Through pictures, messaging, and settings, a person is responsible for constructing their own online autobiography that the world may access through nothing more than a simple series of clicks. In no time at all, a person’s entire life can be brought up on a screen to be viewed and judged by any person who makes the effort to find it. The story that a person creates about themselves is rarely a representation of their actual self and is more likely just the story they want people to believe. If this person’s attitude should change and he no longer wants to identify with the story he has created, then he will find that he cannot simply rescind the narrative he has worked so hard to cultivate.

To form a relationship with the internet is to form a relationship with permanence. Just ask any marginally talented socialite whose sex tape was leaked how easy it was to have it purged from the internet. Whatever is released can never be confidently removed so a person should treat their internet identity with the measure and precision they would a tattoo. This is not to suggest though that once a reputation is built, it is impossible to revise. It does mean, however, that it is increasingly difficult to change perception when a person’s past behaviors are documented and archived by today’s best technology.

When a person reaches the decision to change the path they are on, privacy can be a gift. Unfortunately, this gift is often forfeited in exchange for a fleeting false sense of community. We have been instructed to eschew anonymity and instead establish a presence. I have been told, “Don’t just be an individual; share your individuality!” It’s a charming sentiment and there is nothing wrong with being yourself and expressing your uniqueness. This concept though has become perverted and what has been fostered instead is an unhealthy compulsion to spew every facet of our lives onto a forum which will display these details on a permanent basis.

I must reiterate that I do not intend to suggest that Facebook and YouTube are evil empires bent on crippling its users. The concerns are rather more abstract and macro in scale. The loss of privacy has become rampant and as a result relationships have become superficial. What we share with the public should be done in moderation so that we do not become married to an identity that we may one day want to grow out of. For instance, when a person attends an AA/NA meeting, they bring only their first name and selected experiences to share. Anonymity is a crucial component for the growth process because it affords the individual a certain freedom from the hang-ups of identity. AA/NA is the great leveler because it does not care about whom you are and what you have done. Its only concern is that its members are aware that they are an addict and their goal is to stay sober. The anonymous component strips away all the social constructs which complicate people’s daily lives and allows addicts to focus solely on becoming the person they are capable of being. As more time is spent with the group and as more honesty is offered, a real community is formed – one that is forged by shared experiences and requires more than just a username and a password. It is through this community of disparate individuals, who know each other only by their first names, does the healing process flourish and strengthen their resolve.

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