Anonymity doesn’t work so how can we have privacy?

Secret is the hot new app in the Valley. People read it for the gossip, and people post gossip there because they post anonymously. Last week people were even chatting on Twitter about the amazing gossip on Secret!

Sam Altman of Y Combinator wrote this in a post about Secret:

Anonymity breeds meanness–the Internet has proven this time and time again.  People are willing to say nice or neutral things with their name attached–they need anonymity for mean things and things they are embarrassed about.  In fact, the closer to real identity internet forums get, the less they seem to decay.  Anonymous social networks have been (thus far, anyway) in the category of services that get worse as they get bigger–unlike services like Facebook or Twitter that get better as they get bigger.

This matches my experience of web communities. Trolls are always anonymous.

I think this observation leaves us with two theoretical choices for the future – either we have large online communities where people use their real identities with everything that means for privacy, or we don’t have online communities at all. However, the genie is out of the bottle and online communities are here to stay, meaning option two isn’t really an option at all, and we are destined to live in a world where people share stuff online using their real identities.

The interesting question, then, is what that world looks like, and the recent rise of Snapchat and other ephemeral messaging services can be understood as a move to share online more privately. I think we will see more of this sort of thing over time as society searches for a new equilibrium for privacy and sharing that works in the digital age. 

  • Nic
    We have been working with a community where people are anonymous to one another for the last six years. We have worked closely with the NHS in developing governance systems and our own clever tech for ensuring anonymity is preserved. We find less than 0.01% of the community abuse that; the vast majority respect and promote the culture as it enables them to deal with critical and significant issues that are impacting their mental and emotional health.

    Unfortunately the word community is used as a blanket term in social media. Offline it is not. History has taught us that some communities can be hugely enabling and collaborative whereas others can not only be ‘mean’ but murderous. Much rests on how you build and maintain a community culture; particularly at scale. We have consciously built a culture that is predicated on 24/7 staffing with professionals whose role is to both ensure safety and meaningful engagement. It is a model that is highly scalable.

    Perhaps a different view of the future for online communities requires recognising that most people choose anonymity for a good reason and not to damage others. I doubt anyone would want a permanent named record of, say, a breakdown or a psychotic episode or issues with binge drinking. Not for reasons of shame but for reasons of privacy and the vulnerability that comes with difficult periods in our lives. We will continue to champion anonymity for that reason alongside continuing to develop excellent technical forensics to protect the people who need an anonymous space from the very very small minority who use false (and often thin) cloaks of invisibility to play out their own troubles and insecurities.

  • David Brown

    Sounds like it’s time to bring out the Greater Internet F***wad theory again

  • That’s a great point Jen. I was thinking of large un-moderated communities, but I can see the need for anonymous support groups and how they can work with moderation.

  • pingpalfred

    Ephemeral communication
    is not so much about being anonymous in your communication or on the web.
    Ephemeral communication means that two (or more) individuals that are
    authenticated and approved by each other can have a private conversation that
    isn’t stored for the future or open to anyone else to eavesdrop. Like if
    they’ve met on the street for a chat.

  • True, but ephemeral comms are more private than persistent comms because they can’t be read later.

  • pingpalfred

    Yes, that is exactly the point. I believe that we are seeing a maturing of web and comms. The kids leading the way as usual.

    There will be a public communication space that is open, like the the open billboards on the square where anyone posts notes. There will be more serious discussion foras where you have to give away your identity, at least an ID or persona, that will be taken more seriously since people tend to be more argumentative than on an anonymous billboard. But the anonymous billboard is still important in a working democracy.

    And then we will have new communication channels that are private.

    With these maturing technologies internet will become more as we humans are, sometimes private and sometimes public. The problem has been that the simple web technologies have been used for more than public data. The simple security mechanisms can easily be broken as proven by NSA et al.

    Private communication needs another more secure architecture than the web and this is happening now with ephemeral communication. The best way to protect info is to have no info to protect 🙂

    So the important thing is to develop these modes in a community where people can choose in what mode they want to communicate right now, for this specific message and for this specific receiver..
    * Anonymously
    * Openly but identifiable
    * Private
    And with our imperfect technologies they will have to have different architectures and mechanisms so they cannot be broken into. But still all within the same service. And that will be a BIG challenge 🙂

  • Do you have a clear view of how the anonymous billboards will work except at small scale and with moderation?

  • pingpalfred

    I can imagine that Wikipedia is a good analogy. Like a real life billboard anyone can moderate and throw away disturbing messages.