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.