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Throughout this semester the topic of online anonymity keeps resurfacing in different avenues of the digital landscape. In my project, I have immersed myself in the US Message Board website. The US Message Board is an online political forum that includes many different categories of politically related topics (such as: politics, religion, healthcare, conspiracy theories, race/racism) as well as more miscellaneous/general topics (such as: sports, food and wine, etc). While some users can choose taglines that reflect pieces of their assumed-to-be-real names, most choose fictional tag names, incorporating to some extent the idea of anonymity.
Many people critique the educational value, or lack thereof, of discussion forums like US Message Board. During my digital travels, I have been reading discussions while thinking about the following questions: What causes people to feel this way? Do users accredit their posts’ information or educational background? How do users interact and are discussions advanced? How does the idea of anonymity play into the discussions? Would they be different without it?
When I began my immersion in the US Message Board (USMB) site, I began by reading their “Rules & Regulations”. While the overall tone of the page at times appeared humorous and sarcastic, there were basic rules that they regularly enforce. Among them: linking information to sources (citing), no pornographic/obscene/indecent images, all users share the right to express their own beliefs/faiths/opinions, and every user must not reveal personal contact information about themselves or others (full name, address, phone number, and e-mail address). This page ends with, “Currently whipping the hamsters to keep things running.” In a way, USMB acts a little like 4chan – except it doesn’t tolerate porn. Every user utilizes an anonymous identity, and they can say whatever they want (though USMB doesn’t tolerate as much language as 4chan does). After reading these rules and concluding USMB members might be like 4chan users, I braved myself for some low-level educational value in the discussions. However, the topics on USMB actually hold relevance and importance; unlike say the “Sexy Beautiful Women” category on 4chan.
Since the USMB features so many different discussion topics, I decided to narrow down my investigation to the current debate over taxes. The discussion titled, “So people who earn a million a year pay a lower tax rate than the middle class” has been my latest investigation. While the first post presented how much a person earning a million dollars a year would pay in income tax versus a person earning fifty thousand dollars, shutting down the seemingly naïve claim of the discussion topic. Then you get someone commenting about how most Americans do not pay their fair share, then comes a user commenting “Obama bin lying…”. This combination of substantial, “fact” filled posts with random comments that don’t seem to add anything has appeared to be a common pattern in USMB discussions.
However, I have found (much to my surprise) many posts that seem to contain factual, relevant information that sparks questions and feedback that advance the conversation (not always the original discussion topic, but the current conversation of the board). Contrary to the USMB’s Rules and Regulations, many of these statistics, “facts”, or quotes ever appear to be cited to referred to another source. How can I accept these claims to be true? Many of the USMB users seem to either agree with other users’ uncited claims – perhaps by either knowing them to be true (if it could be considered general tax knowledge) or by blindly accepting and trusting their community’s members.
That being said, there are some comments by users who seem to have the untrusting reader in mind. One user provided links to various news articles, providing a point of information he summarized below each. While you didn’t have to agree with his conclusions, the sources he was basing them off were there for you to see. This brave user was consequently shut down immediately by the next user who picked specific points from the various articles to dismantle the other user’s claims. Poor guy.
While people like Stewart Brand envisioned online communities to be a place of trust, growth, and educational expansion, I cannot confirm this ideal for the USMB – at least not yet. While many opinions are made on the site, the replies seem to most often spark a back and forth bashing of different viewpoints, never opening up the table for compromise or an understanding of opposition.
In a series of negative reviews of USMB, retired users explain how much the site has changed since they initially began using it. The changes described remind me much of what many of the hackers we read about in Vanity Fair. Many of the USMB users became trolls and hackers who threatened other users via private messages with physical violence – including rape. Other threats were made verbally (well typed) with obscene language, which is tolerated on the site due to users’ protest for “freedom of speech”.
As of now, it seems my original doubts about anonymous online communities being a place for positive educational growth have been mostly confirmed. While I, like retired users, admit to many discussion posts containing educational, worthy information, sometimes it seems these posts are overshadowed by the hackers who use it for harm or uneducated users who post solely to undermine opinions not aligned with their own.
In the next phase of my project, I want to explore more discussions on taxes in other digital spaces. I will compare discussions utilizing anonymous identities versus real ones. How will the discussions be different? Will people be more concerned with citing their sources in an effort to legitimize their comments? Will people be able to criticize other posts as easily as they do in the USMB? My thoughts now are that when people post under the anonymous mask (and without source references), they feel much more confident and free to write whatever they wish, while users utilizing a true identity take more precaution in their online posts.