7 Dec 2022DisruptorsWhy is Gen Z so hooked on being anonymous?

Gen Zers are opting for anonymity over online fame. Anonymous accounts and smaller, niche social network platforms are responding to younger generations' desire to communicate in ways that feel less pressurised and performative. But why does anonymously sharing feel so liberating for this cohort?

Max CockingMax Cocking is a commissioning editor at Canvas8. He is deeply enthused by the blurry line that separates high and low culture and is currently learning Brazilian Portuguese. Outside of work, he can usually be found either doing yoga or managing his cats' social media presence.

Anonymous social media platforms, widgets, and accounts are yet again taking over, with a resurgence in new platforms like Sendit, Yolo, and NGL dominating many a social feed. Gen Zers value their online identities more than older generations and they take them seriously. However, they’re also more cautious than their predecessors as they grew up knowing all too well that thousands of people can instantly criticise them online at any one point. Consequently, they’re more guarded and are starting to use anonymous accounts in large numbers.

Anonymity can help bypass the pressures of surveillance or judgement, with the most vulnerable identities often hidden behind pseudonyms. Social media used to be about closed networks – think Myspace and early Facebook – which were spaces where you mostly knew the people who followed you and vice versa. But young netizens who missed this internet era are throwing back to it, with Gen Z Pinterest users up 40% year-on-year. In an ecosystem where social interaction is a norm, digital ‘third spaces’ that allow for private identity exploration feel safe, autonomous, and unobtrusive.

@_nxxi Twitter (2020)

Considering this, anonymity is a double-edged sword: it enhances freedom of expression, but can also feel dangerous – and allows for toxic behaviours and trolling. The largely anonymous and pseudonymous culture on Discord has 150 million users, with Gen Zers no longer seeing the need to provide their real names online. Going a step further, Signal is an open-source messaging app that puts user privacy at the heart of its product by using end-to-end encryption for all features. Its privacy policies are winning people over; the app had 7.5 million downloads in one week in early January 2021, a 4,200% increase after WhatsApp announced it would be sharing users' data with Facebook.

Anonymity removes accountability, specifically for accounts that are putting out negative content. With no accountability, online spaces can become toxic, from the racist abuse of sports stars to the closure of platforms due to cyberbullying. On the other hand, anonymity allows Gen Zers to voice their opinions freely without worry of whether they’re ‘on brand' or not. So how can these platforms allow for healthy accountability without becoming an online police force? Anonymous social media platform Sidechat is sweeping across college campuses with its own brand of anonymity and accountability. Similar in function to Yik Yak or Reddit, Sidechat’s users are anonymous publicly, but can be tracked from the back end for accountability purposes to prevent trolling and cyberbullying.

Memedroid (2022)

Whether it’s the positive aspect of digital cultures encouraging online anonymity for Gen Zers where they can freely self-express away from the adult gaze, or the darker side of anonymous online spaces where young people are susceptible to bullying and being interrogated by chatbots, anonymous online spaces show no signs of going anywhere as the first truly digitally native generation retreat to smaller corners of the internet.

Reasons for remaining anonymous online can vary. Research by YPulse shows that while younger generations may be hooked on all things social media, many feel burned out by the pressure to be perfect online and are turning to anonymous and authentic social spaces that encourage a little more spontaneity. Whether looking for acceptance, freedom, or a sense of comfort, Gen Zers have arrived at a new era of anonymity where questionable identities and personas win out over personal branding.