‘Throwaway’ social profiles may have a place on some platforms, with some topics

November 11, 2019
Written By:
Laurel Thomas
  • umichnews@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR—Temporary social media profiles.

We’ve heard of them in the world of online dating, with teens trying to avoid the watchful eyes of mom and dad, and with scammers and foreign accounts trying to cheat us or convince us of a lie to gain profit or our vote.

Social media companies have promised to crack down when they are able to identify these temporary accounts.

Now, new research from the University of Michigan shows that so-called throwaway profiles on some platforms can be good for adults who need to open up and test the waters on subjects that might cause them shame or pain if they were to share as themselves.

“Having a level of anonymity can allow parents to discuss topics considered socially stigmatizing,” said Tawfiq Ammari, lead author and doctoral candidate in the School of Information. “Reddit allows you to create throwaways, which are only temporary and about something special you want to divulge or discuss without feeling like you are breaking rules.”

Looking at 10 years of data (March 2008-October 2018) on three Reddit parenting boards, Ammari and colleagues found that parents are more likely to discuss difficult, revealing and emotionally challenging subjects using self-identified throwaway accounts.

Further, their comments on these accounts are more likely to receive feedback, and the responses are longer and have higher karma scores than those made on permanent accounts. A karma score is the cumulative score of upvotes and downvotes, given by those who read a Reddit. Upvotes gain points, downvotes cost points, so a positive karma means the person got more upvotes.

The researchers found 1,460 throwaway accounts across three subreddits: Parenting, Daddit and Mommit. Owners of those accounts made 10,632 comments. There are 1.2 million registered users on Parenting; 117,000 registered users on Daddit; and 73,200 registered users on Mommit.

Parents discuss issues relating to divorce, custody, postpartum depression, miscarriage, financial struggles, day care, work demands, mental and physical health, and parenting styles. They also post child health and development questions about speech and social development, body image, circumcision, sexual orientation, autism, and making friends.

One new mom on the Mommit site recently asked if becoming a stay-at-home-mom had ruined relationships for others, sharing that her husband was unhappy with the housework she was not getting done while he was at work and complaining about helping with chores and child care duties. Respondents overwhelmingly encouraged her to pump some breast milk, turn her cell phone off and leave him with the child to let him find out how demanding infant care can be. Several also suggested counseling.

Another throwaway from a new mom revealed what sounded like postpartum depression with suicidal thoughts. Encouraging responses to seek immediate help came from across the Parenting subreddit.

Research has shown that social sites like Facebook and Instagram reinforce an idealized expectation of parenting—in fact, of life in general. It also has shown that others can be brutal in their responses to anyone who doesn’t express thoughts according to those ideals.

Ammari says quite often people use these throwaway accounts to take the temperature on a topic and then once they feel safe, they will jump in on a self-identified regular profile.

“This gives them a chance to probe what acceptable limits are. They can talk about all of the sordid details in the throwaway account, and then at some point they think, ‘I might as well graduate to a main account.'”
Tawfiq Ammari

Then, there are some already on the discussion board with a regular profile who decide the question that is burning inside them is one they don’t want to ask under their real name, so they will create a throwaway, Ammari says.

Throwaway accounts are often up and down within a day or a few days, with an average tenure of 39 days. A self-identified throwaway will usually have one of the following attached to the user ID: throwaway, throw, thrw or thruway.

Ammari’s study co-authors include School of Information faculty members Sarita Schoenebeck and Daniel Romero.


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