The Internet allows more communication than ever. How does the safety of anonymity influence our relationships?

The Internet allows more communication than ever.  How does the safety of anonymity influence our relationships?

Interview with Sarah Dopp

January 12, 2009

We all know that there are more ways than ever to remain in contact with each other and create unique social networks such as sex-based communities. Do the pressures of maintaining an online lifestyle (regardless of anonymity), a traditional community presence, and our professional lives put undue influence or stress on the choices we make? How has this new media changed our personal interactions with each other?

  • Rufina Rufina 3 users seconded this question.

    Your statement says: "The trick is to create something so smart and wonderful that it naturally spreads its own word." Can you give us your favorite examples of such things (smart and wonderful)?

    Right now I'm in love with -- a blog I started a year ago that explores androgyny and gender variance through artistic photography. Over the last few months, its content base and community have grown exponentially, simply because I created some new features that enabled more open conversation.

    One of those features was allowing people to send me whatever was on their mind about gender -- completely anonymously -- through an open text box form. The response was incredible! I immediately picked up hundreds of thought submissions and thousands of regular readers. The conversation exploded, and people have been urgently telling their friends to start reading the site.

    My day job is in "internet marketing," so my secret mission is to convince everyone to build more beautiful things that make people insanely happy. When you do that, the marketing takes care of itself.
  • Airlia Airlia 3 users seconded this question.

    So this facebook for sex only works if you use your real name and info right? Do you expect to get a lot of participation stripping away the safety of anonymity?

    The person asking this question is referring to -- a site I'm building that will encourage people to document and map their sexual histories and connections, and share that information with trusted friends.

    And the answer is no. You can use the site entirely under a pseudonym, and you don't need to be identifiable in any way. People can't search for you, and no one can see any of your info unless you choose to share it with them. We're super clear on the fact that people need to be able to define their own levels of identity and anonymity. That's what intimacy is all about.

    Now, having said that, the site isn't meant to be about meeting new people (mostly because it's not a dating/hookup site) -- it's about strengthening your existing friendships. So if you want to use it pseudonymously, you'll either need to tell your real life friends what your pseudonym is, add people you've met pseudonymously through other websites, or just use it as your private diary. The goal is to give you better tools to do what you already do: talk about your intimate life with the people you trust.

    We may add features in the future that will let people share things anonymously with a broader community, but we want to see how people respond to putting their focus on trusted friends, first.
  • CaptainBunnyKilla CaptainBunnyKilla 7 users seconded this question.

    Some psychological studies have shown that relationships progress faster with respect to information sharing when there is some anonymity involved. Internet communities have been the focus points of many of these studies. In your experience, does this tendency for online over-sharing make dealing with people online easier or harder?

    Really interesting question! First, I want to challenge the association between "sharing more information" and "oversharing." If "oversharing" is defined as "sharing too much," then how do you know when that line has been crossed?

    Does it make dealing with people online easier or harder? I want to say "both," but to be honest, my leaning is toward "easier." The ability people now have to throw out social anxiety and just spill their guts about what really matters to them is such a gift! It opens so many doors for people to connect and find support on things that would otherwise be shadowed and shamed.

    Then again, it also opens up a world of hateful trolling. But I guess that's the tradeoff, and at least it's manageable.
  • Rufina Rufina 7 users seconded this question.

    We have thousands of friends on My Space but don’t know the names of our neighbors:
    Do you think that social networks are popular because of people’s inability to sustain normal relationships?

    You make some interesting assertions here. Are you saying you think that people are unable to sustain normal relationships these days? What's a normal relationship?

    You're absolutely right that many people are connecting more with their online networks than with people who share their physical space. But I'd argue that in a lot of cases, this is just the result of having more options for how to organize a community. If someone can now develop friendships with people who have important things in common with them but live thousands of miles away, is it wrong for them to prioritize those friendships over hanging out with a next door neighbor that they don't feel any chemistry with?

    There are upsides and downsides to this shift in communities, for sure. In my life, the upsides outweigh the downsides. The relationships I've developed online are some of the richest and most trusted I've ever had.

    But I also know the names of my neighbors. Smile
  • Mr Guy Mr Guy 5 users seconded this question.

    Obviously the internet has opened vast new doors of communication the world over, through networking, activism, and a new art media. However, these doors also open up the chasm of anti-intellectualism, or, just as bad, watered-down intellectual mimicry. How do you personally combat these obstacles in your work?

    Those are really good points, and yet, I find I don't have to worry about it too much. The upside of there being so much noise on the internet is that a natural hierarchy of importance has formed to help curate what really matters. The good stuff bubbles to the top, the crap sinks to the bottom, and it's all governed by real people and their real interests and passions.

    Personally, I follow people, not websites. I keep an eye on the folks whose opinions I regard highly, and I check out the stuff they recommend. 9 times out of 10, it's something good.

    And I try to provide the same service to them.
  • Backseat Boohoo Backseat Boohoo 5 users seconded this question.

    You work on an amazing project called Genderfork. What gender would you personally assign yourself, and why? If you do not assign a specific gender to yourself, again: why?

    I'm actually kind of surprised that this question doesn't come up more often. I think people get so shy around gender. The whole idea of asking about it is taboo.

    If I had an open text box that asked what my gender was, I'd enter: "female, androgynous, queer." (As a sidenote, I'd like to see more people define their genders as lists instead of single words. I think the world would be a much more beautiful place.)

    I identify as female because that's how most people categorize me, and I'm fine with that.

    I identify as androgynous because I feel most comfortable when I'm dressed either as gender-neutral, or as equally masculine and feminine at the same time. (Think jeans and a t-shirt on mellow days, and full makeup and a modified men's suit on fancy days.) Personality-wise, I tend to fluctuate between "acting like a girl" and "acting like a guy." Hard to explain, but my friends have pointed it out, so it must be true. Smile

    I identify as queer because "either/or" categories don't carry as much meaning to me as they seem to for mainstream society. I'm much more comfortable in colorful, messy paragraphs and tag clouds. The middle grounds and the overlaps. I feel like I'm with "my people" when I'm surrounded by others who feel similarly about this issue, regardless of what their particular flavor of identity is.
  • Airlia Airlia 6 users seconded this question.

    Lots of people want to blog - they think it's safe and their anonymity is protected. It's also an outlet. What advice can you give them?

    I've been blogging for ten years, and have had blogs that were anonymous, semi-anonymous, friends-only, not-about-me, and public. It's definitely an outlet, and it's definitely valuable.

    Anyone who's blogging anonymously, though, needs to make sure they're educated about how identity works on the internet, especially if having their identity found out would be devastating. Most important things to keep in mind:

    1) Managing anonymity is like using birth control: the biggest risk is "human error." All you need to do is accidentally sign one email with your real name, or tell one less-than-perfect friend about the project, or leave one window open on your computer that someone notices over your shoulder, and your house of cards falls down. The sad reality is: the more valuable an anonymous identity becomes to you, the harder it is to keep it a secret.

    2) Keeping things separated is helpful. Use Firefox for your "you" stuff, and Safari or Internet Explorer for your "anonymous" stuff. This way you won't have to log in and log out of your accounts constantly, or accidentally post from a wrong account.

    3) Never associate a real-name email address with an anonymous account. It may not be public, but that link in the system gets used for more than just your account verification.

    4) If staying anonymous is absolutely critical, the safest thing you can do is to only become your anonymous identity from a *public computer* that doesn't require you to sign in as yourself. This way the IP address on your emails and posts can't possibly be routed back to you. (Note: only geeks and really super motivated curious people will research IP addresses. If you're going near either of those groups of people, get educated on what IP addresses are all about.)

    5) Ask yourself if you could survive the potentially awful situation of having your identity exposed. If you really, truly, absolutely can't, then you should *really* think carefully about the risks and rewards of what you're getting into, and see if there are any other possible avenues. But if you can (it would suck, but you'd deal), then do it. It's probably worth it.
  • Backseat Boohoo Backseat Boohoo 5 users seconded this question.

    What are your views on human sexuality? Do you believe humans fit in to neat little boxes (heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual), or is there more to it than that?

    You can probably guess from what you've learned about me that I don't believe in neat little boxes, especially when they come curated with words like "either/or".

    To put it simply: if a man is attracted to women, is he attracted to *all* women? Usually not. We all have our types.

    I think sexualities (along with genders) are as unique as personalities. Categories make it easier to make assumptions and generalizations about people, but that's only useful when you're trying to paint broad strokes. When it comes to loving people, you have to listen to how they feel and what they want as individuals, no matter who they are.
  • Oggins Oggins 5 users seconded this question.

    As far as sex toys go, what type of person are you? Most likely to quickly shove them under the bed and pretend they don't exist when company arrives or, most likely to be stirring a big pot of boiling dildos and butt plugs as if everyone across the country should be doing the same thing?

    Hee! You just gave me a great idea... Hmmmmmmmm....

    Well, anyway, I try to be respectful of my company. That said, most people in my social circles are pretty open about sexuality, so it's not a big deal. And everything's a conversation starter.
  • Nashville Nashville 4 users seconded this question.

    Are you a sex positive person? If so, do you believe Edenfantasys to be a sex positive e-tailer?

    On the surface, and for most intents and purposes, yes and yes.

    But that's a hard label to dig deeper into because it means so much to so many people. There's a lot of nitpicky critique that happens within groups and movements, and I'm sure I'm subject to some nuanced analysis that challenges my work and worldviews from specific perspectives, as is Eden Fantasys.

    That said, screw the in-fighting. We have work to do.
  • Backseat Boohoo Backseat Boohoo 11 users seconded this question.

    You are stranded on a desert island for a day with several packs of batteries, a working electrical outlet, and a bottle of lubricant. What 3 sex toys do you have with you?


    How about: a good knife and a good rope from a BDSM shop to go hunting and gathering with...

    ...and a hitachi magic wand to stay happy.
  • Delete My Account Delete My Account 5 users seconded this question.

    You have an extensive background as a web developer and marketer. How does social networking effect you both personally and professionally.

    It affects me in both areas profoundly, and with lots of overlap. I have friends scattered all over the country and world, and we keep in touch with each other as though we were living in the same house. I have strong friendships that have supported and guided me through chaotic periods of change, struggle, and growth, and most of those conversations happened through social networking websites. I've connected with new people, I've found my identities through communities, and I've been able to be of service to others.

    Professionally, it's.. well, it's everything. All of my clients, all of my contracts, all of my resources, all of my information, all of my projects, all of my... yeah. It's everything. If there was no such thing as online social networking, my life would be unrecognizably different.

    It's a mixed bag of messy and beautiful, and I love every half-formed awkward angle of it.
  • Nashville Nashville 11 users seconded this question.

    What is your affiliation with EdenFantasys?

    I'm new to EdenFantasys, I'm not a sex toy reviewer, and I have no other special status besides "person being interviewed right now."

    Eden Fantasys approached me for this interview because my work in other online spaces relates to the work they've been trying to do in their community here.

    From what I've seen of the culture here, this community is rich with perspective and compassion, and has a powerful collective personality. I love the way you're leveraging anonymity as a source of strength in your forums and reviews, and I hope that shield of protection continues to be respected. It's important to what you're doing here, and what you're doing here is something to be proud of.


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About Sarah Dopp

Occupation: Web Developer / Social Marketing
Achievements: Speaks Mandarin Chinese
Current Project:,,
Statement: The trick is to create something so smart and wonderful that it naturally spreads its own word.
Publications: Can I Sit With You, Too?
Education: Attended Bard, UNH, SFSU
Age: 25
Editor’s note: Sarah Dopps experience gives her unique insights into how technology can influence our community, art, activism and social behavior.

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