Even as I’m writing this it feels irrevocable. Every character typed is like a digital stain that somehow – either by an arcane computation of numbers or some mark in the code I can’t see – links back to me. An inescapable expression of a private thought in a private moment that can never be fully rescinded, can always be accessed by those who know how to navigate the online lives of other people. At some point, we all started to fret these traces of ourselves: comments left on an article years ago, chat histories with flings and fubus, teenage sketches and the maudlin poetry of middle-age. We never stop confessing, of course, pressed ever on by a near-Catholic compulsion toward divulgence. But from time to time this one thought wakes us in a clammy sweat from troubled dreams of the analogue: the time of the anonymous confession has passed.
All solitary secret-keepers, I think, mourn the collapse of anonymity in the digital age, and we are beguiled by strategies for reclaiming our clandestine selves. I’d like to dwell a little on two online networks that are affirming the necessity of anonymous expression and reconnecting us to our unnamed, unsigned, undisclosed identities. One is PostSecret, a growing archive of postcards scrawled with intimate secrets and physically mailed by anonymous contributors. The second is Whisper, a confessional app where users can anonymously share their admissions with strangers.
There is little doubt that Whisper falls into many of the same traps as traditional social media networks, in that the text-based images shared by its users become the property of the site, which can then collate them into featured-lists and articles as they like. Users are also able to elect their own username and to engage in chat with other confessors if they choose. Regardless, it demonstrates a pervasive cultural impulsion toward anonymous confession, and in 2015 reached 10 million active monthly users. While the revelations range from the hilarious to the heartbreaking, Whisper elicits a candidness from its base that oscillates between saccharine and macabre. At the same time, the element of anonymity inhibits any attempt to validate or verify each statement. We find ourselves confronted with slippery admissions that are ungrounded in any firm identity. Does this limit our sympathetic reaction? Is an anonymous confession stripped of its affective potential? The site’s popularity suggests otherwise, perhaps, and this writer is inclined to think that these questions underestimate our need to reveal ourselves anonymously and to revel in the disclosures of unknown others.
In PostSecret, though, anonymity is all but guaranteed. The unlikely bridge between the analogue act of mailing an unsigned postcard and the digital curation of these artifacts seals the site’s assurance that contributors will remain nameless and unknown. It could be that an analogue element is the only sure way of facilitating truly anonymous confessions, and certainly, PostSecret’s strategy has led to a curated image-bank that couldn’t exist elsewhere on traditional social media networks. Perhaps, also, the physical act involved in the mailing persuades us of the sincerity of these confessions. An anonymous hand that held the letter, but a hand.
Somehow in spite of our fear of leaving digital traces, we keep on looking out on the water for the message in a bottle that will float our way; no need or opportunity to talk back, just a secret to keep.