Remember screen names? Maybe it was an e-mail handle, a name for a chat room or a Web forum. In those early days of the Internet, we never thought to use our real names — you know, in case of unsavory stalkers — and so we made up silly pseudonyms to hide behind. But Mark Zuckerberg changed all that, famously declaring a war on anonymity, saying fake names were “an example of a lack of integrity.” I had friends who signed up for Facebook with the ridiculous screen names they’d used on MySpace and Friendster — and Zuck promptly kicked them off, insisting on real first and last names.
As Facebook exploded and infiltrated the nooks and crannies of the Internet, it became a standard for commenting and “liking” on websites. Meanwhile, the Internet became increasingly commercialized, as well, a research tool to look up our histories. Then, we started to “brand” ourselves online, and manage our digital reputations. We began to use Facebook and Twitter to create evidence of our fabulous lives and achievements. And today, we often look down on those who don’t show up in search, believing somehow they’re dodgy.
If you’re not online, it seems, you don’t exist — and pseudonyms don’t count.
In some ways, the war Zuckerberg waged on anonymity succeeded — we now expect our public profiles to align with our private lives. Our identities have become a currency, and we exchange personal data for convenience and perks. Sign up for something, and chances are, you’ll need to give a name and e-mail, if not more.
But we’re in the middle of a paradigm shift. As more of us — especially hyper-connected millenials — feel the burden of being exposed, the anonymity pendulum is swinging back.
It began with Snapchat, which deletes sent photos from a recipient’s within seconds of being read. At launch, people raised red flags, seeing it as a shady way to send messages, such as sexts, to avoid consequence.
Few believed it would succeed so well, but as it has. According to Vice, Snapchat sends over 150 million “snaps” each day between some five million users, most of whom are teens and college students. In fact, its valuation skyrocketed to $500 million, from $70 million, in just six months. It has struck a chord: we want to share and connect to each other without having to attach a digital record to ourselves.
A host of apps are following those same footsteps, and seizing on this appetite for privacy. Whisper, for example, lets people post their deepest secrets, anonymously, and then bond with others over the often emotional material. Secrets can range from the serious, “My dad molested me,” to the more whimsical, “When I leave a hotel, I leave the blankets wrapped up to look like a dead body.” Collectively, the secrets form a fascinating snapshot of the range of human experience.
According to Slate, Whisper has racked up over three billion views a month in the especially coveted 18 to 24 demographic.
Snapchat and Whisper are the foremost examples of a vogue for anonymity, but a plethora of copycats are popping up, albeit with a twist. For example, Secret lets people, and their friends of friends, anonymously share innermost thoughts with contact lists. Confide and Telegram tout messages that “self-destruct” after being read. On Wut, status updates have no identities.
Why are anonymous apps surging in popularity, especially among teens? In short, our identities have become a burden and vulnerability. Beyond the issues of data tracking and privacy violations, we also face a pervasive sense to keep up appearances.
“You’re trying to paint a desirable, enviable picture of your life for other people on Facebook,” Duncan Watts, principal researcher at Microsoft, told DigiDay. “But when it comes to stuff that you’re not proud of, scared of or embarrassed about, the last people in the world you want to tell are your friends and you family.” The result is a lack of authenticity that suffocates the genuine understanding and connecting we long for.
Watts first noticed our desire for “anonymous but human” interaction when studying Yahoo Answers, the portal’s question-and-answer section. Being anonymous allowed people to ask sensitive questions about mental health or sex, but those answers could be found with a simple Google search. Instead, Watts discovered that people didn’t just want answers — they wanted validation, a sense of being heard and understood.
“You want the anonymity, but you also want to feel like you’re talking to another person who understands where you’re coming from,” he said. And that’s exactly what these apps promise — a cloak to retreat behind, but the freedom to talk freely and be understood.
The upswing of Secret and Whisper dovetails with a growing change in attitudes towards anonymity: we increasingly crave the option to shed our identities online, even if temporarily. According to the Pew Internet survey, 86 percent of Internet users took steps to remove or mask their digital footprints, and a clear majority — 59 percent — believe we should be able to use the Internet anonymously.
Interestingly, the strongest desire for anonymity came from the youngest participants — those ages 18 to 29 — who were more likely than their elders to take steps to hide themselves, Pew reported. It seems a generation that spent most of their lives under a regime of Facebook and “real” are starting to rebel.
Anonymity — and its cousins, alter egos and pseudonyms — aren’t merely millennial appetites, they’re long-running cultural traditions. In medieval times, writers often labored anonymously, and expected no glory for their work except a place in heaven.
Even with the rise of the printing press — and an increasing number of published books, pamphlets and literary materials — authors still often chose to remain anonymous.
“Over 80 percent of all novels published in Britain between 1750 and 1790 were published anonymously,” James Raven, a book historian, told the Los Angeles Times. Being anonymous had its uses, of course, and according to John Mullan, author of “Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature,” the cloak protected political satirists, such as Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, from arrest and legal and political repercussions for their often inflammatory words. Early journalists reported stories and editorials without a byline for those same reasons — a tradition that continues with publications such as The Economist.
The ability to publish without a name helped women to find a footing in early literary history, as well: early writers, such as Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and George Eliot — a pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans — initially published anonymously. This shield gave them the ability to speak the truth, voice dissent in politically sensitive situations, and publish scandalous, yet groundbreaking, literature without the fear of punishment for violating social mores.
The freedom to speak truthfully, without having an attached identity, persists today. It’s why therapeutic groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, are so helpful — and why many were so outraged when a NA member told the New York Times about personal remarks actor Philip Seymour Hoffman made before his death.
Legally, we grant anonymity to sources, who often leak privileged information to journalists. And in the case of Nixon and the Watergate scandal, the identity of Deep Throat — one of the most celebrated and debated cases of anonymity in U.S. political history — remained secret for decades.
On personal and political levels, anonymity often functions as a shelter and haven, protecting our freedom to speak without fear of reprisal. But that freedom has become even more complicated with arrival of the Internet, which has turned everyone into potential publishers. Today, even the most casual tweet or photo can reach an audience of millions.
But some have taken advantage of anonymity, and spread vitriol and hate usually suppressed offline. Online trolls, for example, often spread negativity behind a wall of fake names and identities. But even normal people post vulgar, racist and hateful comments when masked. According to the University of Houston, 53 percent of anonymous comments on newspaper websites included vulgar, racist or otherwise hateful language — a stark contrast to the 29 percent whose comments required an identity. Overall, nearly half of the 137 largest newspapers in the country ask for a name to stem the uncivil nature of anonymity.
Some researchers believe the problem isn’t with anonymity, but with the groupthink and culture of the communities they’re posting in. According to a study of teenagers in Singapore, cheating in online games is strongly influenced by how players identify with gaming communities. We cheat and troll because we assume everyone else does, and the group views it as acceptable behavior. Likewise, if the group demonstrated an ethos of fair play, its players tended to follow those norms, even when members were anonymous.
Being anonymous actually downplayed individualism and boosted the influence of groups, obligating those who wanted to belong to follow the rules. By focusing more on clarifying and reinforcing proper behavior, and less on anonymity, the report concluded, cyber-bullying and uncivil discourse would be better addressed.
“In the long run, establishing healthy norms, cultures and attitudes in the gaming community will help prevent deviant behavior,” Vivan Chen told Polygon. Eliminating anonymity doesn’t create healthy online communities and cultures — strong moderation, enforced rules and the willingness of community members to speak freely yet safely does.
Secret and Whisper take those responsibilities seriously, and looking to head off criticism and cyber-bullying. According to Forbes, Secret plans to roll out an update to address security and privacy issues, and Whisper has dedicated employees to check and moderate content and discussions.
“You are who you are when no one else is looking,” Whisper founder Michael Heyward told Business Insider. “Anonymity is a really powerful tool. But we think about it like that Spiderman quote, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.'”
Despite a fresh interest in anonymity, it is nearly impossible, simply due to the sheer reach of the Internet. It’s hard to hide the digital data trails we leave behind. Nearly anything can be identified, and any remark can be traced back to its source.
As the riots in Vancouver or London, or the bombings in Boston, show, we can fish out who was where, and what they did, due to the omnipotence of smartphone, surveillance photography and the Internet. Facial recognition is growing in sophistication and use as well, posing another challenge to privacy and anonymity.
We may never be truly anonymous again.
But tech companies are starting to come around to the idea of private identities, recognizing that asking for names and e-mails may step too far for privacy-conscious consumers. According to BusinessWeek, Facebook is developing apps to allow anonymous sign-ins to boost traffic and advertising revenue. Some data would still be associated with an anonymous ID, allowing for some personalization, but it would allow us to use the site without having to give our identities — the best of both worlds.
Zuckerberg himself — once an apostle for the hard-and-fast online identity — is softening his stance on anonymity. “If you’re always under the pressure of real identity, I think that is somewhat of a burden,” he told BusinessWeek.
We feel it when we log on Facebook: a pressure to paint life in a certain way, to post only things that will entertain friends and garner “likes.” So we keep the unvarnished, sometimes harsh truth, of our lives and thoughts hidden, creating a false shell and a burden to keep up. This weighs down on us after a while, and I suspect this weight is at the core of our complaints about the social network.
Is it any wonder, then, Whisper and Secret are taking off? On these anonymous networks, we don’t share interests, but emotions, secret thoughts and almost taboo ideas. It isn’t always pretty — and, yes, some of it might be made up — but the truths resonate beyond the usual shallow level of conversation on most social networks. This kind of genuine, open sharing is at the heart of real, enduring communities — and often the reason we live part of our lives online.
It takes guts to open up, whether in life or on the Internet. But sometimes, we need to hide ourselves behind silly usernames to really relieve the burden and free our minds. ♦