Can Anonymity Be Good for the Social Web?

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Silicon Valley was buzzing with secrets this week. We’re hearing all this juicy information thanks to a pair of apps, Whisper and Secret, that let users post messages anonymously. Both have reportedly closed big funding rounds this week, with Whisper raising $ 30 million and Secret bringing in $ 10 million. Tech insiders appear to be betting that their own appetite for industry gossip, currently the stock-in-trade of these networks, portends mainstream interest in anonymous secret sharing.

Can Anonymity Be Good for the Social Web? image IMG 7756Both apps are built on the same assumption: that anonymity frees people to say what they really mean. The big difference between the two is that Whisper, founded in 2012 and offering a more mature network, lets users share messages with anyone, while Secret is limited to friends or friends of friends. So if you only know one person who works at Apple, you know the source of that iGlass Secret. Although it’s still more likely someone just made it up.

Secrecy has two big downsides. The first is that, when people aren’t accountable for what they say, they often say things that aren’t true. And the second is that they’re prone to saying malicious, hateful, and libelous things. Facebook’s ‘real name’ policy is rooted in fear of these negatives. In a 2011 fight over his use of a pseudonym, Facebook closed the account of Chinese blogger Michael Anti (or An Ti), citing the policy. “We fundamentally believe this leads to greater accountability and a safer and more trusted environment for people who use the service,” a spokesperson told The Guardian. “This view point has been developed by our own research and in consultation with a number of safety and child protection experts.”

Criticism of identity policies, both Facebook’s and Google’s (which is similarly strict), was particularly acute during the Arab Spring. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which had long fought for the right to anonymity online, seized on examples of activists who had been put at risk by ‘real name’ rules. The case of Google engineer and activist Wael Ghonim gained particular resonance after he was secretly incarcerated by the Egyptian police for 11 days. He was interrogated about his role as the administrator of the Facebook page, “We are all Khaled Saeed,” which was seen as one of the catalysts of the revolution. Anonymity, the EFF argues, might have spared Ghonim a great deal of pain and suffering.

Both Mark Zuckerberg and Eric Schmidt believe that identity is foundational to the social web. Both also have a great deal at stake in knowing who we are and what we’re doing online—be it browsing, buying, or fomenting political upheaval. As users, we also benefit from using our real identities. As HootSuite CEO Ryan Holmes wrote, we gain trust and credibility online by being open and real. But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a place for anonymity in the social web.

And some might argue that there already is a place for anonymity in the social web: Reddit. The sprawling online community is fiercely defensive of its loose identity policy, arguing that it is essential to free speech. And Reddit CEO Yishan Wong repeatedly states that “We stand for freedom of speech.” Both opponents and defenders of online anonymity can point to Reddit’s thriving forums as evidence of their righteousness. There are certainly sub-Reddits to support both cases. But what Reddit really proves is that people who are determined to participate in online conversations anonymously will always find a way to do so, for better or worse.

With this week’s cash infusion and all the buzz they’ve been getting, both Secret and Whisper are likely to grow dramatically in their reach. Maybe when your co-workers start using them, the office gossip will become more interesting. Maybe when they reach your local middle school, the cyber-bullying will become more damaging. What we can be sure of is that stories and messages that wouldn’t have otherwise are going to be shared. And isn’t that in the spirit of the social web?


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