Anonymity and Informed Judgement

Good morning Deerfield. I wanted to share with you thoughts on the issue of anonymity—online or otherwise.

I wanted to say a word on this, because anonymous discussion Apps, it seems, are, according to a number of recent media reports, including the Chronicle of Higher Education, growing in popularity on college and university campuses. We have seen this before, with YikYak and JuicyCampus, both of which are now out of business and in disrepute. The founder of JuicyCampus has disavowed his former company, and now works as an advocate for kinder and more civically-minded digital space.

With the rise of these new Apps—and the anonymity they allow—college campuses have seen a substantial rise in toxic, mean-spirited and sometimes hateful forms of speech. This has much to do with the polarized and fractious moment through which we are living, but it has undoubtedly been supercharged by the availability of anonymous forms of online expression. They allow users to avoid responsibility for unkind, and sometimes illegal, speech, and they allow us to say things, I believe, we would never write in our own names or say in person in conversation with others.

Many of these anonymous posts are intended to troll, to intimidate, and to vandalize, to excite fear. Ultimately the goal is to breed suspicion and mistrust. We are first and foremost a community trust. That is why our school values—and our rules—prohibit anonymous posts and posts under an alias.

As a school, we need to push back against this. We need to be countercultural. Because we swim in what a parent recently described to me as a “polluted information environment,” we must develop the skills to read and think our way through this landscape—assessing, evaluating and fact-checking the information that floods upon us. That is why your education here Deerfield puts such emphasis on analysis and critical thought: to provide you with the skepticism and discernment you need to exercise informed judgement.

But you are called to do much more than simply read critically and skeptically. You are called to take good care of our common digital spaces. Just as we seek to keep our physical and natural commons free from trash, pollutants and other toxins, so too should we seek to steward our civic, digital, and public commons, by writing and speaking in our own voices and by engaging in respectful dialogue—rather than undermining and vandalizing it. So let’s make good decisions when we are online, and let’s refrain from hiding behind the cloak of anonymity.

Later this month we will begin a series of conversations with The Social Institute an educational nonprofit whose mission is to empower students to “positively navigate their social world—including social media and technology—and fuel their health, happiness, and future success.” It’s our hope that they will provide all of us the the space to explore how we can all exercise thoughtful decision-making and digital citizenship.

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