Researchers have studied what drives people to be anonymous online.

The cloak of anonymity can be both a sanctuary and a battleground. In a recent study, researchers at the University of Queensland delved into the motivations driving people to hide behind usernames and avatars. 

They found two primary drivers: the desire for self-expression and, less nobly, a tendency for toxic behaviour.

The research team employed a mix of online surveys and daily diaries to track the virtual footsteps of over 1,300 global participants

“We wanted to understand who seeks out anonymous online environments, why they do it and what they hope to achieve,” says PhD candidate Lewis Nitschinsk from UQ’s School of Psychology.

Mr Nitschinsk says there is an important distinction in motives between self-expression and the darker realm of antisocial interactions like trolling and cyberbullying.

These so-called ‘keyboard warriors’ often revel in the lack of accountability that anonymity affords, allowing their toxic behaviour to go unchecked. 

Conversely, those motivated by self-expression seek the safety of anonymity to explore aspects of their identity they might find too vulnerable to share openly.

“Our research further showed individuals who opted for online anonymity struggled with a clear sense of identity,” Mr Nitschinsk added.

“But a key difference was the people motivated by self-expression were more likely to be self-conscious and socially anxious, whereas those motivated by toxic behaviour were more likely to exhibit sadistic or psychopathic tendencies.”

The study shows that while both groups seeking anonymity share traits like low self-concept clarity and high Machiavellianism, they differed significantly in aspects like self-consciousness and psychopathy.

Digging into the research paper reveals a more nuanced understanding. 

Anonymity is not just a binary of being identifiable or not; it is a spectrum ranging from technical anonymity to social anonymity. This study not only assesses how anonymity changes behaviour but also who is drawn to the perceived benefits of these anonymous environments.

As the world of online interaction evolves, this research paves the way for a deeper understanding of the dynamics at play. 

Mr Nitschinsk's work suggests that comprehending these motivations can inform us about the potential benefits and risks of anonymous interactions online, a critical insight in a world increasingly dominated by virtual connections.

The full study is accessible here.