As the school year begins and work piles up, we must reevaluate when Internet use is beneficial and when it is not. The recent leak of a large collection of celebrity nude photos provides an example of the Internet’s seedy side. But what can we as individuals learn from this event? While we can take measures to prevent similar breaches of our own privacy, we should avoid adding to the problem by addressing the ways we use anonymity. We may imagine the leaker as a perverted sadist, but it hardly takes a terrorist to steal something in high demand in order to sell it for money and Internet glory. We all use Internet anonymity to take part in such transactions, whether we admit it or not.
The ability to be anonymous on the Internet can add positive value to your life. You can share opinions, questions and parts of your personality that you might not be comfortable revealing in person. But few people can say that anonymity motivated them to act like a better person. Had the hacker looked Jennifer Lawrence in the eye as she asked him not to share her photos with the world, would he have done it anyway? Maybe. Had she looked you in the eye and asked you not to look at them, would you have picked up your phone and flipped through them as she watched? I wouldn’t. But I did look at them, and I don’t feel bad; I am too distant from the effects of doing so.
The ability to act anonymously skews our perceptions of reality by creating situations in which actions are detached from their consequences. The Internet can be a dark place, not only for allowing sheer cruelty, but as the center of milder but less-than-ethical interactions. You may have made out-of-character comments on Reddit or 4chan, or failed to follow through on sending a book purchased from you on Amazon. You may have given a professor a rating overly charged with hate. You may find yourself on pages you wouldn’t want anyone to see on your history: an ex’s profile, your fifteenth BuzzFeed quiz of the day, Second Life. These are activities that don’t necessarily hurt anyone else but cause you shame because you know you are hurting yourself. Next time you find yourself thanking the heavens for anonymity, ask why it is you want it. Everyone deserves to find a safe haven in anonymity, but check yourself to be sure you’re using it for the right reasons.
Better yet, use technology to better connect with the real world. Artist and filmmaker Miranda July just released an app used to send messages to friends through people who are in close proximity to them using GPS, giving strangers situations to interact with one another. Be anonymous when you need to, but also use the Internet in ways that bring you closer to the world rather than detaching you from it.