Show Hide image

“It gives you the freedom to be violent to other people”: what has the alt account become?

Once a behaviour reserved for “weirdos” on Reddit and Tumblr, the alt account has now become a staple for internet users on essentially every platform. But anonymity can be a double-edged sword.

On 28 December 2018, a tweet concerning presenter, food critic, and insanely inappropriate joke-maker Giles Coren went viral. It posited that the Times columnist had been using an alternative, anonymous Twitter account to respond to criticism of him. The subsequent thread noted that this alt-account was named after a character in one of Coren’s books, only ever tweeted about Coren or his wife, was followed by some of Coren’s famous friends such as Richard Bacon, and was linked to an email address that looked suspiciously like Coren’s Times’ account (g********n@t******s.co.uk). The account claimed to be a Polish plumber, and had a bio written in broken English; but the avatar was a picture from the cover of Coren’s book.

After receiving thousands of likes and retweets, Coren came clean to owning the account, and changed its arguably racist bio. At time of writing, he has ceased tweeting from it.

Coren was unusual in getting caught, but having an alternative account is now far from unusual. Once a behaviour reserved for “weirdos” on Reddit and Tumblr, it’s become a staple for internet users on essentially every platform. On Twitter it’s your “anon”; on Instagram it’s your “finsta” (fake-Insta); on multiple platforms it’s you and your friends’ “flop”, or simply your “alt”. Even allusions to an alternative account now serve as a meme. HOTM –“horny on the main” – Is a long-standing Tumblr joke, mocking those who post porn, half-naked selfies, and sexts on their main account, rather than restricting such behaviour to their alt.

Today, the alt account is often seen as an online necessity, something many people deem key to staying sane on the internet. But while the alt-account may now be normal, the reasons for having one are diverse. For some, they are positive and relieving; for others, they’re a tool for dangerous harm. In 2019, what has the alt-account become?

****

“When I was in high school I was lacking confidence in myself and my social skills, so it actually helped me a lot to have anonymous social interaction daily.”

Anne, 20, is a classic example of why many people create anon accounts. (“Anne”, like most of the names in this piece, is a pseudonym; I’ve changed her name to preserve the anonymity of her alt accounts.) Awkward as a teen in school, she struggled to make friends, and having an anonymous account online created a space where she could comfortably be herself. Using an anonymous Twitter account at a young age helped her be more confident amongst her peers, she says. “When I started online, it was on blogs, forums, and mostly fandom stuff: everybody was anonymous. I think it made things much healthier.”

Emily, 22, a politics obsessive, tells me it was those political interests that motivated her to make her first alt account. Later, she created another that works, effectively “like a group chat” – a place for her and her friends to speak to a number of close friends all at once. 

Like Anne, she found that having alternative accounts allowed her to explore her emotions without the stigma of doing it with her name attached. “I use it to talk about private issues concerning sex, mental health and any worries,” she says. “Tweeting on there is a way to talk to people without having to explicitly contact someone.” 

It can also be useful as a place for venting: on a bad day she can send her thoughts out into the ether to get them off her chest, without putting her private thoughts on public display. “Nearly always someone will respond, and it makes me feel less alone,” she says. “It’s a way of keeping in contact with people.”

Kate’s alt account was also initially a relief from the usual social media drudgery, but it’s grown into a form of performance art. Her two alt accounts are two characters, Carol and Alice, childhood best friends who fell in love and got married later in life. “They started out as characters in a romance novel that I’m writing,” she tells me. “Carol’s character, as a middle-aged white woman of the ‘live, laugh, love’ variety, was especially fun to conceptualise, so I wanted to get into that headspace through the Twitter account.”

At first, all of their followers were Kate’s own friends who were in on the joke. But both accounts, to an outsider, would look like real people – tweeting daily, engaging with other tweets, replying to one another. “It took me way too long to realise that some people actually believe she is real. 

“It can be fun to tweet as Carol,” Kate adds, “especially since this character is obviously at a very positive, stable place in her life. In a way it’s an escapist fantasy of what I want for my own future as a young gay woman.”

Then there are those who turned to alt accounts because they have sensitive or public facing jobs. “I can’t always express my views,” Cara, 26, tells me via Twitter DM. “I wanted to moan about annoying people/things with a group of people I know well on Twitter, but couldn’t under my actual name.”

Joan is a university student, whose aspirations to become a political journalist led her to create a new, professional Twitter account and make her personal one anonymous. “I started realising that if I wanted a career in political journalism I shouldn’t be quite as outspoken as I had been when I was younger,” she says. “In school, our teachers would say the standard you know ‘you need to be careful future employers will see this’ – but it wasn’t until I started honing-in on the type of career I wanted that I realised how much more professional my accounts would have to be.”

But mostly the purpose of an alt account seems to be to have a place to talk about one's emotions: most of the people I spoke to referenced a personal crisis or mental health problem as one motivation behind starting an alt account. For many, alt accounts were a healthy way to talk about challenging emotions and situations. Laura, 22, told me that she created her alt account at 14 during “a really turbulent time”. “When I tweeted about things like school or my parents or urges to self-harm on my 'main' Twitter, people would all confront me and ask about what I'd been tweeting. With the private account, even though my close friends followed it, there was almost a coded understanding that you don't bring things from it up in reality.”

Grace tells me that her alt account became a safe haven in her mid-twenties, as a place to vent about a break-up at the end of a six-year relationship. “We had been in the process of breaking up for a year or so and I think my friends were bored of hearing me talk about it. But I still felt like I had quite a lot I needed to say.”

But like nearly everyone I spoke to, she said it was a delicate balance between “venting” and “indulging”. Over time, her account transformed from a place to post about heartbreak into one which documented her new dating triumphs. But then, following a period of enjoying her new found freedom, it went “just descended into me documenting my self-loathing and loneliness,” she says. “I eventually got rid of it as it was just really depressing – I felt like I just wanted to vent, but then people would obviously worry and send me sweet messages which strangely made me feel worse.”

****

Alt accounts have always provided a veil of privacy that allows people to live freely and without fear of attack. With far more people now internet savvy, this is crucial for some people's wellbeing. 

Daisy is a 26-year-old sex worker, who went anon for personal and professional reasons. “It allowed me to advertise publicly without the threat of being caught out,” Daisy tells me. “Although once or twice I accidentally posted on my public.”

Mark also uses an alt account to protect his identity. He tells me he started receiving death threats after tweeting pro-Remain arguments in the wake of the EU referendum. This, coupled with a recent break-up, pushed him to go anonymous. “I wanted a place to vent to a variety of close friends,” he tells me. “I feel more comfortable being political on my alt than my main.”

In the end, he abandoned his main account altogether. “It became awkward trying to decide which tweet should go where. I like having the private space where I can speak to people I trust.”

However, alt accounts can be a double-edged sword: where many post on their alts to avoid the shame of posting that thought, feeling, or struggle on their main, some use them to bully others, without having to take any responsibility for cruel behaviour. “My private twitter started as a safe place for me to vent,” Laura tells me, “but turned into a place where I can share things with a close circle without being publicly held accountable for them.”

For her, using anonymous accounts online to post criticism without repercussions started at school. She and her friends would maintain multiple accounts dedicated to making fun of classmates and spreading gossip. “If someone I went to school with posted an embarrassing photo or Facebook status, I could post it on my private and make fun of them without fear of being called a bully,” she tells me, “or worse, someone doing it back to me.” The culture of using alts at her school got so widespread that people, essentially, had to have an alt account to stay in the loop, “or else you would miss out on all the private account gossip.”

As she got older, her account shifted its focus, but was still used to post things for which she didn’t want to be held accountable – complaining about partners’ actions, for example. That led to trouble when someone sent screenshots of her private tweets about her ex, to him. “It really caused an upset with a few people.”

Indeed, Ben said that bullying behaviour is what made him delete his alt account – because he saw himself turning into a troll. “I caught myself saying to myself: ‘What on earth am I doing saying this to a person I don't know? I'd NEVER do this in real life.’”

****

Alt-accounts are born out of a need to shed one’s identity – a desire to voice opinions people feel they can’t as their public selves. That can mean safe places for venting, space to explore one’s identity, even just for jokes; but it can be used for far more insidious purposes, beyond bullying, and beyond abusive behaviour.

Anne, who felt an anon account helped her with her social skills in school, also created her anon account for another reason. Pro-ana, short for “pro-anorexia nervosa”, is a community promoting the anorexia nervosa eating disorder that involves starving oneself, over-exercising, or both, to get your weight down to a dangerously low level. In pro-ana online spaces, people – especially young women – post messages encouraging each other to indulge their eating disorder and congratulate one another for their increasingly low weights. They post pictures of their bodies as “inspiration” to others as proof that they, too, can get dangerously thin through these methods, or to brag about how much weight they’ve lost.

But traditional public social media profiles don’t work well in the pro-ana world. “You can't say on your Facebook feed the things these girls say about themselves without worrying anybody,” Anne explains. “Anonymity is expected.”

That anonymity is the foundation upon which pro-ana spaces can keep going: it allows young women to say anything they like without repercussions. “Girls are very violent commenting on the body of other women, but also against their own. It's kinda encouraged,” Anne says, adding: “No matter where you are online, anonymity gives you freedom to be very violent in your comments on other people.”

Many of the people I spoke to agreed this was a fatal problem with anonymous account. Even if their alt accounts are mostly used for harmless purposes, they noted how anonymity allowed for dangerous behaviour to run rampant wherever they existed.

Grace tells me about seeing other accounts posting about severe mental health issues and thoughts of suicide. “I felt very powerless as the other alts I followed were people I vaguely knew, and they were obviously really suffering. But there wasn't much I could say beyond ‘I think you're really great!’”

Laura also said she saw anonymity used as a way to protect dangerous behaviour. In her case, though, she felt the need to intervene. “One of my best friends used her anonymous account to post actual photographic evidence of her self-harm when we were at school,” Laura tells me. “Those of us who followed her all sort of broke the rules of what was and wasn't private, and got our teachers involved because we were genuinely scared for her.”

****

There’s another thing that almost all my interviewees said. Maintaining both an alt and a main has become a source of stress, and is often seen as a daily chore rather than a place of pure relief. Andrea, a 28-year-old makeup artist said that having multiple social media accounts, for work and personal reasons, made her feel like she had a “split-personality”.

“I find it interesting how our work lives often require an online presence now,” she explains. “‘Social’ media is also ‘professional’ media, and I think the line is easily blurred even with two accounts.” Having two accounts, while not necessarily “taxing”, does cause her extra stress. “They encourage me to inadvertently increase the amount of work labour that I do in my personal time,” she tells me. “The medium can both create an unhealthy sense of competition, and offer a huge degree of inspiration sometimes simultaneously.”

Alt accounts are no longer a niche internet trend, but have undeniably entered the mainstream, used for bad, for good, and for Giles Coren. But despite their popularity, alt accounts still feel like new territory, with no rules or clear guidance on how to use them, who should use them, and where a line should be drawn when their use becomes dangerous. Their normalisation should be welcomed as a way to make being online slightly more bearable; but their uses for more sinister purposes will undoubtedly grow.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.