When I was in college in the mid-2000s—right around the time “Thefacebook” and Myspace launched and cell phones were suddenly everywhere—I became fascinated by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s writings on the press, which seemed to anticipate the dangers of the digital world by 150 years. (Hubert Dreyfus—whose book On the Internet Robert Mixa explores in the latest issue of Evangelization & Culture—was all over the connection.) Kierkegaard saw that flattened, disembodied communication had a deeply dehumanizing effect, turning passion into reflection, commitment into chatter, and concrete individuals into an abstract “public.”
A key element of his critique of the press was its anonymity. Here is the ever-passionate Kierkegaard in his Point of View:
The fact that an anonymous author by the help of the press can day by day find occasion to say (even about intellectual, moral, and religious matters) whatever he pleases to say, and what perhaps he would be very far from having the courage to say as an individual; that every time he opens his mouth (or shall we say his abysmal gullet?) he at once is addressing thousands of thousands; that he can get ten thousand times ten thousand to repeat after him what he has said—and with all this nobody has any responsibility . . . the absolutely unrepentant thing, a nobody, an anonymity, who is the producer (auctor), and another anonymity, the public, sometimes even anonymous subscribers, and with all this, nobody, nobody!
Is there any doubt that Kierkegaard was onto something? Replace the word “press” with “internet,” and you have an accurate (if fierce) take on the digital world, one that easily could have been written in 2020.
From the earliest days of the internet, anonymity was prized by free speech advocates and digital enthusiasts as a necessary and beneficial thing. Anonymous users could freely broadcast their interests and opinions, transcend the appearances and limitations of their bodies, and even harness and explore hidden elements of their personalities—all without the risk of suppression, prejudice, or humiliation.
There may have been something to this position in the internet’s callow youth. But more and more of life has moved online, and the rush of liberation and experimentation has collapsed into the frailty of human nature. Anonymity is the driving force of the internet’s most dangerous elements—things that Kierkegaard could never have dreamed of. Online predators, phishing, trolling, radicalization, exploitation, political bots, alt and burner accounts, the dark web, identity theft, fake news, targeted harassment, cyberbullying, cyberattacks—all of it has unleashed untold human suffering, and all of it is fed by ghostly digital profiles. The question “What would you do if you were invisible for a day?” has become a real possibility online—not just one day, but every day—and the results reveal the dark corners of the human mind that crave that invisibility.
When it comes to social media, those sites that are less anonymous—either as a matter of their culture (e.g., Instagram) or protocols (e.g., Facebook, which at least has a real name policy)—tend to have, overall, a less toxic environment. But those sites that have more anonymity—for example, YouTube and Twitter—tend to be far more noxious. And one of the sites most known for its nasty climate—Reddit—is also one of the most anonymous.
These dangerous and toxic elements won’t go away—and in fact, will only get worse—until we get over our ideological commitment to absolute digital freedom.
This does not mean, of course, that there is no place for anonymity online. Even before the internet, people made anonymous phone calls, wrote anonymous letters, and even (like Kierkegaard himself!) wrote under pseudonyms. For people looking into a sensitive subject, or for those in totalitarian countries looking to exercise greater political and religious freedom, anonymity is indispensable.
It also does not mean that lessening anonymity will solve all of the internet’s problems. Human beings are often terrible to each other even in the full glare of each other’s presence, never mind behind the glare of a screen. The digital world also has a whole host of serious problems—pornography and addiction among them—that require other solutions.
But it does mean that the less anonymous the internet is, the safer—and saner—it will be. Anonymity should be the exception, not the rule. When we present our own face and name online, and see the face and the name of others, we can harness the advantages of the digital while more closely reflecting the real. It secures our own responsibility for what we say and honors the personality of those we say it to.
It also draws each user into a healthier psychological and spiritual space. In the book of Genesis, we read that after the fall, Adam and Eve cover themselves and hide among the trees of the garden. When God calls to Adam and asks, “Where are you?” Adam responds, “I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid” (Gen. 3:8-10). On a biblical reading, hiding from our identity is wrapped up with fear, shame, and disordered desire. Being seen as we are, on the other hand, forces us to be vulnerable and accountable. It also better equips us to face God honestly—both in the quiet of our conscience and at the end of our lives. “For there is nothing hidden that will not become visible, and nothing secret that will not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17).
Hopefully, politicians, thought leaders, Silicon Valley CEOs, and others in positions of influence will find creative ways to decrease anonymity online while respecting privacy—for example, through the use of a single universal online identity. But what all of us can do today—and what Christians in particular, who are called to channel truth into the world, should do—is be true online. Use your own image and name; try to present yourself in the same way online as you do offline; be a virtuous virtual agent of the kingdom of God, knowing that anything you post is out there for all to see, forever, as yours.
My Kierkegaardian understanding of the digital age has been tempered by experience. Disembodied communication is incredibly powerful, but like most technologies, it’s largely neutral. As Peter Kreeft wrote: “Good and evil are like odd and even integers; science and technology are only their exponents. They multiply whatever they are given, good or evil, odd or even.” The internet can be used for great evil; but it can also be used for great good—Word on Fire’s own ministry being a clear example.
But over the past twenty years, digital anonymity has proven to be something else. It is not neutral; rather, it feeds and is fed by deceptive, manipulative, and spiritually destructive instincts.
It’s high time we bid it farewell.