By Sabeena Mozaffar
CW: Anxiety, mental health
People often display exuberant overconfidence on the Internet. It’s one of the things I’ve noticed most, particularly when they’re commenting their opinions and judgements on other people’s posts and statuses. It’s perhaps their sheer audacity that surprises me the most. Whether it’s in the comments section of social networking sites like Facebook or Reddit, or anonymous conversations with strangers on mobile apps such as Kik and Whisper, I fear that people have either forgotten what it is to be respectful towards others or they just enjoy the thrill of the troll. The majority of these commentators would never have the courage to say such things in the “real world”. But the Internet provides them with security: a computer screen, a fake or anonymous user account, a physical and emotional distance. It has made me question the role of anonymity on the World Wide Web in the digital age.
To analyse this, I drew upon my own experiences: the times when I have used the Internet and been thankful for the anonymity it provides me, alongside the times when I felt foolish for using anonymous platforms. I referred back to the times I was not able to identify the stranger who offered me advice, a compliment or even a joyous mocking. My feelings towards this inability to identify (and connect with) the people I’m interacting with are mixed, particularly because of my mental health. My insecurities, and anxiety, my triggers and coping strategies, are all affected by how I’m able to interact with, and know, people online.
When my anxiety hits me, I feel lost, confused, and trapped in the moment, as if I alone am carrying the entire world’s burdens. I deserve all the wrongs that have happened to me. I am destined to be abandoned by all my loved ones. I am no longer deserving of the affection they once offered me. At times, my emotions become so intense that I begin to question my very existence on this Earth.
It is in times like this that I’m thankful for my online hidden identity, as I open my WordPress and begin to blog, venting on the digital surface. I am too ashamed to admit these thoughts to another human in the real world.
How foolish and immature am I to be getting emotional over a boy I crush on? How did they managed to ruin my childhood and walk away guilt-free? I hope they die a slow and painful death.
There’s a strange relationship with the other bloggers who read and comment on my poetry and other posts – they know me only as a pseudonym. I appreciate this distance when I need it most; when I am anxious, I do not wish to be judged or ridiculed further when I am already ridiculing myself. Even if I encounter a troll or critical comment, I can always reassure myself that they don’t know me. They’ll forget about me in a second, scrolling, tapping, opening another app. My laptop screen is a shield, hiding any trace of who I really am, allowing me to choose what parts of myself to display.
When I’m vulnerable, this control gives me some relief.
However, at other times, the type of reassurance I desire cannot be obtained from behind the comfort of a screen. When I post on the anonymous app Whisper about how much I hate myself, how I look, and who I am as a person, there are many kind responses. They say that I am simply being too harsh on myself.
But they barely know me. They haven’t seen the “real” me in the “real” world.
And in this way, I want the same thing online as I do offline. Please “like” me.