What is the value of anonymity?

The brightest star often blinds us to the rest of the constellations. We live in a society in which brightness is valued above all else; that is, the ability to stand out. To be unique. But has our society always been so individualistic?


Modern society has evolved significantly, from something collectivist and contained to something sprawling and interconnected. This is in many parts due to industrialisation, a movement of increased productivity and technological development in the early twentieth century that granted accessibility to travel. Communities became smaller, and opportunities more pronounced, broader in definition. This idea of what it meant to mean something to something (or someone) transformed even further with the introduction of the internet. As we find ourselves psychologically, and at least theoretically closer if not physically so, we are able to identify ourselves by other people more and more. But what did we define ourselves as before?

​In prehistoric societies, caveman times, families lived as tribal nomadic groups; their engagement with society is their immediate family. Inside this family, they have a prescribed role and a limited sense of needing to prove oneself to anyone outside of this core family unit. Survival is reliant upon the dependance on this same group - there is no imperative to stand out, simply for the sake of doing so. In fact, cohesion is an adaptive advantage to the group.

We moved out of this collectivist society in which meaning and importance moved laterally instead of up a hierarchy of power. This move towards the hierarchy, towards individualism, sprang from a broadening spectrum of influence. As power groups conquer and divide, colonies increase. One has the ability to gain power in this society, but there is a limit to the power you can achieve within this immediate context; there could be massive murders and death in Greece, or intrigue and betrayal in the course of England, with a growing sense of the global, but your success and your failure, your fame or infamy, is limited in its scale.


The pursuit of attention as a valid and worthy pursuit in and of itself seems to emerge quite suddenly- whilst it might have always been a human trait, it seems the desirability of this increases exponentially as the ability to achieve this broad-scale attention increases. The invention of the airplane, the internet, television - all of these things turn our backyard into one inside the global neighbourhood of many. It is incredibly valuable to be known in this backyard, in part because the odds are so slim that this will be possible relative only to this global community’s population.


The skills and work involved in becoming identifiable and valuable are synonymous. It’s more revered to be valuable to more people, to be someone to lots of people. The internet and portable smart devices disrupt this self-selection process, however- now, with the advent of immediacy and accessibility to a large scale of information and promotional platforms, image recreation technology - every single person now potentially has the tools to operate on that previously revered and unattainable playing field. The question remains, however; do you have the skills to reach a truly revered position amongst this clutter and saturation of the individual?


I don’t know if it’s good or bad, this western imperative to be someone. And, it turns out, those skills that are deemed worthy of attention are in the eye of the beholder. Today we have more famous people than ever before - it’s a job occupation in and of itself. Perhaps we’ve lost sight of why people become famous, or what being famous even means and it’s value. Interestingly, most people seem to want to share their entire lives with others and be known, recognised and understood. One could argue that anonymity is actually an undesirable trait, based on the progression of western society.


Yet, funnily enough, there are certain things happening in today’s society that indicate its value. At one end, people use Facebook to communicate within the shadow of anonymity - the ability to share and spread cruelty and to practice dehumanisation is enabled by this de-personalisation of the perpetrator. In those situations, people love the fact that they can disappear, only to be ‘seen’ when and how they choose. These technologies allow people to be anonymous in the sense that the things they say and do don’t form the whole of their human persona - people have the freedom to pick and choose what parts are exposed, and by the same token, what elements of their life and personality are hidden and protected.


The other extreme, of course, is that the concept of anonymity fits well into teaching around resilience and wellbeing. It examines the pressure of being an individual, as opposed to embracing the humility of belonging to the collective, a position that perhaps has a more balanced understanding of humans within a greater environmental community. It examines not how you are identified or how you appear to others or about what might happen, your potential as a result of your infamy. It offers an alternative of existing in the present, in an equal and collaborative way, in which you and your peers are on par with each other and accept the world and your place within it. There are no better, no worse- there simply is. This lack of pressure and the energy involved in interpreting continual stimuli actually allows your body and mind to heal and this comes through the ability to be anonymous, to not feel that why you are and what you do matters, you can exist outside of how you are perceived.


Anonymity is very valuable, and it’s important to remember that as you try to create the constructs that don’t allow you to have that liberated experience. At some point, trying to make sure that every person knows you because they think you are special becomes incredibly hard to live up to. In fact, it’s very likely that you won’t live up to it- because it wont be you that they know. The needs that you thought would be fulfilled by fame- the need to be understood, to be loved, to be accepted- will end up being drastically unfulfilled. When people hold onto a false version of you, one that you might willingly or unknowingly create, we will find ourselves falling into a disjunct that will only create confusion and isolation. So, the question is- how do we want to be known?