Encyclopedia of Big Data

Living Edition
| Editors: Laurie A. Schintler, Connie L. McNeely


  • Pilar CarreraEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-32001-4_8-1

What matter who’s speaking (Beckett)

“Anonymity” refers to the quality or state of being anonymous, from Greek anonymos and Latin anonymus, “what doesn’t have a name or it is ignored, because it remains occult or unknown,” according to the Diccionario de Autoridades of the Real Academia Española.

It designates not so much an absence as the presence of an absence, as Roland Barthes put it. The concept points out to the absence of a name for the receiver of a message (reader, viewer, critic, etc., reception instance which is constituent of “anonymity”), the absence of “signature,” following Derrida. Anonymity is therefore closely linked to the forms of mediation, including writing. It implies the power to remain secret (without name) as author for a given audience. Seen from a discursive point of view, anonymity concerns associated with big data analysis are related to the generation of consistent narratives from massive and diverse amounts of data.

If we examine the concept from a textual perspective, we have to relate it to that of “author.” When speaking of “anonymous author,” we are already establishing a difference, taking up Foucault’s terms, between the concepts of proper name (corresponding to the civilian, the physical, empirical individual; as Derrida pointed out: “the proper name belongs neither to language nor to the element of conceptual generality”) and name of the author (situated in the plane of language, operating as a catalyst of textualities, as the lowest common denominator which agglutinates formal, thematic, or rhetoric specificities from different texts unified by a “signature”). If there is no author’s name – “signature” – that is, if the text appears to be anonymous (from an “anonymous author”), this rubric loses the function of catalyst to become a generator of intransitive and individualized textualities, unable to be gathered into a unified corpus.

It is important to understand that the author we are talking about is not an empirical entity but a textual organizer. It does not necessarily match either the name of the empirical author, since a pseudonym could as well perform this function of textual organizer, because it keeps secret the proper name of the emitter. Foucault (1980: 114) clearly explained this point, in relation to the presence of names of authors in his work, and what meant for him, in theoretical terms, the name of the author (linked to what he calls “authorial function”), which some critics, dealing with his writings confused with the empirical subject (the “proper name”): “They ignored the task I had set myself: I had no intention of describing Buffon or Marx or of reproducing their statements or implicit meanings, but, simply stated, I wanted to locate the rules that formed a certain number of concepts and theoretical relationships in their works.” Barthes (1977: 143) also alluded to the confusion between the proper name and the name of the author and its consequences: “Criticism still consist for the most part in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of Baudelaire the man.” Jean-Paul Sartre (1947) was one of the most famous victims of that misunderstanding, reading Baudelaire’s poems from a Freudian approach to the author’s life and family traumas.

The words “Marx,” “Buffon,” or “Baudelaire” do not point to certain individuals with certain convictions, biographical circumstances, or specific styles, but to a set of textual regularities. In this sense, anonymity, in the context of the authorial function, points toward a relational deficit. To identify regularities, a minimum number of texts is required (a textual “family”) that permit to be gathered together through their “belonging” to the same “signature.” This socializing function of the nonanonymous author (becoming the centripetal force which allows that different texts live together) vanishes in the case of anonymous authors (or those which made use of different pseudonyms).

Let’s think, for example, of a classic novel, arrived to us under the rubric “anonymous,” whose author is, by chance, identified and given a name. From that moment on, the work will be “charged” with meanings from its incorporation to the collection of works signed by the author now identified. Similarly, the image we have today, for example, of a writer, politician, or philosopher, would be altered, i.e., reconstituted, if we found out that, avoiding his public authorial name, he had created texts whose ideological or aesthetic significance were inconsistent with his official production. Let us consider, for example, the eighteenth century fabulists (for instance, the French La Fontaine or the Spaniard Samaniego) whose official logic was one of a strict Christian morality, whereas some of their works, remained anonymous for a while and today attributed to them, could be placed within the realm of vulgar pornography.

In the textual Internet’s ecosystem, anonymity has become a hotspot for different reasons, and the issue is usually related to:
  1. 1.

    Power, referring to those who control the rules underlying Internet narratives (the programming that allows content display by users) and are able to take over the system (including hackers and similar characters; the Anonymous organization would be a good example, denomination included, and because of the paradox manifested on it of branded, i.e., publicized anonymity). Those who are able to determine the expressive and discursive modalities, subsequently fed by users’ activity, usually remain hidden or secret, i.e., anonymous.

  2. 2.

    Extension of the above: anonymity as the ability to see without being seen. In this case, anonymity deeps the information gap (inequality of knowledge and asymmetric positions in the communication process). Those who are able to remain nameless are situated in a privileged position with respect to those who hold a name, because, among other things, they do not leave traces, they can not hardly be tracked, they have no “history,” therefore no past. It is no coincidence that when the “right” to anonymity is claimed by Internet users, it is formulated in terms of “right to digital oblivion.” Anonymous is the one that cannot be remembered. Anonymous is also the one who can see without being seen. In all cases, it implies an inequality of knowledge and manifests the oscillation between ignorance and knowledge.

  3. 3.

    Anonymity as a practice that permits some acts of speech go “without consequences” for the civilian person (for example, in the case of anonymous defamation or practiced under false names, or in the case of leaks), eluding potential sanctions (this brings us back to those authors forced to remain secret and hide their names in order to avoid being punished for their opinions, etc.). In this sense, anonymity may contribute to the advancement of knowledge by allowing the expression of certain individuals or groups whose opinions or actions won’t be accepted by the generality of the society (for example, the case of Mary Shelley, Frankenstein’s author, whose novel remained unsigned for a quarter of a century).

  4. 4.

    Anonymous is also the author who renounces the fame of the name, leaving the “auctoritas” to the text itself; the text itself would assume that role backing what is stated by the strength of its own argumentative power. In this sense, anonymity is very well suited to permeate habits and customs. Anonymity also facilitates appropriation (for instance, in the case of plagiarism), reducing the risks of sanctions derived from the “private property of meaning” (which is what the signature incorporates to the text). As Georg Simmel wrote: “The more separate is a product from the subjective mental activity of its creator, the more it accommodates to an objective order, valid in itself, the more specific is its cultural significance, the more appropriate is to be included as a general means in the improvement and development of many individual souls (…) realisations that are objectified at great distance from the subject and to some extent lend ‘selflessly’ to be the seasons of mental development.”

  5. 5.

    Anonymity, in the unfolding discourse about mass media, has also been associated with the condition of massive and vicarious reception, made possible by the media, by the anonymous masses. In this sense, anonymity is associated with the indistinct, the lack of individuality, and the absence of the shaping and differentiating force of the name. As we see, extremes meet and connotations vary depending on the historical moment. Anonymity can both indicate a situation of powerlessness (referring, for example, to the masses) and a position of power (in the case, for example, of hackers or organizations or individuals who “watch” without being noticed the Internet traffic). Users “empowerment” through Internet and the stated passage from massive audiences to individualized users does not necessarily incorporate changes in authorial terms, because, as we have seen, we should not confuse the author’s name and the proper name. In the same way, authorial commitment and civilian commitment should be distinguished. In this sense, Walter Benjamin wrote in “The Author as Producer” (Benjamin 1998: 86): “For I hope to be able to show you that the concept of commitment, in the perfunctory form in which it generally occurs in the debate I have just mentioned, is a totally inadequate instrument of political literary criticism. I should like to demonstrate to you that the tendency of a work of literature can be politically correct only if it is also correct in the literary sense. That means that the tendency which is politically correct includes a literary tendency. And let me add at once: this literary tendency, which is implicitly or explicitly included in every correct political tendency, this and nothing else makes up the quality of a work. It is because of this that the correct political tendency of a work extends also to its literary quality: because a political tendency which is correct comprises a literary tendency which is correct.” In this sense, all writing that makes a difference is anonymous from the point view of the “proper name.” This means that a consummated writing process inevitably leads to the loss of the proper name and designates the operation by which the individual who writes reaches anonymity and then becomes an author (anonymous or not).

  6. 6.

    Anonymity concerns related to big data should take into account the fact that those that “own” and sell data are not necessarily the same that generate those narratives, but in both cases the economic factor and the logic of profit optimization along with the implementation of control and surveillance programs are paramount. The “owners” are situated at the informational level, according to Shannon and Weaver’s notion of information. They stablished the paradigmatic context, the “menu,” within whose borders syntagmatic storytelling takes place through a process of data selection and processing. Users’ opinions and behaviors, tracked through different devices connected to the Internet, constitute the material of what we may call software driven storytelling. The fact that users’ information may be turned against them when used by the powers that be, which is considered one of the main privacy threats related to big data, reflects the fact that individuals, in the realm of mass media, have become “storytelling fodder,” which is probably the most extreme and oppressive form of realism. Driven by institutionalized sources and power structures, the reading contract that lies beneath these narratives and the modes of existence of these discourses are structurally resilient to dissent.


In all these cases, the absence or the presence of the name of the author, and specifically anonymity, has to be considered as an institutionalized textual category consummated during the moment of reception/reading (emitting by itself does not produce anonymity, a process of reception is required; there is no anonymity without a “reading”), because it implies not so much a quality of the text as a “reading contract.” As Foucault (1980: 138) said, in a context of authorial anonymity, the questions to be asked will not be such as: “Who is the real author?,” “Have we proof of his authenticity and originality?,” “What has he revealed of his most profound self in his language?,” but questions of a very different kind: “What are the modes of existence of this discourse?,” “Where does it come from; how it is circulated; who controls it?,” “What placements are determined for possible subjects?,” “Who can fulfill these diverse functions of the subject?” It seems clear that the implications of considering one or another type of questions are not irrelevant, not only artistically or culturally, but also from a political perspective.

Further Readings

  1. Barthes, R. (1977). The death of the author (1967). In Image, music, text. London: Fontana Press.Google Scholar
  2. Benjamin, W. (1998). The author as producer (1934). In Understanding Brecht. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  3. Derrida, J. (1988). Signature event context (1971). In Limited Inc. Chicago: Northwestern University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Derrida, J. (2013). Biodegradables (1988). In Signature Derrida. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  5. Foucault, M. (1980). What is an author (1969). In Language, counter-memory, practice: Selected essays and interviews. New York: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Sartre, J.-P. (1947). Baudelaire. Paris: Gallimard.Google Scholar
  7. Simmel, G. (1908). Das Geheimnis und die geheime Gesellschaft. In Soziologie. Untersuchungen über die Formen der Vergesellschaftung. Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Universidad Carlos III de MadridMadridSpain