A Good Year for Anonymous, a Bad Year for Anonymity


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As I sat down to write this column, Anonymous was in the news again--this time for its vow to help bring about justice in yet another depressingly mishandled sexual assault case. This time the news was coming out of Maryville, Mo. Anonymous, known for its internet vigilantism, called for further investigation into the Daisy Coleman case. It wrote: "Mayor Jim Fall, your hands are dirty. Maryville, expect us." And it wasn't long before Anonymous got exactly what it wanted. The case was reopened.

Of course, much of the credit in this case should also go to Dugan Arnett, the Kansas City Star reporter who brought the Coleman case to the attention of the masses-and, ultimately, to the attention of Anonymous. There's a lot to be said about this case, and pretty far down the list is what it says about the power of both journalism and the social web to effect change. Thanks to social media, people in New Hampshire or Arizona can read a story from the Kansas City Star, express their outrage, and help spread it across the web until the power of public opinion is too much for local officials to bear. Today, it's hard to say whether an exposé in a newspaper has the same weight as threats from Anonymous, the closest thing we seem to have to a superhero. Superman is nowhere to be found, but the folks at Anonymous are ready and willing to shame powerful people into doing the right thing when common decency-or even the law-fails to compel them to act.

Anonymous has illustrated for all of us, once again, the true power of the internet. But when you consider this group of justice-seeking hackers alongside revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA) and the idea that no one's email is safe from prying eyes, it's hard not to tremble-just a little-before the power of Anonymous.

From the Arab Spring to Maryville, it's clear that people with access to the internet and even just a little tech-savvy can effect great change. But 2013 also gave us a look into the dark side of the web. People who don't spend a lot of time thinking about who is or isn't looking at their email got a sudden wake-up call. Of course, those of us who do spend a lot of time thinking about our email-or being tracked on the web-already knew that we were being watched ... we just assumed it was advertisers doing the watching, not the government.

I've never been particularly Pollyanna about privacy on the web. I've always been careful about my Facebook privacy settings-though the power to keep my profile from public searches was taken away in the fall-and understood that Google was selling everything it knew about me to advertisers. It's practically impossible to write about digital marketing, personalized content, and web analytics day in and day out and not understand that you're being watched. It's also hard to ignore the power that Big Data, properly managed, holds to solve big problems.

We spend a lot of time talking about how to use data to our advantage, how to target the right audience, how to deliver the right content on the right device, and how to make us better at what we do. We use free, simple social media tools to then deliver those messages to the masses. Without a doubt, these tools will continue to be big themes next year, but as we go forward, it will be with full knowledge of the true power of the tools at our disposal. And, perhaps more importantly, your audiences now know the true power of the tools you're using to track them and contact them.

If you're going to ask your audience and potential customers to accept their lack of anonymity, you better make it worth their while. Many Americans were willing to accept the NSA spying on them if it meant a few terrorists would be caught. The trade-off seemed acceptable. On the homefront, it's no longer just the tech-savvy early adopters who expect a stellar, multiplatform experience tailored to their individual needs. As more and more people come to understand just how much you know about them, the more they will demand a return for their sacrifice. Are you ready to give that to them?