The Value of Anonymity on the Social Web

Mar 06, 2014

A few weeks back, a good friend sent me an article that appeared on one of my favorite websites, ThoughtCatalog. It had me at the headline: "This Is How Social Media Is Ruining Your Life." See, last summer I wrote a column pointing out that many people use social media as nothing more than means to promote themselves, not to engage in honest communication with friends. For a while I believed that maybe I was the only one who thought this, but, thanks to ThoughtCatalog, I know now I am not alone.

As Lea Bullen writes, "Even if you're seemimgly content with your life in general, going through your news feed can a spark social rivalry that you didn't notice existed. Constant status and picture uploads illustrating the details of people's lives, regardless of accuracy, can make you feel slighted by the universe. Coupled with social media's addictive nature, you could be putting yourself in a pretty bad place." I should have felt vindicated reading that passage, but it just brought up those same issues--but this time, I found myself getting much more irritated.

Why? Because nothing has changed. People are still posting self-aggrandizing status updates under the guise of "sharing their life." In fact, it may have even gotten worse.

Just look at this year's Oscars. In between the intros and acceptance speeches, Ellen Degeneres wandered around the theater snapping selfies with celebrities and posting them to Twitter. One picture actually managed to crash Twitter! Sure, sure. These are celebrities I'm talking about, but the same rule applies to us average social media users: it's all about getting the most likes and retweets.

Right now, we live in a world where every platform, from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram, is a venue for us to showcase the version of our "best" selves. We want people to friend us, like our status, or retweet our comments. We are, in essence, marketing ourselves out to our friends and family. How is it that the 21st century's answer to the telegram has turned into smokescreens and horn tooting?

Maybe this is the reason why mobile apps like Whisper, Secret, and Confide are becoming so popular. These apps aren't the typical social media create-a-profile-and-go experience. There are no "list your favorite movies and books" sections to fill out so other users can get an idea of your personality. In fact, those who participate on these apps do so anonymously, forgoing any details about their personal lives for complete obscurity. That's right-no status updates tagging half a dozen friends and no location-based check-ins-just the word "anonymous."

Take, for example, the Whisper app. Users post an admission-sometimes funny, sometimes angry, and sometimes heartbreaking. It can be anything. People admit that they want to quit their job and drive across the country, or that they lie to get attention. Nothing is out of bounds. Once you type in your "whisper," the app then suggests a picture to accompany the post and off you go. Your secret is out. Other users can private message you or reply to your whisper by posting their own secret. What is appealing about this? As a CNN article noted about these apps, those who use them find that "there's no need to worry about offending your friends, harming your career, or tarnishing your online persona."

I've never had a problem putting my name on something I've created, but sometimes anonymity can bring out the worst in people (see any negative/hateful comment on Reddit). Sometimes, though, it can do just the opposite. At times it can free people from fear of judgment just enough that they forget about what kind of post will make them look good, and just create one that feels honest.

But we're never really anonymous on the internet, are we? Sure, we can avoid putting our name next to a comment, but the marketers still know who we are. We all leave a digital footprint no matter what we do. I have to wonder if these app users really want anonymity or if they just a network that is less invasive than Facebook. Maybe Whisper and Secret users really crave is a sense of privacy-- something that we need to aggressively fight for in an increasingly transparent world.

I don't think I'll ever be completely comfortable with how social media has evolved. It seems that the success of these platforms as marketing tools has changed the way we view and use them. Privacy and anonymity are pretty much a thing of the past. After all, even signing up for the Confide app required entering a first name, last name, and, of course, an email address.